Thursday, November 14, 2019

White Bird, a Wonder Story written and illustrated by R.J. Palacio, inked by Kevin Czap

**May Contain Spoilers**

If you have already read R.J. Palacio's book Wonder, than you might remember 10-year-old Julian, the boy who bullied Auggie and made his life so difficult. Well, every bully has a reason for being like that and so R.J. wrote The Julian Chapter to help readers understand him. And if you've also read The Julian Chapter, you may remember his Grandmére telling him about her experience in WWII, hiding from the Nazis. Well, now White Bird, done in graphic format, expands that story and you won't want to miss it.

Given a school assignment to interview someone he knows for his humanities class, Julian, in a video chat with his Grandmére in France, asks if she would tell him again about the boy named Julien who saved her life during the Nazi occupation of France. As Grandmére begins her story, the novel flashback to that time. Living in Paris with her mother, a math teacher, and father, a renowned surgeon, Sara Blum is a happy, friendly Jewish girl, not very good a math, but very artistic. In school, Sara has been sitting next to a boy named Julien for years, but has never spoken to him. Julien had been stricken with polio and now walks with crutches. Nicknamed Tourteau because of crab-like gait, he is the subject of some pretty cruel treatment, especially by the school bully and Nazi sympathizer, Vincent.

After France falls to the Nazis in 1940, little by little life becomes difficult for French Jews, but Sara and her family live in the free zone (Vichy France - no explanation about this in the text) and they believe they are relatively safe. That is, until the winter 1943, when the Nazis begin roundups. As the Jewish children in Sara's school are rounded up one day and taken away by the Nazis, Sara is able to escape and hide in the unused bell tower. Which is where Julien finds her before the Nazis do (but how did he know she was there?) and sneaks her out through the city sewers, taking her to his family's barn, where she can hide in the hayloft.

Sara remains hiding in the hayloft until the end of the war with the help of Julien and his parents, hiding from nosy neighbors who are believed to support the Nazis, and knowing she will probably never see her parents again.

White Bird is Palacio's debut graphic novel and the graphic format worked for me because I know kids like them and there's a good chance they will read this book. I also like a well-done comic. It doesn't bother me that the panels aren't perfectly lined up and I prefer the inking to be done is soft colors rather that bold garish colors for this targeted age group.  The novel is divided into three parts that take place when Sara is in hiding and after the war, plus a prologue and epilogue in the present day, and each is introduced with a relevant quote by people like George Santayana, Anne Frank, and Muriel Rukeyser. 

So, while I do feel that White Bird is a very worthwhile book when I first read it, a second reading revealed some flaws. As with her other Wonder books, the real agenda of White Bird is to extend the message of kindness, as Julien's mother tells Sara: "In these dark times, it's those small acts of kindness that keep us alive, after all. They remind us of our humanity." But, with this message in mind, it must be very difficult to find a balance of what to reveal and what to not include when writing a Holocaust story. My feeling about White Bird is that it a book full of good intentions, a book about resistance and courage, that carries an important message for today's world, given the rise of nationalism, but doesn't quite find this delicate balance.
This makes it a somewhat flawed novel. Sara lived in a barn's hayloft and yet no Nazis ever demanded to search it, as they did in reality, looking for hidden Jews. And one only gets a hint at the horror of the Holocaust, as when the Nazis discover what happened to the other Jewish school children and kill the marquisard who was trying to save them (what's a marquisard?) Yes, this is dealt with in the back matter, but how many 10-year-olds look at back matter? What drove me really crazy is the Sara was such a passive character. She did nothing to help herself, Julien's family, or the resistance. Maybe I've read too many books where the Jewish protagonist acts that I've come to expect that kind of resistance action. Sara should have been more of a heroic character, but her passivity precludes her from that.

In the end, though, I would highly recommend this book for middle grade readers. What saves it for me is connecting the events of WWII and the Holocaust to the present day policies towards refugees, as Santayana reminds us: those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Back matter does include an Afterword by Ruth Franklin, an Author's Note, a Glossary, a Suggested Reading List, and Organizations and Resources for further research, and a Bibliography.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL


  1. I want to read your review, and I have the book, but still have not read it! I'll return!

  2. Thank you for this very thorough review!

  3. I finally sat down to read it, Alex, and agree with you in part. I kept wondering why Sara did so little, but I suppose we cannot know how every person really reacted in those situations. Palacio painted a beautiful character in this 'new' Julien, a heartbreaking part. Perhaps it would be good to read this in a group so the leader can deepen the knowledge with that extra backmatter? It was fairly dense, I agree, so many students would not read it. All in all, it is a decent introduction to the Holocaust for mid-grade readers & readers of Wonder.