Raquel Jaramillo's debut novel, Wonder, written under the pen name R.J. Palacio, was born out of a rather embarrassing incident. The author was out with her two sons, sitting in front of an ice cream store. Her oldest had just finished fifth grade, and her youngest was still in a stroller. They spotted a girl whose face had been deformed by a medical condition.
"It was just one of those terrible moments when my kids didn't react the way I would've wanted them to react," Jaramillo tells NPR's Steve Inskeep. "In order to spare this little girl's feelings, I ended up just kind of running away from the scene."
She felt terrible about the incident, and replayed it over and over in her mind. That night, she began writing a story about a fifth-grade boy nicknamed Auggie who struggles to feel ordinary with everyone constantly staring at him.
"I won't describe what I look like," Auggie narrates in the first chapter. "Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse."
Auggie tends to get sick and often needs to undergo surgeries, so his parents home-schooled him until the fifth grade. When he leaves home to enter middle school, he encounters students and teachers who treat him with varying degrees of kindness and disgust.
Jaramillo says she wanted young readers to see things through Auggie's eyes, to understand how people with physical deformities experience the world.
"What he looks like, in a sense, is very incidental to him," says the author. "He really doesn't dwell on that very much. What he dwells on is the reaction that people have to him. Because all he wants is to be an ordinary kid. But he really can't, because he'll always have people staring at him and reacting to him in a certain way."
Jaramillo didn't want to reduce the other kids in Wonder to mere bullies. That would have made them too easy to villainize. Instead, Auggie's tormenters remind him in painfully subtle ways that he is being looked at. One character mentions a Star Wars character with a burned face.
"Middle school is a tough time," says Jaramillo. "I don't know what it is about the middle school experience that turns kids into The Lord of the Flies, but it just does seem to be that way."
However, Jaramillo says she found that expressions of kindness were more interesting to write about than acts of meanness. "Maybe because the expectation is that kids will be mean to one another, whenever one kid shows any kind of kindness or is noble, it almost takes on an extraordinary act of courage," says Jaramillo. "You're really rooting for the kids who stand up for Auggie. Ultimately, it's a feel-good book because it is a meditation on kindness and the impact of kindness."
Throughout Wonder, one of Auggie's teachers writes what he calls "precepts" — or fundamental rules — on the blackboard. His first lesson: Given a choice between being right and being kind, choose to be kind.
"I think it's that choice that's so important," says Jaramillo. "That becomes the subtext of the entire book. It's really not so much about bullying at all, in fact. It's really about how ... Auggie comes into their lives and they all become better for it. And they all rise to the occasion and become protective of him. He becomes part of their community."
Writing Wonder made Jaramillo reflect on her own junior high school experience. "Could I have been nicer?" she wonders. "Was I nice? I think somewhere in between nice and not nice is where many people are. It's funny because a lot of people have told me that they identify with the book not because they have experienced bullying, but because when they were younger they remember that there were times when they could've been nicer."
Many readers have told Jaramillo that they remember acts of kindness from their middle school days much more vividly than acts of bullying.
"They'll remember the girl that was really nice to them and sat with them," she says. "In the end, I started thinking that ultimately it is those moments of ... kindness that people ultimately remember more than the other stuff."
Now, when Jaramillo sees her children's classmates, she thinks about how she treated others at their age.
"It's tough to go back sometimes and think about who you were," she says. "I certainly was not a mean girl at all. I think was a very, very nice girl, but I think I could've been nicer at times, too."