Review: White Bird
By nature, I am a cynic. When I saw that R.J. Palacio famed author of Wonder released a graphic novel, I thought she was riding on the coattails of her own success. I know it’s not a very nice thought, and I only write it here so I can publicly acknowledge that I was very very wrong.
By R.J. Palacio
Alfred A. Knopf, 2019
Grades 6 and up
Readers who know Palacio’s novel Wonder will recognize Julian, the not very nice kid. Here Julian is a bit reformed and asking his grandmother to tell him the story of her childhood.
Sara Blum, Julian’s grandmother, was a child when Hitler invaded France. France was split in two, and Sara’s part lived in relative ease. Jews were not being rounded up, but laws were enacted so that Jews were losing their jobs and could not shop in certain stores.
Things have been getting worse, however, and one day, the Nazis come to school to round up all the Jewish children. The Pastor in charge of the school tries to hide them first. Sara does not follow them into the forest, because she is afraid of ruining her shoes, which turns out to be lucky because one of the students, a Nazi sympathizer, gives them away. Sara hides while the Nazis search the building, but it’s the boy who had polio, the boy that everyone calls by a cruel nickname, who saves her. His name is Julien.
Julien and his family hide Sara for months in the barn across the way. They have to be very careful. There are nosy neighbors. There are Nazi sympathizers. There is the risk that Julien’s family will share the same fate as the Jews if they are caught.
The story is quiet, thoughtful, and filled with suspense. What will happen to Sara? Will the family be caught? Julien and Sara’s bond grows during the months that she hides, and the story’s characters grow tremendously. The kindness of Julien and his family in juxtaposition of what the Nazis were doing to innocent people brings lots of hope and helps restore faith in humanity.
Palacio is obviously continuing her theme of Choose Kind. Cynical as I am, I have to admit she nailed it. And she can draw, too! The artwork is soft, with earthy tones. There are moments of joy between Julien and Sara, and the artwork captures those moments in such a haunting way. Contrasted with the scary moments, the story will grab readers.
I was at my local branch of the public library the other day and noticed a pile of White Bird on display. The librarian had mentioned that there had been so many copies just sitting there. It doesn’t surprise me, because the cover gives the book a very sophisticated and quiet look. By art alone, it won’t jump off the shelf. Sell the book by reaching out to fans of Wonder. Book Talk the title. Show a trailer or create one yourself. Get young readers excited, because White Bird needs to be read.
About Esther Keller
Esther Keller is the librarian at William E. Grady CTE HS in Brooklyn, NY. In addition, she curates the Graphic Novel collection for the NYC DOE Citywide Digital Library. She started her career at the Brooklyn Public Library and later jumped ship to the school system so she could have summer vacation and a job that would align with a growing family's schedule. On the side, she is a mother of 4 and regularly reviews for SLJ. In her past life, she served on the Great Graphic Novels for Teens Committee where she solidified her love and dedication to comics and worked in the same middle school library for 20 years.
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