When an orchestra concludes a performance, a few beats often elapse as the final note fades and the applause begins. That brief silence is the climax of Todd Boss’s picture book, The Boy Who Said Wow (S&S/Beach Lane, Apr. 2), illustrated by Rashin Kheiriyeh.

In May 2019, as the Handel and Haydn Society completed Mozart’s “Masonic Funeral Music” at Boston’s Symphony Hall, a spontaneous “wow” burst from a child in the audience. As heard in an audio file that went viral online, the surprised crowd laughs and begins cheering for the orchestra. The appreciative “wow,” people later learned, was voiced by then-nine-year-old Ronan Mattin, a boy who ordinarily does not speak.

Boss, a poet whose motto is “wake to the wonder of the world,” was moved by Ronan’s expression of awe. “It’s such an angelic little noise that comes arising out of nowhere, and I knew within a day that it would make an amazing children’s book,” Boss said. “I thought the only way to go about it would be to get in touch with the family” to learn more about the boy and that “magical” instant.

“Ronan’s viral moment was a very intense time, but I could tell that Todd was very sincere and serious about this project,” said Al Mattin, Ronan’s father. Boss ultimately interviewed Mattin as well as Ronan’s mother and grandfather, and he kept everyone posted about the manuscript’s status.

‘A Title That’s Actually a Spoiler’

The Boy Who Said Wow follows Ronan, a “quiet” boy who’s seen reading or accompanied by a cheerful gray dog, to the symphony with his grandfather. In real life, Boss said, “Grandpa likes to take Ronan on visits to cultural places that he wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to,” so this dynamic was important to the manuscript. The Mattin family’s approval was essential to Boss as well: “I passed the manuscript through the family before I ever showed it to anyone else. I wanted them to feel confident about the way Ronan was portrayed.”

Boss got in touch with agent Jill Kneerim of Kneerim and Williams, who referred him to agent Rubin Pfeffer. “Todd’s manuscript was accompanied by clippings and links of media fascination with Ronan’s story, some of which I’d known about in real time,” Pfeffer recalled. “It was a feel-good story, for sure. And how brave to give it a title that’s actually a spoiler! Young readers will be propelled to find Ronan’s ‘wow,’ and when they do, they’ll find their own unique wows.”

Pfeffer mentioned the project during a lunch with Allyn Johnston, v-p and publisher of Beach Lane Books, and he later sent her the manuscript. “I thought it was fantastic from the second I saw it,” Johnston remembered. “A lot of times, ‘ripped from the headlines’ projects can end up being heavy-handed,” she said, because they lean so hard on “an overt message” or teaching a lesson.

Instead, “what drew me to it was the timeless, universal quality, the kind of thing you would pull off the shelf and read over and over again,” Johnston said.

Pfeffer believed artist Rashin Kheiriyeh, who had illustrated Aimee Reid’s Welcome Home for Beach Lane, could capture the everyday calm and sudden wonder the story evokes. “To be honest, it was more than just a mere suggestion,” he said. “I’d asked Rashin if she’d consider rendering sketches of a few key moments in the manuscript. Since she was moved by the story, she was happy to provide a sample piece.” Johnston and Boss liked what they saw.

To develop Ronan as a character in her mixed-media and watercolor images, Kheiriyeh said she “focused on subtle visual cues and body language. I depicted him with closed body postures, to convey introversion and reserve.” Early in the story, she said, readers may notice “Ronan avoiding eye contact, looking out a window or down at his hands,” yet after the concert, he’s shown “leaning on his grandfather's shoulder, using body language to express his gratitude and their closeness.”

The illustrations are nostalgic, picturing a semi-rural house and old-fashioned garb. Grandpa drives a midcentury car, and the family members are white. Yet the musicians in the orchestra are diverse, and so are the audience members. Kheiriyeh said she aimed for a setting “reminiscent of the old days in Boston,” adding that the performance of Mozart’s music in Symphony Hall brought “a classic image to mind” as she painted. To a palette of warm grays, greens, and transparent turquoise blue, she brought in a “pop color like bright red, and musical notes floating in the air in the concert hall, to create a happy place for Ronan.”

Being Quiet and Listening Closely

Nowhere in the story is Ronan’s silence questioned or diagnosed. “Primarily, my thought was that this isn’t really a book about disability,” Boss said. “It’s a book about inspiration and the way inspiration comes. Even a silent child who doesn't show any outward signs of engagement can be reached.” He wanted to leave open the reasons for Ronan’s demeanor: “Disability or no disability, it’s a recognition of the value of being quiet.”

Johnston appreciates that readers can interpret the character’s subtle communications as they wish. “I loved the way that Ronan could get lost in the power of the music” and the emphasis on how people of all ages “respond when they experience art that moves them,” she said.

Boss still finds Ronan’s “wow” moment powerful. “I’ve been telling people this story for five years as the book has percolated,” he said. “Even in the past week, I told the story at a dinner, and people started crying. It raises the hairs on the back of your neck, and you realize that there’ something poetic in it.”

The author will visit the scene of the “wow” shortly after The Boy Who Said Wow’s publication. On April 7, he’ll be at Symphony Hall with the Mattin family to hear J.S. Bach’s “Mass in B Minor.” “I’ll do a little pre-concert talk about what we’re doing, and there’ll be a book table afterwards, so we’ll be able to interact with the audience,” he said. Two days later, he and the Mattins will appear at Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord, N.H., for a storytime event. “Ronan’s father has said he won’t rest until the book is on every shelf in New Hampshire and Massachusetts,” Boss joked.

Will Ronan be overwhelmed by the attention, having inspired a picture book? “I don’t honestly know,” Boss said. “It’ll be justifiably awkward for both of us.”

Ronan’s father, Al Mattin, feels good about the book and the positivity that his son has inspired. “Our extended network of family and friends are all incredibly happy and excited,” he said. Five years after that awe-inspiring concert, “Ronan is 14, but he has the same sweet spirit and big smile. He still struggles to express himself, but has found a lot of joy in drawing, writing, and traveling over the last couple of years.” Ronan enjoys listening and dancing to music, his father said, and “he particularly loves almost any kind of music played live.”

For Mattin, The Boy Who Said Wow represents a genuine instant of childhood amazement. “It’s important to help broaden people’s understanding of the way kids can experience art and music,” he said, “even when the child can’t outwardly express the way art makes them feel.”

The Boy Who Said Wow by Todd Boss, illus. by Rashin Kheiriyeh. S&S/Beach Lane, $18.99 Apr. 2 ISBN 978-1-53-449971-3