The Easiest Way to Teach Kids About Kindness
“Wonder” author R.J. Palacio on the behavior we need to model in ourselves
With her novel Wonder, acclaimed author R.J. Palacio spearheaded a movement encouraging thousands of young people across the world to “Choose Kind” (which happens to be the name of her kindness campaign). Now, the author is transporting young readers to Nazi Germany in White Bird, her first graphic novel. She tells about the troubling current events that inspired White Bird and the easiest ways for us all to be a bit kinder — even during that tough morning commute.
Katie Couric: Your book Wonder has become such a cultural phenomenon, and it has inspired so many different people. So, what was the inspiration behind writing it?
R.J. Palacio: I had a very brief encounter with a little girl who had a very significant facial difference when I was with my two sons in front of an ice cream store. That got me thinking about what it must be like to face a world everyday that doesn’t really know how to face you back. My older son had just finished fifth or sixth grade, and I was thinking about how that time in a kid’s life is so full of little dramas. I thought maybe, people needed to emphasize kindness more with this age group, and that’s really what Wonder was — a little book about kindness. I’m thrilled its message has resonated with so many people around the world.
Did you have any idea when you were writing it that it would have such a powerful effect on people?
Not at all. I’ve been involved with book publishing — that’s the industry where I’ve been making my living since I was 22, so I’ve been part of thousands of book launches. Writing a book that connects with a large leadership is really, like winning the lottery. And the book was published at the time when the children’s bestseller list was full of those books that were sort of vampire-themed, or dystopian fiction, so this little book about a boy with a facial difference (he doesn’t even transform at the end or anything!) certainly didn’t seem like it would be a bestseller. It’s really amazing.
How did it feel to become a New York Times bestseller — and not to mention, remain on the list consistently since March 2012?
Well the first time it hit the New York Times list at Number 10, my husband and I were celebrating. I remember my younger son who was only 7 or 8 at the time, said, “What’s going on? Why is everyone so happy?” I told him, “My book hit the New York Times list, so next week, when it falls off the list, which I’m sure it will do, at least I can say, ‘Hey, I was a New York Times bestseller once!’” To me, that was as good as it was ever going to get. I had no expectations beyond that. To be on the list seven years later is really unbelievable.
You set your new book, White Bird, in Nazi Germany, but it’s still in the Wonder universe, why did you decide to bring readers there?
In 2017, shortly after Trump came to power, he started almost immediately calling for a Muslim ban, deportations of immigrants, and mass round-ups. The dehumanizing that was going on really disturbed me. It reminded me of what it must have been in the early 40s in Europe and I was really troubled by the impact these words were having on kids, because I don’t think kids have the historical context with which to really gauge how horrible these words are.
I had written the novella, The Julian Chapter, from the point of view from Julian, the bully from Wonder. I introduced Julian’s grandmother, who tells him about growing up as a young Jewish girl in Nazi-occupied France. I started hearing from teachers that those two pages of text, where she tells her story, had been a really great first introduction to the Holocaust for their fourth and fifth grade students. I kept on thinking about that George Santayana quote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I’m hearing all this — “Muslim bans,” “deportations,” and I remembered that story. It just clicked with me that what I should do is expand on it and really tell it in-depth, and be very conscious of the fact that I’m writing for younger kids who have never heard about the Holocaust.
What made you want to put it into graphic novel form?
I thought that the graphic novel format was the most accessible to the largest number of people. When the story presented itself to me, from the very beginning it had a cinematic way about it. It was almost like this movie that was playing inside my head. And also, I could do it! I was an illustration major. I sketched it as I was writing it, and it kind of just flew out of me that way.
How does kindness come up in White Bird?
It takes place during the Holocaust, probably one of the worst moments in world history. It’s a book about the impact of kindness, but in a time when showing kindness of any kind could really cost you everything. I’ve always been moved by stories of true life heroism and I wanted to show how against this terrifying and really horrific backdrop of inhumanity, ordinary people do manage to do the right thing. The story is centered around this young girl who is saved from the Nazis by a little boy to whom she had never really been kind. There are those tiny moments where people shine their light.
And you’ve started quite the movement with your “Choose Kind” campaign. What were your goals with starting that campaign?
It was a natural progression out of the interest that teachers immediately had in Wonder’s message. The message the teacher in Wonder uses in the beginning of the year, which is, “If you have the choice between being right and being kind, choose kind,” went almost viral. My publisher and I picked up on that and decided to launch a website where we encourage kids to “choose kind,” and that sort of snowballed. Now we have certified kind classrooms across the country. Here’s the thing: Especially with kids, kindness can’t be forced. The whole reason the “Choose kind” campaign is so important is because kindness is something you have to choose to do. It’s inspiring kids to want to be kind.
You’ve helped teach a younger age group to be kind. What do you think adults can do in their daily lives to be kind?
If we want kind children, we have to model it and try to be kind ourselves. It’s not enough to talk about kindness, we have to show what everyday human kindness is like. I’m the first person to say — it’s hard! When you’re on the New York City subway everyday, it’s really hard to choose kind everyday. And it’s because it’s hard, that we need to keep trying to do it. Even if we fail once in a while, that’s okay, because we’re human.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
This originally appeared in the October 23, 2019 edition of Katie Couric’s Wake-Up Call newsletter. Subscribe here.