Since launching our Voice to Voice conversation series in January, we've tackled lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender literature, Black History Month, bullying, Pride and more.
Today we bring you a chat between authors and graphic designers R.J. Palacio and Chip Kidd.
R.J. Palacio lives in NYC with her husband, two sons, and two dogs. For more than twenty years, she was an art director and graphic designer, designing book jackets for other people while waiting for the perfect time in her life to start writing her own novel. A chance encounter with an extraordinary child in front of an ice cream store made her realize that the perfect time to write that novel had finally come and resulted in "Wonder."
Chip Kidd is a graphic designer and writer in New York City. He has worked at Alfred A. Knopf since 1986, designing books and book jackets and editing graphic novels and comics. He blogs regularly on design, books and more at his official website.
In the video above and the conversation below, Palacio and Kidd discuss Palacio's debut novel, "Wonder," the anti-bullying campaign, Choose Kind, that was inspired by the book and more.
Chip Kidd: This book is amazing; you have to read it -- and the fact that this is a New York Times bestseller gives me hope for humanity. I really mean that; I know I say some flip, dopey stuff, but I am serious about this. This is incredible, I barely know where to start. What was the genesis of this book? When did517427397 you start writing it? And why?
R. J. Palacio: I started writing it probably around five years ago. I had a chance encounter with a little girl outside an ice cream store with my two kids, who were three, and ten or eleven at the time. It was their reaction to this little girl, and my reaction to their reaction. And it just got me thinking a lot about what it must be like to live in the shoes of someone suffering from any sort of facial difference. I actually started that night after this encounter. I was really kind of inspired.
CK: For those reading who may not know, this book is about a little boy named Auggie. He is ten and he was born with a facial deformity that is really quite severe. One of the really interesting things R. J. has done is she writes from his point of view and she writes from other characters points’ of view, and little by little, she describes what he looks like. You start to build it in your head, but it starts with people’s reactions to it and it is one of the many fascinating things about the book. And so, you saw this little girl -- how old was she?
RJP: She was probably around seven or eight at the time, I guess. Honestly, it was maybe a 20-second encounter and it didn’t go on very long or anything. But it was just seared in my mind as very emotional for me, especially when I was thinking about it afterwards, because of the way my kids responded -- which wasn’t great, and they are really good kids. But a three year-old doesn’t know how to respond to these things.
CK: Did you talk to this girl?
RJP: No, and that’s what I really wish I had done. I tried to get my kids away from the situation -- basically, I didn’t want to hurt the little girl’s feelings by their reaction, and instead of making it better, I made the situation worse by leaving the “scene of the crime.” I wish I had turned to the little girl and apologized for my sons’ reactions and tried to humanize the whole thing. That’s kind of what haunted me: the fact that I didn’t speak to this little girl.
CK: Did you ever hear back from her?
RJP: Every day I’m getting more and more emails actually, from parents and kids suffering from facial differences, and I keep waiting for that moment, but the truth is, even though it was seared in my memory -- for her, I don’t think for her it was anything dramatic. I think it was probably just one of many that happen to her in a course of every hour of every day. For me, it was life changing.
CK: One of the many amazing things about this book is that it’s as much a portrait of a contemporary New York prep school as it is about anything else. Other things that enter into it is the idea of fighting bullying. You must have a tremendous amount of experience with the New York prep school system.
RJP: I have two kids in private school, and bullying isn’t tolerated in their school. And I think "Wonder" maybe represents other forms of bullying that aren’t necessarily that obvious. There’s the kind of bullying which is a slushy-in-the-face, that kind of thing, wedgies and locker room stuff. But then there’s the kind of bullying that I don’t even know would be called bullying, exactly. It’s more of a social meanness that happens at that age. My older son had just finished fifth grade when I first started writing this book so it was all very fresh in my mind: the way kids treat each other and the expectations that parents have, that all kids are going to mean to each other at that age. That’s something I always struggled with because I just thought, “Why are our expectations so low of our children? Why can’t we expect them to do good and be kind, even at that age? Why is it that we are anticipating that they just go through a mean phase and we just come to accept it?” That’s sort of what I didn’t get as I was watching my son go through things. I just kept wanting to shake these kids and be like, “Be nice to each other and choose kind!” Which is really the theme of the book. Of course, there’s bullying in it, but really it’s about the alternative to all of this, which is to emphasize to your kids that choosing kind is an option. If we all choose kind -- choose to be kind, choose to be kinder than necessary -- really, the world would be a better place.
