White Bird: A Wonder Story

March 6th, 2020 · Books

Children’s and middle grade literature often provides nuance and backstory to “villains.” R.J. Palacio’s WONDER follow up, “The Julian Chapter,” was no exception as it provided reasons if not excuses for Julian’s treatment of Auggie. R.J. Palacio’s WHITE BIRD: A WONDER STORY continues the story that was hinted at in “The Julian Chapter” via Julian’s Grandmère, who lives in France. Through simple illustrations and language that straddles teenage and adult, readers watch as Julien, a bullied boy, is insulted for his father’s work and his physical abilities due to polio. While there is violence in words and actions depicted, and direct references to the horrors of The Holocaust, this graphic novel is accessible and appropriate for the intended age of 10+, especially as a book to read as a family.

Mirroring the theme of self-reflection in WONDER, WHITE BIRD depicts Sara, Julian’s Grandmère, as a typical girl who goes along with teasing and bullying of Julien and regrets it. Over the course of the graphic novel, she learns to become better even as a deeply violent and genocidal version of her actions affects her own life and community in profound ways.

Sara describes changes in her community as Nazis begin their occupation. She and her family, who live in the “free zone” only experience minor freedom-restricting annoyances at first. However, via letters from her aunt who lives in the occupied zone, Sara learns how bigotry and resentments can quickly grow into actions as lists of Jewish people are kept and anti-Jewish laws are passed by the Vichy government. Anti-Jewish propaganda via posters, radio programs, and movies scapegoated and stereotyped Jews and soon yellow stars were required to be worn for easy identification. The last they heard was about the mass arrests and deportations to concentration camps that occurred in 1942.

The bigotry invades Sara’s haven, her school, when she is targeted for being Jewish, and this awakens her more directly to the propaganda and restrictions in her own town. Her parents argue about whether to leave France or stay, and while they decide to stay, they try to prepare Sara for quick escape. Danger arrives in the form of a round-up of Jewish children at Sara’s school. But despite creative efforts and sacrifice, they cannot save the Jewish children from the Nazi officers. Sara hides in the bell tower, where Julien, a bullied boy to whom Sara has also been gruff, finds her and sneaks her home. His kindness and bravery in hiding her, despite great hardship and cruel treatment by his peers, helps Sara maintain hopefulness despite losing her family and way of life.

The story takes a personal dark turn when Julien’s fate continues the trajectory begun with the bullying in school. His parents continue to care for Sara, despite their pain and sacrifices. And the story allows for light to break through the tragedy, at least in some significant ways.

Palacio’s belief in the power of good people to work to correct wrongs is reiterated throughout the novel. Julien’s mother, who hides and feeds and comforts Sara for over a year, tells the pastor of Julien and Sara’s school: “It’s not up to God to make it end, Pastor. Evil will only be stopped when good people decide to put an end to it. It is our fight, not God’s.” And while sharing her story with her grandson, Sara says, “It always takes courage to be kind. But in those days, when kindness could cost you everything…[it] becomes a miracle.”

The Epilogue pleads with readers, via Julian, to work to make #NeverAgain a reality. We see Sara as Grandmère reading about refugees and asylum seekers being mistreated and rounded up, families separated, “even” in the USA — hearkening back to Sara’s aunt’s story in 1940’s France. And her words to Julian, to all of us, “If you see injustice, you will fight it. You will speak out. Promise me, Julian,” are fulfilled with the final image in the graphic novel.

Palacio’s ability to tell the story simply and with relatable language that doesn’t condescend to her readers if effective and moving. The imagery is powerful in its clarity, both with what it shows and what it chooses to leave to readers’ imaginations. The use of Sara’s first-person narration, and that she admits to flaws and weakness, helps readers identify the same in themselves. This allows us to forgive ourselves and each other and to move forward.

Highly recommended.


Review by Kristin Wald

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The Truth About Hawks

January 22nd, 2020 · Books

THE TRUTH ABOUT HAWKS by Maxwell Eaton III starts with a surprise, and it doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to how hawks get their meals, as the rabbit who begins the book learns. But the surprise to most readers will be that eagles are actually hawks. Joining them are kites, harriers, and over 200 other types of birds.

Readers are presented with features shared by hawks, hunting patterns, and meal preferences. Did you know that golden eagles can knock sheep off cliffs in order to kill and eat them? Or that apple snails are the favorite of some kites? Gourmands of the sky!

Mating, nest-building, and chick-rearing are all included, as are migration habits, and the effects of loss of habitat and human-created pollution and use of pesticides. Throughout the book, Eaton infuses his usual humor and dry wit. The illustrations are clear and fun in a cartoon-style that doesn’t gloss over the animal kingdom realities, but keeps topics child-friendly.

As with most animal-centered books, there is a list of books for further research for those children who fall in love with all things hawks. THE TRUTH ABOUT HAWKS is a fun and informative book for ages 4-8.


Review by Kristin Wald

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January 20th, 2020 · Books

LISTEN by Holly M. McGhee is a gentle, sweet book that leads readers towards empathy by reminding us all to slowly take in our surroundings and revel in our connectedness. Aimed at ages 4-7, it will work for slightly younger and much older children and adults as a tool for meditation and calm.

The repetitive structure and relaxed pace serve the picture book’s purpose in encouraging living in the moment and listening to our hearts – and observing with all our senses. The lovely illustrations by Pascal Lemaitre are at once detailed and simple; they suit the story perfectly.

Messages centered on connecting to the world around us, allowing nature to inspire and comfort, and hoping that a new generation will learn empathy for others and themselves intertwine throughout LISTEN. This is a wonderful read aloud (and read alone) book for the open-hearted of all ages.


Review by Kristin Wald



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If Elephants Disappeared

December 18th, 2019 · Books

IF ELEPHANTS DISAPPEARED by Lily Williams is the third in the “If…Disappeared” books, and its precise but simple approach to explaining the vital influence one species can have is both effective and heartbreakingly beautiful. Readers follow two children who act as guides through the Congo Basin Forest and who react to the information about Elephants as a keystone species.

The author uses kid-friendly imagery to convey the lifestyle and importance of elephants to their ecosystem. With expressive and detailed illustrations in rich, deep color, we see elephants walk through forests, and through paneled pages we see the effect of elephants disappearing on the density of the forest. The text, set in short paragraphs on each page informs readers about the evolution and current influence elephants have. While Williams tackles complex ideas like a “keystone species” and “trophic cascade,” the language is direct and accessible, especially combined with the images.

Young readers will get a kick out of the importance of elephants spreading their poop for miles; one of the characters is shown stepping in elephant poop as her brother laughs. Williams takes that jovial moment to explain, in words and pictures, how seeds grow faster in dung than in the ground. To demonstrate the numbers of elephants disappearing, a startling graphic showing the loss of 62% of African forest elephants since 2001 includes 100 images with 62 of them empty shadows. This is appropriate for the intended age group, and stark enough for impact. A mention of poachers killing elephants for their tusks is made, but no imagery accompanies that. Again, Williams is able to present facts with impact but keep it appropriate for the intended audience.

The book includes a glossary, statistics about elephants and their impact world-wide, and a section for how young readers can make informed and positive choices and help spread the word about elephants. There are also additional resources for families and classes to continue their learning. If Elephants Disappeared is both an informative call to action and an enjoyable book to read. Highly recommended.


review by Kristin Wald

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