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.
Review by Kristin Wald