Real-life 'Wonder' family: Nathaniel, Magda Newman on how they're doing

Nathaniel Newman and the character in "Wonder" have similar syndromes.

ByABC News
December 27, 2019, 4:53 AM

R.J. Palacio's 2012 book, "Wonder," tells the story of 10-year-old Auggie Pullman, a fictional boy with facial differences, and his experiences in everyday life dealing with the condition.

The book was inspired by a real-life encounter Palacio had with a child who had a craniofacial disorder. After her son saw the child and began crying, she quickly turned his stroller around and pushed him away to protect the girl from his reaction.

"It was terrible, and I was so mad at myself for the way that I handled it," Palacio told "20/20" in a 2017 interview. "For the rest of the day, I just kept thinking about all the things I wished I’d said and done."

Palacio decided to write "Wonder" in hopes that it would inspire children and parents.

After the book came out, she met Magda and Russel Newman, whose son Nathaniel was born with Treacher Collins syndrome, a rare craniofacial disorder that's caused by mutations in a specific gene.

Nathaniel's family and Palacio spoke to "20/20" in 2017 about the similarities between Nathaniel's life and Palacio's book. Russel Newman said, "When she saw Nathaniel, you could just see this look in her face."

"I remember thinking, 'Oh my goodness, this is Auggie Pullman come to life,'" Palacio said.

Now, just over two years later, Magda and Nathaniel Newman have their own companion books, "NORMAL: One Kid's Extraordinary Journey" and "NORMAL: A Mother and Her Beautiful Son," coming out in January.

Here's what they had to say about life as it is now, written in their own words. Watch the full story on special Saturday airing of "20/20," Dec. 28 at 10 p.m. ET.

From Nathaniel Newman:

It's hard to believe that more than two years have passed since our episode of "20/20" aired on ABC. Quite a bit has happened since then.

I am now a sophomore at Skyline High School in Sammamish, Washington. I am heavily back into Star Wars these days; I love the new game on my Playstation and I'm hoping the movie lives up to the hype.

The Newman family first shared their story with "20/20" in 2017.
The Newman family first shared their story with "20/20" in 2017.
Courtesy Newman family

I have picked up some new interests along the way. In particular, I love to play Dungeons and Dragons. I have a great group of friends and we often play [Dungeons and Dragons], Minecraft, some Fortnight and even some [Grand Theft Auto] from time to time. But the biggest news over the past two years was working with my mother on a book about my life, called "Normal."

We'd gotten to know R.J. Palacio, the author of "Wonder," and she encouraged us to write a book. Once our life settled down a bit we were able to make it happen. "Normal" details the events of my life starting from my birth (definitely needed help from my parents on that part) up until my early teen years, covering all the critical events that shaped my life. It was fun writing the book. We worked with a writer, Hilary Liftin, and I would talk to her while playing with her dog, Zeus. While my mom worked on her portion of her book, I would chill in the pool and hang out with Hilary's kids.

One great thing that has happened since the show aired is that I rarely have to go to the hospital now. The doctors at Seattle Children's did a great job and I really enjoy not having a tracheostomy [tube] anymore. I can swim whenever I want, I am taking taekwondo and, basically, I get to just be like my friends and classmates.

School is good, some classes are easy (language arts) some are quite difficult (geometry). I just got my learner's permit, and to be honest I'm not the worst driver in the world. For the most part, I'm just your average, everyday teen. After 70-plus surgeries it's pretty nice to be able to say that.

From Magda Newman:

It's hard to believe that more than two years have passed since our episode of "20/20" aired on ABC.

Our life has been pretty ordinary since Nathaniel's tracheostomy came out. I am happy to report that he doesn't have to go to the doctors nearly as often as he used to -- maybe once a year. I have been cancer-free and healthy, and just like Nathaniel, I visit my doctors once a year for routine check-ups.

Jacob is our younger son, now age 13, and he is loving school and enjoying playing lacrosse. While he hasn't had the significant health issues that either Nathaniel or I have had, the past few years haven't been easy on him. As the “unaffected child," he has had to learn how to deal with teen anxiety and depression. Much of the past two years has been spent giving Jacob the time and attention he so richly deserves.

Like any mom, I am busy chaperoning Jacob and Nathaniel to their myriad of activities, like Lacrosse, Taekwondo, tutoring, etc. Nathaniel's life has changed the most since we wrapped up filming for our initial "20/20" show. He got his learner's permit and started driving. Like any “normal" parent, this was a nerve wracking experience. I often find myself hyperventilating when I sit in the passenger seat and watch my son practice driving. But let me assure you that it gets better with every drive.

Now that he is tracheostomy-free, Nathaniel gets to enjoy physical activities just like every other kid. He loves Tae Kwon Do, which he started practicing about two years ago and is about to start his training for a black belt. He is very proud of himself and what he has accomplished so far. He can now swim independently and even got to swim with dolphins and go snorkeling in Hawaii! Before his tracheostomy came out, he wouldn't be able to participate in these activities. Over the past two years, it has brought my husband and I great joy watching Nathaniel grow and thrive as a “normal" teenager.

Nathaniel Newman holding his brother Jacob Newman.
Nathaniel Newman holding his brother Jacob Newman.
Stephanie Rubyor

The most exciting thing that has happened for our family in the past two years has been the writing of our memoirs. Nathaniel and I have penned two books, both titled “Normal." One is targeted at young readers (teens) and the other, in my voice, is targeted at the adult reader. I had been thinking about writing our story for quite some time and became even more encouraged after the popularity and success of “Wonder."

In fact, following the release of the film and our "20/20" special, R.J. Palacio further encouraged me to write these memoirs and helped point us in the right direction. We spent much of the past two years working with our amazing collaborators and publishers to make this dream a reality.

Our goal in writing these memoirs was to go beyond what was told in “Wonder." We wanted to dive deeper into explaining the physical challenges of being born with facial differences and how they impact more than your social interactions. I wanted to share how, as a mom, I overcame my own immense challenges to raise my children as “normal" as possible.

Our Message: Live your normal! Don't let your life circumstances or how others perceive you determine how you choose to live your life. “Normal" is how you choose to define it!!!