Magda Newman vividly remembers her eldest son’s first moments in the world 16 years ago.
“All of a sudden, I saw everybody’s face, and I saw their expressions just drop in horror,” she says. Her husband started screaming.
No one would let Magda hold her baby boy, Nathaniel. When she finally caught a glimpse of him from afar, she saw he had no cheekbones, eye sockets, or ears. He looked to her like an alien.
Nathaniel was born with Treacher Collins syndrome, a rare craniofacial disorder. For Magda, then 24 years old and in perfect health, it was unimaginable.
As time went on, Magda accepted her new normal. And now, 16 years and 60-plus surgeries later, she and Nathaniel are telling their stories with a pair of books: Normal: A Mother and Her Beautiful Son for adults, and Normal: One Kid’s Extraordinary Journey for younger readers, both published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in January.
While it’s the Newmans’ first experience writing books, it’s not their first brush with literary fame. In 2012, Wonder, a novel about a boy with a craniofacial disorder, shot to the top of the New York Times bestseller list and was adapted to film in 2017. Although the book is fiction, protagonist Auggie’s story parallels Nathaniel’s in many ways.
“Wonder opened the door to our world,” Magda says. “The story created awareness of facial differences. Immediately, I saw a huge difference in perception of Nathaniel in public.”
The Newmans became friendly with Wonder’s author, R.J. Palacio, who encouraged them to write a book of their own. In doing so, Magda wanted to dig deeper into the nature of the condition and promote more understanding around the non-cosmetic aspects. “A lot of people with Treacher Collins have a different face, but that comes with issues like being able to breathe, eat, hear, talk, smell, and see,” she says. “Those are all life functions that most people are born with and don’t think about.” She also discusses her own struggles, including two bouts of stage 4 cancer and the challenges of making sure she’s the best possible parent to both Nathaniel and her younger son, Jacob.
Nathaniel, a sophomore at Skyline High School in Sammamish who’s currently learning to drive and loves to hang out with his dogs, play video games, read comic books, and draw, wants readers to recognize that everyone is different — there is no one way to be. “I hope it gives them a good perspective,” he says, “and they become more educated and think about what it means to them to be ‘normal.’”