Hot on the heels of the stir it has caused in the U.S., R.J. Palacio’s debut novel Wonder is proving equally dynamic in the U.K. It hit bookshops March 1 in a children’s edition, and an adult edition will follow on June 7.
When Annie Eaton, publisher of children’s fiction at Random House U.K., read Wonder, she and all her team fell in love with it. “We were shown this title by Trident without knowing anything about where it came from,” Eaton says. "It was one of those books that we felt so passionate about that it passed round the office very fast. We’d all read it within 24 hours of the first person liking it, and I immediately made an offer.”
Although she read it without any prior knowledge, Eaton soon found that she was not alone in being deeply moved by this unusual book, about a boy born with severe facial deformities, who is starting fifth grade after years of homeschooling. Eaton’s U.S. colleagues at Knopf had also been bowled over by the story, and they had already uncovered the entertaining truth behind the identity of the pseudonymous author (Workman’s director of children’s books and creative director Raquel Jaramillo).
"We had no idea about how it had already been received, but I think our enthusiasm on this side of the Atlantic bounced back to the U.S. and fanned their feelings, too,” says Eaton. “We loved everything about it – including the U.S. cover, which we thought would work equally well in the U.K. We also knew the author loved it too, so it made sense to use the same one.”
Because Eaton felt so passionate about the book – “almost evangelical,” as she describes it – she sent Wonder over to Transworld, on Random House’s adult publishing side. “We quite often pass on titles which we think have crossover potential but usually, they don't see it," she said.
This time, however, was different. “I cried buckets. It was crazy. People around me thought I really was crazy,” says Larry Finlay, managing director of Transworld, who is as enthusiastic about Wonder as Eaton is. “I rarely cry,” he says, “but this time I was so moved not only by the character of Auggie but also by his sister Via and by the other children that I just couldn’t stop.” Sitting on a plane delayed for several hours before taking off for the Frankfurt Book Fair last fall, Finlay must have cut quite a sight. "[The book] reminded me of how cruel children can be and of how amazingly kind they can be,” he says. “I just thought, ‘We must do this for the adult market.’ ”
For the Doubleday edition, Finlay opted for a different cover, which adopts the same technique of not giving anything away but with perhaps a more sophisticated feel. “Transworld's brilliant creative director, Claire Ward, designed the cover,” he says. “Her aim was to communicate the novel's pathos, which I think she has powerfully achieved. It says isolation, fragility, loneliness, while also showing that August is a playful person who’s vulnerable but resilient. And it’s poignant, taking a child’s fantasy plaything – an astronaut's helmet – and turning it into essential gear for his emotional survival.”
Although he says it’s “not really like anything else,” Finlay pitches Wonder alongside Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief and John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, all of which “crossed over,” achieving massive sales in both the adult and the children’s markets.
Whether Wonder can reach the heights of those big hitters – or of other major children’s authors whom Random House successfully sells in both markets (including Christopher Paolini and Terry Pratchett) remains to be seen. Until June, it is only available in the children’s edition, which sat comfortably on BookScan's Total Consumer Market top 10 children’s hardback chart for the first four weeks after publication, and remains in the top 50. Kate Agnew of Muswell Hill Children’s Bookshop in North London, has found that it appeals to a wide range of children: “In addition to the detail of Auggie’s tragic personal story,” she says, “It’s a universal story about what it’s like not to fit into a new school.” She feels Wonder works well as a children's book because the school context is so recognizable. However, she has also had interest from adult readers, including recently from an adult book group who had heard about the story and would like to explore it from an adult perspective.
Finlay is confident that when Jaramillo visits the U.K. this summer to launch the adult edition, sales of both versions will show a strong upturn. “No one will be immune to the impact of this book,” he says. “It tells you, if you have to choose between being smart and being kind, be kind. That's a great message whatever age you are.”