On March 13, Workman Publishing invited a group of Random House employees to its downtown offices to fete director of children’s books and creative director Raquel Jaramillo. Her debut middle-grade novel, Wonder, published by Knopf under the pseudonym R.J. Palacio, had just hit the New York Times chapter-book list after earning starred reviews from Booklist, Kirkus, School Library Journal, and PW. “It was wonderful,” said Chip Gibson, president and publisher of Random House Children’s Books. “All that support for one of their own.”
Though Jaramillo has more than two decades of industry experience, she’s best known for her artistic chops. Her résumé includes stints in the art departments at Scribner and St. Martin’s Press prior to becoming creative director at Holt in 1990, where over the next 17 years, she designed covers for books by everyone from Sue Grafton to Salman Rushdie. While at Holt, she began photo-illustrating her own books for young people, and that interest in children’s literature led to her switch from design into editorial. She became director of children’s books at Workman in August 2006; a little more than a year later, she began work on what would become her first novel.
Wonder tells the story of a 10-year-old boy, August (Auggie) Pullman, born with severe facial abnormalities and health issues that have necessitated 27 surgeries by the time the book opens. After being homeschooled his entire life, he’s about to enter the fifth-grade in a public school, a situation complicated by his appearance, which he says sends other kids running away screaming. “I won’t describe what I look like,” he says at the end of the book’s brief first chapter. “Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.”
This isn’t coyness on Jaramillo’s part, but rather a conscious storytelling device. “I thought it was important for the readers to form their own opinion about Auggie without knowing what he looked like,” she says. “He doesn’t spend a lot of time looking in the mirror, so it wouldn’t be organic for him to describe himself.” It’s not until part two of the book, when the first-person narration shifts to his sister, Via, that we get a detailed verbal description.
A chance encounter with a little girl who looked the way Jaramillo imagines Auggie looks provided the seeds of her novel. The girl, her mother, and a friend sat next to Jaramillo and her young sons outside an ice cream shop. Her younger boy, only three at the time, started to cry. Her older son maintained his composure but was visibly unsettled. As Jaramillo quickly escorted her boys away – not for their sakes, but to spare the little girl’s feelings – she was impressed by the grace with which the girl’s mother handled the situation. Jaramillo played the scene over repeatedly in her head – what it must be like for the other family, what the right thing was for her to teach her boys. “I started writing that very night,” she says. “I just could not stop thinking about it.”
She fell into a routine: after coming home from work each evening, she and her husband (Russell Gordon, an executive art director at Simon and Schuster Children’s Books) would have dinner with their sons and help with their homework. “At around 10 o’clock I’d fall asleep,” Jaramillo says. “I’d wake up around midnight and write until two or three in the morning. It was surprisingly easy to write that way – it’s quiet. And I was so eager to get back to the story and the characters.”
After about a year and a half, she was ready to shop her manuscript around, but the prospect proved tricky. “I’ve been in publishing for 20 years and I have lots of contacts in the field,” she says, “but I didn’t want to put anyone in the awkward position of having to reject my manuscript and then see me the next week at BEA.”
Given Jaramillo’s extensive reach in the industry, and her desire to keep her work as an author separate – “I wanted to find an agent with whom I had not worked, who’d never submitted anything to me” – finding the right agent for Wonder was a challenge. But in the end, Alyssa Eisner Henkin of Trident proved a match. Jaramillo’s husband, who had worked with Henkin when she was an editor, sent her the manuscript and said that though it bore a pseudonym, Jaramillo wrote it. “It was the perfect amount of distance,” the author says. “We knew that if he sent her a package she would feel comfortable rejecting it if she didn’t like it. But I also didn’t want to end up in anybody’s slush pile.”
Henkin submitted the manuscript to various houses under the pseudonym, saying only it was a pen name for a “publishing executive.” Joan Slattery acquired Wonder in 2010 for Knopf, but left the company to become a literary agent before Jaramillo turned in her first revision. Executive editor Erin Clarke inherited the book from her. “Joan gave me a short summary of what it was,” she says. “To be honest, I was a little reluctant to take it on – kid with a facial deformity, it sounds like a downer. I was a new mom at the time.” Jaramillo asked Clarke to hold off on reading the manuscript until she turned in the revision. When she finally did read it, the day the pair was due to have dinner together, everything changed. “I came into my office, closed my door, started reading it – and fell in love with it,” Clarke says. “I probably scared her at dinner, reaching across the table to tell her how great it was.”
What Clarke discovered upon reading Wonder is that, far from being depressing, Auggie’s struggles to be accepted as a regular kid are eminently relatable. “In middle school, everybody goes through that,” Clarke says. “You feel left out, you don’t fit in. This is to an extreme, of course. [But] it’s a universal story.” So universal, in fact, that the Random House sales reps chose the book as their indie rep pick for spring 2012. “It’s sort of like the little book that could,” Clarke observes. “I edited The Book Thief [by Markus Zusak] as well, and it was a similar situation. It wasn’t a lead title on our list, but I knew that as soon as people started reading it, they’d get it.” Gibson says his publishing experience with Wonder reminds him of another recent Random House title: Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me. “It transcends competition,” he says. “Friends from other publishing houses are just singing its praises.”
Random House is putting considerable muscle behind Wonder, with an extensive social media program that includes a title page on Facebook, a Twitter hashtag (#thewonderofwonder) and an online anti-bullying campaign, Choose Kind. The mainstream press has picked up on the enthusiasm, with review coverage in Entertainment Weekly and the New York Times, and an author interview on NPR. Jaramillo says that her coworkers, too, have encouraged her from the moment they found out about the novel. “Once the galleys came in and I started giving them to my editorial colleagues, they were so effusive in their support,” she says. “They’ve been happy at every triumph.”
For her part, Jaramillo had modest hopes for the book. “My highest ambition was that it would earn out the advance,” she says. Years spent working in the industry have taught her that many books never find an audience. When it came time for a cover, she says, “I wanted my experience as an author to be purely as an author. I didn’t ask for anything other than an author consult; as an art director, I used to hate when authors would ask for approval.” She suggested an artist, Tad Carpenter, and offered only vague suggestions. “It was very nice for them to include me in the process. I wanted something iconic, visually arresting, bright, happy,” she says, and she’s thrilled with the results. “The simplicity of it is just wonderful.”
Jaramillo’s next project is a novel for a slightly older audience called That Was the River. Though she’s not ready to divulge plot details, she does emphasize that it’s not a sequel to Auggie’s story. In the meantime, she remains happily surprised by the enthusiastic response to Wonder. “I got a beautiful letter from Iris Broudy, the first copy editor who was assigned the book. She said that in the 20 years she’s been doing this, she’d only been moved to write a fan letter like this two or three times. That was my first indication that the book would connect with people.”
The second indication, she says, was when Random House U.K. decided to release the book both for children and for adults. “The British publisher has been incredibly enthusiastic,” she says. Wonder published there March 1, and in June, an adult version will be released. Books that have received similar treatment include The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, The Book Thief, and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, so Jaramillo knows she’s in good company: “That’s when I thought, ‘This book has legs.’ ”