White Bird: A Wonder Story, written and illustrated by R. J. Palacio, inked by Kevin Czap, 224 pp, RL 4
White Bird: A Wonder Story
written and illustrated by R. J. Palacio
inked by Kevin Czap
Purchased from Barnes & Noble
With White Bird: A Wonder Story, Palacio takes on a lot: a Holocaust story, inspired by her mother-in-law, writing and illustrating her first graphic novel, and the knowledge that, as explained by her husband's uncle Bernard, a New York City school principal for many years, this "extremely difficult subject to grapple with" is not taught until middle school, if at all. Palacio does a commendable job, from start to finish, creating a compelling story, and illustrations that convey the complex, intense emotions experienced by the characters. She then goes on to connect this tragic story to our world today - the prejudice against immigrants and the growing activism and protests to fight this. Quoting from the poetry of Muriel Rukeyser, Anne Frank and George Santayana ("Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.") at the start of each chapter, Palacio ends her novel powerfully with an image of Julian, once a tormentor, now an activist for human rights, remembering not only his own past but learning about the past of his grandmother and his namesake, at a protest and holding a sign that reads, "NEVER AGAIN #weremember." The Afterword by book critic and author Ruth Franklin brings up the point that, "research has demonstrated that the Holocaust could not have taken place without the passive participation of millions of ordinary people who looked the other way as the Nazis exterminated their Jewish neighbors. But, it's also true that the good deeds of those who saved the lives of their friends and fellow citizens . . . are valuable beyond measure. Jewish tradition teaches that if someone saves a single life, it is as if they saved an entire world." These are the themes that Palacio masterfully weaves into her story of young Sara Blum, Julian's Grandmère.
Palacio begins and ends White Bird in the present day. Needing to complete a project for school, Julian calls his Grandmère to ask her about her life in France during the Nazi invasion and Tourteau, the boy who saved her life. But first, she asks him how he is doing at his new school. Julian tells her that it is o.k., but he has regrets and wishes he could go back in time or have a "do-over." Understanding, Grandmère says, "Just remember: we are not defined by our mistakes, but by what we do after we've learned from them."
Sara Blum's life was like a fairy tale, growing up in a small village in the Margeride mountains that was surrounded by an ancient forest called the Mernuit. In the winter, the forest was dark and scary, but in the spring, it was wondrous as magical oceans of bright blue and violet would spread across the forest floor as the bluebells came into bloom. After France surrenders to Germany in 1940, Sara doesn't notice her life changing that much, although by 1943, her parents are having a serious discussion about the need to leave their home as active prejudice against Jews becomes more visible. Sadly, they do not make that decision in time and the Nazis come for the Jewish children at Sara's school. Sara manages to hide and her life is saved. It is saved again by Tourteau, a boy she has sat next to in math for three years and knows only by this cruel name, "crab," which refers to how he walks on his crutches, his legs misshapen and weakened by polio. The son of a sewer cleaner, he is able to lead Sara to safety through these tunnels and to the safety of his family's barn in a nearby village. At great risk to themselves, especially as Beaumiers believe that their next door neighbors are Nazi sympathizers, they hide Sara. During this time, Sara learns the real name of the boy who saved her - Julien - and she comes to value and love him. Yet, the Baumiers, along with many others like them, suffer great losses during the war, with the Mernuit forest playing a large part in the story.
Understanding the responsibility that comes with telling the story of a Holocaust survivor, noting that, as a non-Jewish person, there are people who will question her right to tell this story, Palacio believes that it "should fall on everyone to remember, to teach, to mourn the loss." With this in mind, the backmatter she provides is excellent, from Ruth Franklin's Afterword to a thorough glossary with photographs, a superb suggested reading list (that includes other graphic novels for young readers!) a list of organizations and resources and an extensive bibliography.
Like Palacio, I too read The Diary of Anne Frank in middle school and it left an indelible impression on me - and inspired me to learn more about the Holocaust. However, working in a public school in Southern California with a population that is primarily the children of immigrants from Mexico and Central and South America, very few of my students have heard of the Holocaust. And, as the wife of a high school history teacher in the same district, I know that teaching the Holocaust is a brief part of World History that can be made even more brief depending on the foundational knowledge of students or lack thereof. Stories like White Bird (which Franklin notes is rare among Holocaust literature for children in that the story is told not from the more common perspective of the non-Jewish helpers, but from the perspective of the hidden child) are vitally important and need to be told. And, working with students, the majority of whom are not reading at grade level, a graphic novel makes this story even more accessible and placing the historical information at the back of the book means they are more likely to engage in further learning. I am grateful to Palacio: for telling this story, for telling it in the format of a graphic novel, for linking it to the shameful, atrocious things our government is doing to the children of immigrants today, for making it so readable and so compelling and for making sure that we continue to learn and never forget.