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Book club visited by bestselling 'Wonder' author R.J. Palacio

ST. PETERSBURG

Auggie Pullman is a 10-year-old boy in New York City with a facial deformity caused by a chromosomal abnormality. "Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse," he narrates on the first page of the book Wonder, a New York Times bestseller that's being translated into 24 languages. August is a fictional character.

Lori Crotts is a 53-year-old woman in St. Petersburg with advanced-stage colon cancer. She's a mother, a wife, a teacher, a Girl Scout leader, a runner, an avid reader, a frequent traveler, an animal foster parent and a Jon Bon Jovi fanatic.

She's about as real as they come.

Crotts read Wonder in one day, just a week before learning she had cancer in March. The courage and humor she found in August and his family as he left the shelter of homeschooling to attend a mainstream middle school has been a source of strength during her daily fight against cancer.

"His whole life he's had to deal with all these big issues, and I have this one thing. Millions of people have cancer," she said recently. "If his parents and he can get through these hard things that are so, so hard, I can rise up and see beyond this painful week or this test or this surgery."

She loved the book before knowing she had cancer, however, because of its impetus to simply be kind. It also somehow painted August as a normal boy, though he faces amazing challenges. His parents, family, teachers and classmates are flawed, but uplifting.

Her connection with August and a tightly knit book club prompted her to write to the book's author, R.J. Palacio. She explained how Wonder had affected her and said having Palacio speak to the book club was on her bucket list. A few close friends wrote more letters, arranged the travel and made it happen. Last week, the first-time author flew in from New York to join Crotts and her friends for lunch and a frank discussion about writing, kindness, kids and life. She shed her pen name and was just Raquel Jaramillo.

"I wish I could say I was like Summer. I was more like Charlotte: nice, friendly, never mean. But Charlotte never goes out of her way to become Auggie's friend," Jaramillo said, referring to two characters in the book. "It takes courage to be confident enough to do what Summer did."

Jaramillo got the idea for Wonder when she was at a Carvel ice cream shop four years ago in Brooklyn with her two sons, then ages 11 and 3. She noticed a young girl with facial differences, her mother, and a beautiful older girl, probably a sister. As she struggled to rush her own children out before they unwittingly made the other family uncomfortable, she caused her youngest to cry and her oldest to drop a tray of milk shakes.

She agonized over the chaotic scene the rest of the day and took note when she heard the decade-old Natalie Merchant hit, Wonder, on the radio.

"They say I must be one of the wonders

Of God's own creation

And as far as they can see they can offer

No explanation …

Know this child will be able.

With love, with patience and with faith

She'll make her way."

Jaramillo woke up that night and started writing. She wrote every night from midnight to 3 a.m. for the next 18 months, she said, while continuing her day job as an art director for Workman Publishing. The book came out in February and was on the New York Times bestseller list by May.

Crotts, never one to enjoy the limelight, sat quietly and transfixed next to the author as others asked questions. Jaramillo told them she picked the name August for the main character because she always loved it but her husband didn't.

"When you write you own book you don't have get anybody's permission to name somebody August," she said, laughing.

Everyone wanted to know if she has heard from the mother of the girl from the Carvel store.

No, she hasn't. But she has been contacted by a lot of parents of other children with facial differences, many who have Treacher-Collins syndrome. They send her photos of their kids holding her book. They are smiling.

"They tell me thank you for giving them a hero and for spreading a voice of kindness and acceptance," Jaramillo said.

But this Wonder wasn't written for children with facial differences. It wasn't written for women battling cancer. That's why people of all ages are racing through this young adult book.

"We've all been Auggie. We've all been the outsider and not fit in with the crowd or been talked about behind our back," Jaramillo said.

She hopes the book encourages people to realize how kindness can affect others. "Maybe it takes a lot to change someone's life but it doesn't take a lot to change someone's day," she said.

Jaramillo often signs books with "Choose kind" or "Fortune favors the kind."

" 'Choose kind,' that should be on a bumper sticker and given to every sixth-grader in the world," said Michele Marois, a member of the book club.

While Jaramillo didn't envision Wonder as a tool to combat bullying, the book's publisher, Random House, is linking it to such an effort. During October, it's donating $1 to Pacers National Bullying Prevention Center for everyone who signs the online "choose kind" pledge at choosekind.tumblr.com. Also, schools across the country are making Wonder required reading to prompt dialogue about kindness and acceptance.

Before talking to the book club, Jaramillo spoke to about 200 fourth- and fifth-graders at Shorecrest Preparatory School in St. Petersburg who are reading the book.

One student asked why the story was told from the points of view of five different kids. Jaramillo explained that she was curious about what other people around Auggie were thinking, such as his older sister Via, who always has to take a back seat to his needs, or Jack Will, who catches flak for being his friend.

Another student asked why the family dog, Daisy, played a big role.

"Because dogs don't judge the way people do. Daisy loves Auggie unconditionally," Jaramillo said. Her answer harkened back to the part in the book when Auggie explains that Halloween is his favorite day of the year, saying: "I wish every day could be Halloween. We could all wear masks all the time. Then we could walk around and get to know each other before we got to see what we looked like under the masks."

Wonder is also about seeing the triumphs in troubled lives. The lives of others as well as our own. "I think pity is a dangerous thing," Jaramillo said.

Maybe that's why Crotts feels such a connection to Auggie. She steers way clear of pity. Her determination to seize and appreciate each day is often cited by friends. That positive attitude may be part of the reason she's defying the odds in a clinical study of a new drug at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Two months in a row the tumors in her body haven't grown.

"I'm just lucky. I'm a lucky girl," Crotts said. "I'm hoping it will work for a long time for me. I told my doctor, 'I want to be your poster girl at all those conferences.' "

Katherine Snow Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8785 or kssmith@tampabay.com.

Book club visited by bestselling 'Wonder' author R.J. Palacio 10/06/12 [Last modified: Saturday, October 6, 2012 4:01pm]

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