R.J. Palacio, the best-selling author of the children’s book Wonder spoke to a packed auditorium at Millburn High School Tuesday, January 24.
Wonder tells the story of a young boy in New York City with Treacher Collins syndrome, a rare, genetic condition affecting the way the face develops, who struggles to find acceptance and friendship as he joins a mainstream school.
The story is told from the point of view of the boy, Auggie, and his friends. The film adaptation of Wonder, starring Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson, releases in April 2017.
“It’s the story of how to face the world everyday that doesn’t know how to face you back,” Palacio told the audience. She explained that the inspiration for the book came when at an ice cream shop with her children, she panicked when she saw a little girl with Treacher Collins, knowing her toddler would be scared when he saw her face.
She rushed her children away and as she says, “Blew it. I missed a teaching moment.”
Later that evening the song “Wonder” by Natalie Merchant started her thinking again, and writing.
Wonder has been published in forty-five languages. From the book, a worldwide moment called “Choose Kind” has flourished, with schools and some cities adopting the message to “Choose Kind,” and Palacio lecturing on the virtues of respect, tolerance and inclusion as a means to heal a world so often divided by cruelty.
Millburn Middle School 6th graders are required to read Wonder as part of the curriculum and the audience was filled with many of them. Palacio’s message to them was clear as she shared a story of a 93-year-old fan who recalls being snubbed at a lunch table at age 13: “This woman went on to live a wonderful life but can vividly recall such a painful unkindness eight decades on. Stop and think — Will this action or word be something I want remembered decades from now? Things you do matter. The things you say matter. Choose kind.”
The Education Foundation of Millburn-Short Hills, a nonprofit organization dedicated to enhancing continued educational excellence for Millburn Public Schools, sponsored the event. Words Bookstore of Maplewood was on hand to sell copies of Wonder for signing after the event.