When your face doesn’t look like everyone else’s, when a genetic anomaly leaves you with contorted ears and eyes that seem to be sliding down your face, what you hope for is kindness. Your wish is that people see beyond your appearance.
The best-selling book Wonder, which tells the fictional tale of child with such a condition, has had a massive cultural impact in recent years as teachers across the US have used it as a textbook of sorts to teach empathy in schools. The movie adaptation is out on Thursday.
The story follows fifth-grader Auggie Pullman as he enters a new school, and the turbulence that unfolds as he shows classmates how his face is misshapen but he’s a regular kid.
Yet despite Wonder’s important lessons, the story is not entirely relatable for some who have Auggie’s condition, Treacher Collins syndrome.
“I didn’t like that Auggie was ashamed of his face,” said Teresa Joy Dyson, 10. “I have Treacher Collins syndrome and I’m kind of proud of my face. I’m not afraid to look at people and show who I am.”
Teresa Joy has many friends at her school, and unlike Auggie, is not bullied.
Zachary Muller, 12, also has Treacher Collins, a condition that leaves bones and tissues severely underdeveloped in his face, and that has left him with hearing loss. Zachary said he liked Wonder, but he points out that it’s fiction.
“I’m more awesomer than him,” Zachary said of Auggie. “I’m real.”
Zachary’s family, along with another family that has a son with a facial difference, rented out a cinema so the boys could see the movie in a space with people they select. Zachary’s mum wanted him to experience the movie without the pressure of people looking at him and saying, “Oh, that’s the real Auggie.”
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“We owe it to him to see the movie before it’s open to the public,” Barbara Muller said, “so he’s prepared if we go out to dinner and somebody says something to him.”
Muller said Zachary could relate as he watched the movie, in particular how Auggie uses humour to deflect negative attention and boost his own self esteem. She said the movie “hit the nail on the head” with its anti-bullying theme.
Muller said Zachary has not been bullied at school, but he does sometimes feel like he’s on display when he’s out with family.
“He used to hide behind us. He used to say, ‘Why are they looking at me? Because I’m different?’ ” Muller said. “We’d say, ‘Zachary everybody is different.’ ”
Now, she said, he’s learned to handle it and sometimes will start a conversation with the people who stare.
“We’ve taught him how to deal with them. We tell him that if people are staring, you look at them straight in the face and say ‘hi’,” she said.
Zachary’s friend who was also at the private screening, Kyle Aftimos, nine, was born with a cleft lip and palate. A year and a half ago, he had a surgery to remove a bone from his hip and place it in his palate, a procedure that caused him to miss six weeks of school.
Kyle said the Wonder story is educating people who do not share his condition.
“I’m grateful for the movie because, like, some people have heard about it but they don’t bother reading the book. So if they watch the movie, they’ll understand more about it and stop the bullying,” Kyle said.
Joy’s father, Darryl Dyson, agrees that the message of the film is not intended for the people with the syndrome and their families – but for everybody else.
Dyson said he’s found that the book has raised awareness of facial differences, specifically that kids with these syndromes are otherwise normal. When he recently took his daughter to his office for Take Your Daughter to Work Day, another girl who had read Wonder went right up to Teresa Joy and made fast friends with her.
“To me that was an eye-opening experience,” Dyson said of his co-worker’s daughter. “I believe she would have reacted completely differently had she not read the book.”
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Erica Mossholder, executive director of the Children’s Craniofacial Association, who has facial differences herself, said the book, published in 2012, has become an opportunity for kids with facial anomalies to talk about their lives if they choose to.
“For many, it has been a window into their lives for their classmates, and opened up a conversation about their deep desire for people to know them as just regular kids beyond their appearance,” Mossholder said.
The association she leads is an umbrella group for kids with facial anomalies including Treacher Collins syndrome. Zachary and Kyle met at the group’s annual retreat.
Last night was one of the most special nights of my life. I was finally able to share @WondertheMovie with the young people at @SickKidsToronto that helped me prepare to play Auggie. I was finally able to really thank them for sharing, with me, their very personal experiences of what it is like living with facial differences. I couldn't have played Auggie without them. I had their letters & pictures with me everyday on set so I could re-read them & feel their feelings. I can never say it enough, thank you from the bottom of my heart for being with me everyday! Thank you @EOneFilms for making this happen! #ChooseKind
The actor who plays Auggie in the film, Jacob Tremblay, attended the association retreat two years in a row, playing with the kids, getting to know them and learning from them how to play chess.
Mossholder said that since last year, she’s received about an email a week from teachers across the country saying how meaningful the book has been in their classrooms. She said it’s almost turned into a handbook about accepting people as they are.
“Teachers have fallen in love with this book,” she said. “These are moral lessons. You can’t force people to be kind. You can’t really teach kindness, but you can inspire it.”