Review of ‘White Bird’
Inspired by her blockbuster phenomenon ‘Wonder’, R. J. Palacio makes her graphic novel debut with an unforgettable story of the power of kindness and unrelenting courage in a time of war.
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‘White Bird’ expands upon the story of Julian, Auggie’s chief bully in ‘Wonder’ (read my review here). It begins with Julian on a facetime chat to his Grandmère, as part of a family history school assignment. Unwilling at first to talk about her traumatic history, Grandmère decides that ‘it is time’ and she begins to relate her wartime story as a Jew in France during World War II. The 1943 German occupation saw her Jewish peers and family arrested by soldiers and taken away, while she was hidden by a student from her school, who, like Auggie in ‘Wonder’, has spent a lifetime being bullied for his differences.
I could have read ‘White Bird’ in one long sitting but the emotional weight of the story was heavy and so I took the time to read it carefully over several days. The story, and the perfect melding of illustration and text, invites slow and thoughtful reading and this is certainly not a book one should rush.
As with all of the very best graphic novels, the reader is required to work hard at making meaning from the words and images and in the case of ‘White Bird’, the form fits the story perfectly, enhances it even. The digital drawings and ink drawings, particularly the extreme facial close ups, depict the trauma (and often deep love) of the situation perhaps better than words could and the reader will find themselves staring deeply into the eyes of the many of the characters pictured.
Told in several parts and moving back and forwards between time, Palacio begins each new part with relevant quotes from people such as Muriel Rukeyser, Anne Frank and George Santayana, which will introduce younger readers to the important writing of others in this area.
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. George Santayana (page 209)
In the Author’s Note (from page 209) R.J. Palacio talks about writing this book as someone who is not Jewish and considers if this is even her story to tell, but feels that it is the responsibility of many to tell these stories – and she has worked with Jewish experts in the writing of this story. Her husband and children are Jewish, and the book is dedicated to her Jewish mother in law. She has also included an extensive glossary, reading list, organisations and resources list, bibliography and photographs – such a help for young readers of today or for those who have gaps in their knowledge.
‘In these dark times, it’s those small acts of kindness that keep us alive…they remind us of our humanity (page 117)
*All readers are different so please consider the themes in this book and their suitability for your child. I’m going with 11+/middle grade/YA readers but if your child has read stories of World War II at a younger age this may be suitable for them. The complexities of Vichy France, the burgeoning relationship between Sara and Julien and the immense grief make this book, for me anyway, one best enjoyed from around 12 years of age and older.