CK: And Choose Kind, as people may or may not know, is an anti-bullying initiative that’s been started as a result of this book. It’s a Tumblr site and it’s a great resource for kids to go to tell stories, things that happened to them, or to get resources to get help.
RJP: I was amazed at this. It was Random House’s idea; they were inspired by the book to come up with an anti-bullying campaign, and I’m floored and amazed by it. I strongly suggest that everyone log on to choosekind.tumblr.com to sign the pledge, get your kids to sign the pledge, get your friends to sign pledges to choose kind and spread the word.
CK: Now I know you’re a graphic designer too -- more specifically, a book cover designer, as am I -- so tell me about this [gestures to the cover of "Wonder"]. Just as somebody that works here at Random House, I slowly became aware of this because it was in the case as you come in the lobby, so I would see it every morning.
RJP: It’s a great jacket, right?
CK: It is, it is, and boy, this would be a really tough one to work on. So how did it come about?
RJP: When negotiating the contract, I purposely ended up not seeking anything other than “author consult,” because I used to hate it when authors had approval [for covers]. They would drive me crazy, so I was absolutely hell-bent on not being one of those authors in the process. You know what I’m talking about. I wanted to be a great author, a nice author, and work with everybody and be the kind of author I used to love working with. So I didn’t ask for “author approval,” I asked for “author consult.” The Knopf art department was really nice in consulting with me every step of the way. They chose Tad Carpenter, who was my suggestion, for the cover illustration, but they directed him and I never talked to him myself. They showed me comps and we had collaboration every step of the way. I told him the direction I wanted: I wanted something iconic; for some reason I had, blue, black and white in my mind; and hand lettered -- but the rest they came up with. And I was floored, I thought it was fantastic.
CK: So this was it?
RJP: This was it. We all agreed that this was the one and it wasn’t fraught. It was pretty easy, as far as covers go.
CK: The other thing I should point out, just to clarify -- I’m at Knopf, and this is Knopf for kids, which is totally different. Anyway, they did an incredible job.
RJP: A bang-up job.
CK: One thing that I thought was interesting -- and if I was your editor, I would have pushed you -- we never hear from the bully. We never hear the Julian story.
RJP: Right, it’s interesting you should say that, it’s true.
CK: So obviously this was a conscious decision you made. I mean, again, it’s incredible to read this, because all I can think about is making it, making this story, and all the decisions you made. It’s just incredible. But why that one?
RJP: Well, as you know, it’s told from multiple perspectives, and that was not an easy decision. I didn’t intend to originally go into multiple perspectives. I was just going to tell it from Auggie’s point of view. But at a certain point, I really became curious about the sister and the other characters. I really wanted to explore them -- but I was also afraid. I know you’ve written, so you know what it’s like: you have 100 pages of manuscript you feel good about, but all of a sudden, you’re really afraid to take the book in the wrong direction, because then it’s so much harder to rewrite and unwrite what you have done. And I was afraid at that point: would I ruin what I’ve done if I go into this other direction? Finally, I let myself go into the multiple perspectives with one rule, and the rule was, I would let myself go into other perspectives if they propelled a narrative forward and they enhanced Auggie’s worldview, contributed to Auggie’s story. So I did start writing a chapter from Julian’s point of view, but as I was writing it, I realized it was the one time in the entire process that I hit a wall. Everyone in the book has their baggage. This is what I was trying to show the kids who read this: that we all have baggage. Auggie’s might be the easiest to perceive, obviously, because his is in the face and so direct, but everyone’s got something that they wish they could change in their life. Whether it’s that they’re a product of a bad divorce, or their dad died in a war. Even Jack Will feels like a poor kid in a rich school; everyone’s got their stuff that they’re dealing with. In my mind, Julian’s stuff is his parents: he has to deal with his mom, and that’s his baggage in life. My hope is that he learns something and by the time he goes to the next school or the next year, he’s a slightly better person.
CK: Which brings us to the inevitable question: are you working on another one? Is there a part two?
RJP: No, I think there’s not going to be a sequel to it. I’m definitely working on another book, but it’s not going to be about Auggie. It’s not going to be about "Wonder." I feel that this ended at just the right point. But kids are so conditioned! When I go and talk to kids in schools, the first thing they ask is if this is a beginning of a series. They are just conditioned to think in terms of series. It’s kind of disappointing to them when I say that the story’s over.
CK: Has there been any interest in making it into a movie or a TV show or something?
RJP: I just was in California and I did meet with producers and they are very excited about it. We were talking about how to make it into a movie and they have a screen writer on board. So it’s all very exciting -- but on the other hand, I know enough to be cautious, to know just how difficult [it is] to get any movie made. I mean there are lots of challenges to a movie like this. It would have to be the right kind of movie.
