New graphic novel tackles the horror and heroism of WWII
Review of "White Bird" by R.J. Palacio.
In this fictional, historically-based graphic novel for juvenile readers, author R. J. Palacio fleshes out the background of characters she first introduced in her previous works, Wonder and Auggie & Me, especially that of Julian and his ancestors.
Julian is assigned a project to write an essay about someone he knows for his humanities class. He facetimes with his grandmother in France and asks her to share her experiences as a Jewish child growing up during the Second World War under the Nazi occupation of France.
Sadly and reluctantly, Julian’s grandmother, Sara, agrees to revisit her painful past. She explains, “I should talk about it, mon cher. Even if it is hard. In fact, because it is hard. Because your generation needs to know these things” (6).
What keeps us alive
Sara relates the circumstances of her life during that period – going into hiding, being separated from her parents, experiencing the kindness of people who helped her survive, and seeing evil firsthand as one tragedy after another unfolded. Through it all, she says, she began to understand what a kind benefactor had told her: “In these dark times, it’s those small acts of kindness that keep us alive, after all. They remind us of our humanity” (117).
In the characters of White Bird, readers will encounter different faith world views: some Christian leaders risked their lives to save their Jewish friends and neighbours, and wondered when God would intervene to make the evil end; some people believed that evil could only be defeated by the will of good people, and that God had nothing to do with it; and Sara experienced the presence of a mystical white bird as she went through her trials.
In this meaningful story complemented with emotionally persuasive graphics, readers will learn about the horror and the heroism of a time that, Palacio says, “we should always struggle with, talk about, and learn from, so that we can make sure it never, ever happens again. Not on our watch” (210).
Though recommended for children ages 8-12, White Bird seems better suited to children ages 10 and up.