Wonder Is the Best Kids’ Book of the Year
We talk to its author about bullying, parenting, and empathy.
Slate: Let’s talk about Auggie’s parents. Has anyone complained to you about how they’re idealized? I wondered, as I was reading, if the parents of disabled kids would read this and feel inadequate because these parents are never tired, never short-tempered, never anything other than devoted.
Jaramillo: No, I haven’t heard that. I’d emphasize that we mostly hear about them from the perspective of a 10-year-old boy, and when Olivia is narrating, she is more critical of her mother. I also have to tell you: I wanted to portray a very loving family. Justin, Olivia’s boyfriend, says that the universe takes care of all its birds, and what I meant is that yes, Auggie has a lot to deal with but at least he has this great family unit who adores him unconditionally. If you read between the lines, there are some cracks and stresses in that marriage, but these parents are functional in that they try to hide that part of it.
Slate: The character we don’t hear from, in the first person, is Auggie’s nemesis, Julian. He remains for us, I think, essentially a rotten kid with rotten parents. Did you think about telling any of the story from his point of view?
Jaramillo: I did. I started writing a chapter from Julian’s point of view, but the biggest problem Julian has is that he doesn’t want to get to know Auggie. So I found he was hijacking the story by turning it into his own. And you know, writing in Julian’s voice, a lot of mean stuff came out on the page, and I didn’t want to give a platform to a bully. And for me to give him an epiphany about Auggie—that didn’t feel true to Julian’s character or to life. Not everyone can change in a year. I wanted Julian to cheer for Auggie, but I thought, no, if I’m telling the truth then Julian would be fuming or not getting it.
Slate: One of the great strengths of this book—maybe my favorite thing about it—is that you show people who love Auggie saying terrible things to him and about him. Olivia doesn’t want him to go to her school play. When his friend Jack says he would kill himself if he looked like Auggie—to other kids, in the cruelest way—Auggie overhears him. It’s a crushing moment. But Auggie recovers, and his friendship with Jack recovers! Why?
Jaramillo: That was definitely a deliberate choice on my part. I remember being a kid, and I think most adults have this moment, when you think about something you wish you hadn’t said and it still makes you shudder. Also, I wanted to say something about forgiving people: about how you can move on when a friend is mean for a couple weeks—even really mean—and then turns around. I wanted to show all the range we have as people.
Slate: Right. One way I think you do that is to show how the attitude toward Auggie at school gradually softens.
Jaramillo: Yes, the kids themselves get tired of it, of the chorus of meanness. I think there also comes a moment in a lot of kids’ lives when they decide, who am I going to be? I don’t like the way I feel when I’m with this mean kid. Sometimes it’s a painful moment because you have to choose to be alone.
Slate: How have kids with facial anomalies, or disabilities, responded to the book?
Jaramillo: I’ve gotten the most amazing emails and notes and blog posts. I’ll send you one. You know, a lot of people are surprised I don’t have a child with this kind of condition. But I really do think all of us can imagine what it would be like if we try.
Emily Bazelon is a Slate senior editor and writes about law, family, and kids. Her forthcoming book, Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Empathy and Character. Find her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook or Twitter.