Young playwright inspired to write own version of ‘Wonder’
MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — Murfreesboro’s Zaden Dill said he is the “real Wonder.”
The 11-year-old wrote, directed and starred in his version of the award-winning movie “Wonder,” which is based on the New York Times best-selling children’s novel of the same name. The story follows Auggie Pullman, a fifth-grade boy with facial differences who navigates a mainstream elementary school for the first time.
In June, the play “Wonder Jr.” appeared on stage for a sold-out show at Victory Christian Center in Murfreesboro, and proceeds benefited Special Kids pediatric nursing and rehabilitation center in Murfreesboro.
“He saw the movie and said he wanted to write (a script) because it so closely relates to us. . It just impacted his life so much . for him to be able to identify with the boy,” said Chel Dill, Zaden’s mother.
Much like Auggie, Zaden’s differences are unmistakably visible and his medical issues have often been life threatening.
The majority of his first year was spent in and out of Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt in Nashville. His problems were so extensive, and unexplained, that doctors have yet to come up with an official diagnosis.
“It’s like his body got to the very end (of development in the womb) and the last 2 percent he stopped developing,” said Eric Dill, Zaden’s father.
By the time Zaden was 8 months old, doctors told his parents to call in hospice care and prepare for his death.
But Zaden beat the odds, and more than 50 surgeries later, the sixth-grader is full of a zest for life that is hard to miss.
He still has a lot of physical challenges.
His eyes have only one muscle each (there are supposed to be six). He has high blood pressure. Because his nose is malformed, he must sleep using a CPAP breathing machine at night. He has Type 1 diabetes and takes four shots daily. And he has severe food allergies.
Even with his long list of physical difficulties, Zaden maintains a positive outlook — most of the time, his mother said. It’s an “I can” attitude she and Eric have encouraged since he was very young.
“I always try to think what I can do when I feel (down). Maybe I can’t play a certain sport at school because I can’t run. But I can think about people who don’t have legs. I need to be grateful for what I do have,” Zaden said.
Although Zaden can’t play sports, he’s found his place on stage.
“Acting is my favorite thing, and I use technology to make mini movies and animations,” said Zaden, who has acted with Perform Murfreesboro youth program and other groups.
The desire to write “Wonder Jr.” came after seeing the movie over the holidays last year. During Christmas break, Chel said her son spent hours and hours going through the movie scene by scene and writing his 28-page script.
Chel said “Wonder” has brought about changes in her son, and it’s inspired him to embrace and be confident in his differences.
“I feel like ‘Wonder’ changed me in the sense that I can be different without being sad. That’s my message to everybody out there. You can be different without being sad. I just find something to be happy about, not just sitting there whining about what I don’t have,” Zaden said. “God gives me joy, even when I’m upset.”
Zaden wants others who are “different” to feel empowered like him.
“He told me . he wanted to encourage other kids in the world that look different that it is OK to look different,” Chel said. “He said, ’Mom, God made us different and special just the way we are, and we should be proud.”
Zaden chimed in, “That you’re beautiful no matter who you are.”
While “Wonder Jr.” has been on stage just once, Eric said he hopes there are more shows in the future.
“I think this is bigger than we think it could be,” Chel said.