By Meg Barone
A 91-year-old Bridgeport woman sat in the front row of the Fairfield University's Quick Center on Thursday night for the 6th annual "One Book, One Town" community reading initiative presentation featuring, R.J. Palacio, author of this year's selection, "Wonder."
The New York Times best-selling novel -- the first by Palacio -- resonated with the woman, Rosalind Gordon, who sent an email to Palacio after reading the book. It follows a middle school boy named Auggie, who has a facial deformity -- or difference, as Palacio prefers -- through his first year in a mainstream school, where he is bullied by some and befriended by others. "Wonder" centers on themes of acceptance, civility, celebrating differences and choosing kindness.
In her email, Gordon shared with Palacio an experience from middle school that haunts her nearly 80 years later. "When I was 13, a group of girls who I thought were my friends got up laughing from the table when I came to the cafeteria and left me sitting alone," Gordon recalled Thursday.
"It still bothers me. I'm 91. But my life is very wonderful. It's just when you're vulnerable it's worse," said Gordon, who was thrilled to meet Palacio at a reception before the sold-out presentation.
Bullying is prevalent in schools and through the Internet, and Gordon said she is grateful that Palacio addresses it in her book. "I love the fact that this book is teaching the children so much. There's such a need for it," she said.
Young readers have been captivated by "Wonder," but so are adults.
Karen Ronald, the director of Fairfield Public Library, said the library has never experienced such an overwhelming response to one of its "One Book, One Town" selections. The auditorium was filled with 700 people to hear Palacio speak, with an overflow crowd of 125 people in another university theater watching Palacio speak via television and another 300 people on a waiting list.
"Usually the One Books appeal to adults, but this theme appeals to everyone. It has a universal theme: choose kindness," said Jackie Carlino of Trumbull.
Angela Paraska, 12, of Fairfield called it an inspiring story.
Palacio, whose real name is Raquel Jaramillo (Palacio is her mother's maiden name), told the audience she never anticipated the effect "Wonder" would have on readers since it was published in February 2012. "It's been an extraordinary year for me," she said.
Palacio said the thing she loves to do more than anything is read. She also enjoys writing and drawing. In fact, her early career in the publishing field involved doing the art work for book covers including Frank Herbert's "Dune" and working as an art director designing book covers. Palacio still serves as editor for the Brain Quest series of books and cards.
"Having kids led me to rediscover children's books," she said.
Palacio wrote "Wonder" in the early-morning hours each day. She came home from work, made dinner and spent time with her family, took a "power nap" for two hours and then got up at midnight and worked until 3 a.m. on her manuscript. She revealed that she didn't even know what would happen in certain scenarios in the book.
"When the characters feel that real to you they drive the narrative," Palacio said. She did admit that some of the situations are semi-autobiographical.
When it came time for questions to Palacio from the audience, two long lines formed behind the microphones in the aisles. Most of the questions came from children. One boy said he found out Palacio has sold the rights to the book and he asked if "Wonder" will become a movie. Palacio said the rights have been optioned and she asked the audience if they thought the role of Auggie should go to a young actor wearing a lot of making to replicate the protagonist's appearance or if it should go to a boy with a craniofacial difference. The audience overwhelmingly voted for the second choice.
One boy's question was simply, "Would you please do more books?" Palacio said she is working on a second book, but wouldn't reveal the subject yet.
A young girl asked Palacio if she had ever been bullied. Palacio said "no," although she admitted some kids were mean to her. "It's important to draw a distinction between the two," she said.
"That was amazing. The book was amazing, and hearing her speak was a dream come true," said Emmett Adams, 9, of Fairfield. He and friend Finn Johnston, 10, of Fairfield, were first in a long line of fans that snaked around the Quick Center lobby to get Palacio's autograph.
"My teacher said it was the best book she read and it was so compassionate. I didn't think it would be as good as it was," said Catherine Windover, 11, of Southbury, who admits she couldn't put the book down. "I think it really shows at the end everyone in the world should get a standing ovation," Catherine said, referring to the standing ovation Auggie finally gets from his peers at the end of fifth grade.
"I got my ovation today," Gordon said, as she posed for photographs with Palacio.
For information about the remaining event's in this year's Fairfield "One Book, One Town" initiative, visit the library website, www. fairfieldpubliclibrary.org