CK: I kept thinking about that, obviously. How would you do that?
RJP: I would hope it would be treated like a "Juno": quirky, independent, hand-held -- that would be my hope.
CK: As a designer who also writes -- what’s your process? I use to crack everybody up by saying I write in Quark, which is a type setting program.
RJP: Do you actually write in the trim size? Did you format it to 6”x9”, and all that?
CK: It looks like a finished book! When I turned in the manuscript of my first novel, my editor said “No one has ever done that before! It looks like it’s been published already,” and she said “Guess what? It hasn’t and I’m going to edit it,” which was great.
RJP: Did she edit it in Quark? How did she edit it? Did you have to give her a Microsoft word document?
CK: No, she line-edited it.
RJP: No actually I do it in Microsoft Word, typed it in 8 ½” x 11”, double-spaced. I really resisted the temptation to do any designing on this. It was hard to, because believe me, I had all sorts of visions about what I thought the cover should look like, about the interior type, about folios, about running heads, everything. Believe me, this was designed by the Knopf art department, and I didn’t see any of it. I wanted my experience to be purely about being an author, not being a graphic designer at all.
CK: That is where we completely part ways. I was totally controlling.
RJP: Well, yours is also about art school, and it’s about the creative process and much more a Chip Kidd thing.
CK: One of the other things I loved about what you did: you wove in a bunch of different stories. There is the "Star Wars" mythology, there is "Our Town," there is "The Sound of Music," that I thought was fascinating.
RJP: They are all my favorite references! Everything in there is everything I love in life. "The Lord of the Rings," "The Hobbit," "The Sound of Music," my all-time favorite musical in the world. Every reference, every song I love: David Bowie, Natalie Merchant. You know, I’ve been a "Star Wars" geek since I was thirteen, so that’s me. It’s fun to use all the things you love and insert them. If I have Auggie reading at night, I have him reading "The Chronicles of Narnia" because I just love "Chronicles of Narnia." In fact, he’s named Auggie Pullman because Philip Pullman is one of my favorite authors. That’s a great name.
CK: Have your kids read it?
RJP: They have. My older son read it when it was in galley form in December, maybe January. I was nervous because there are a lot of references to the school and teachers. Of course, I changed names, but I know he might recognize stories and stuff -- but he loved it. He was the first one who said he thought it should be required reading for every middle schooler. He’s now in high school and doing very well, but middle school is tough, it’s fraught. And then I had the pleasure to reading it to my son that’s 8 years old, the one who sort of cried when he saw that girl at the age of three. He’d come full circle and I got to read him the story, and that was a great experience. That was a read-aloud that lasted a couple of weeks. And to experience the story through his eyes was really, really fantastic for me. Seeing him react, laugh at the funny parts. He really identified with the character Jack Will, so when the Halloween incident happened -- I don’t want to ruin it -- but the Halloween incident comes up and my son was devastated. He was so profoundly moved by it. It was fun for me, good experience.
RJP: Again, being in publishing, having a part in so many books and book launches in my life -- I mean, thousands of books, literally thousands of books. We know that the reality is that 99% of the books that you spend time on and read and love --
RJP: Disappear after a month! And maybe if you’re lucky, they have the second run in paperback and that’s just the nature of book publishing. I had no other expectations for this. Maybe it would get published someday, and then it was going to get published. Maybe someday I would earn out the advance if I’m lucky. I never saw beyond it doing modestly well, while hoping to get a couple of good reviews. I was hoping that kids would read it and my friends would read it. But this Choose Kind campaign and the reactions and the emails I’ve been getting from people -- literally all around the world now -- they really get the message. I’ve been hearing from schools across the United States saying they are making it their Summer Read or required reading for fall. They’re putting it into the curriculum! It’s evolved into something beyond anything that I could have ever imagined. It’s been amazing. I’m truly humbled and I don’t know how I’m going to top it for number two. I’m just glad that it’s out there. I can’t believe it.
CK: I just thought it was an amazing read.
RJP: Oh thank you! I love that -- I think that’s a funny story because you had no idea. As my other life, as a children’s book director in publishing, Chip is one of my authors and is working on a book for me right now!
CK: Yeah, no pressure.
RJP: No pressure whatsoever. So when they asked him to do this interview, he had no idea that R.J. Palacio was actually Raquel Jaramillo, the editor.
CK: The book is "Wonder." It's amazing, so just… read it!