Manchester community read will welcome R.J. Palacio and 'Wonder'

MANCHESTER -- The global phenomenon of the novel "Wonder" is coming to the region. Best-selling author R.J. Palacio will speak on this afternoon at Manchester Elementary and Middle School, as part of the Vermont Reads program.

Palacio will discuss "Wonder" and its companion book: "365 Days of Wonder: Mr. Browne's Book of Precepts." Mr. Browne is an English teacher in the novel, and precepts are maxims by which to live life.

"Wonder" tells the story of August "Auggie" Pullman, a 10-year-old boy with jolting facial irregularities, through his eyes and the people near him. Previously home-schooled, Auggie attends fifth grade in public school and affects all those around.

Sylvia Plumb, director of communications for the Vermont Humanities Council, said "Wonder" -- winner of the 2014 Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award -- has captured the imagination of millions of Americans and was a natural choice as this year's state reading selection.

"The book ‘Wonder' explores ideas around tolerance, kindness, and our experiences around those that are ‘different,' Plumb said. "All of that helps a community, whether it is dealing with someone who has a facial disfigurement on the outside like Auggie or a health problem we can't see, or bullying in a school or community, or even expanding tolerance."

"Vermont Humanities Council staff, board and friends read, review and talk about potential Vermont Reads books all the time," Plumb said. "Sometimes we are looking for something that fits a certain historical period. We try to choose a book that is meaty and good literature, as well as a good read -- filled with themes that lend themselves to extended activities and community conversations."

The selections, she said, are books that will work for a broad range of audiences -- from about middle school through adults of any age. She added that true to the VHC mission, Auggie's story helps people understand the human experience through self-reflection.

As part of the Vermont Reads program, communities all over the state have taken to "Wonder" and made it their own.

Sam Drazin, a third-grade teacher at Bradford Elementary School, was born with Treacher Collins syndrome, a rare condition that results in the facial bones not being fully developed at birth. He has had seven surgeries on his ears, nose and jaw, and as a result has a conductive hearing loss.

"R.J. Palacio doesn't give a specific diagnosis to Auggie, but the description of him most closely aligns to Treacher Collins syndrome," Drazin said. "I've had the opportunity to travel around the state and speak at schools and libraries about ‘Wonder.' My audiences have ranged from elementary aged students through senior citizens. This shows how well ‘Wonder' has taken hold of readers of all ages."

Drazin said he has seen how communities are embracing the book -- from townwide reads to public libraries linking with schools in their community, evening programs, weekend programs and community programs where several towns come together.

One such "Wonder" community directly tied to precepts is Albert D. Lawton Intermediate School (ADL) in Essex Junction. Every student there read "Wonder," discussed it with their classmates and was assessed on it.

Jessica Beliveau, an eighth-grader at ADL, said her school is going one step further by putting the book's message into practice -- as in the style of Mr. Browne and the companion book, "365 Days."

"We use ‘Kindness Cards,' which students pass along to others who are nice to them," Beliveau said. "Every afternoon, a precept, or concept, drawn from ‘Wonder,' is broadcast for everyone to hear. ADL also does the occasional school-wide activity and assembly with a focus on the book. The aim is to encourage a kind and accepting atmosphere at school."

This type of atmosphere has been the experience of Olivia Sanborn, an 11-year old from Richmond, and a sixth grader at Camel's Hump Middle School.

Olivia was born with a rare craniofacial condition, Pfeiffer syndrome. It's characterized by premature fusion of the skull bones, broad and deviated thumbs and big toes, proptotic eyes and shallow sockets, hearing loss and vision issues, such as strabismus and depth perception challenges.

Her mother, Laurel, said Olivia has had 21 surgeries, and "Wonder" helped her express feelings, both personally and with peers.

"When it came time to think about having Olivia read the book, we were skeptical, as Olivia has always considered herself very ‘normal,' " Laurel said. "However, when she started fifth grade last year things changed, and many of the challenges Auggie was facing in the book, Olivia was also facing. By the time she finished the book, she wanted her class to read it as a read aloud. Her comment to us and her teachers and friends was ‘I really need people to know how I feel.' "

Such empathy, Plumb concluded, is what makes Palacio's visit a treat for many, and her novel and its companion book unifying forces.

"'Wonder' asks us to reflect and understand the human experience of a boy who was born with a facial deformity and asked to immerse himself with other kids at a very vulnerable and fragile time," Plumb said. "Through him we see the best of people, the worst of people, and the average experience of people dealing with someone who is different from them. His understanding speaks to all of us, and it also teaches us about courage and kindness and inclusion."

If you go ...

What: R.J. Palacio to read her Vermont Reads selection, ‘Wonder'

When: 4:30 p.m. today, Oct. 9.

Where: Manchester Elementary and Middle School

Programs continue monthlong

Information: Vermont Humanities Council, (802) 262-2626 or