At some point, I learned about the existence of White Bird by R.J. Palacio (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2019) and looked for it at the library, but it never seemed to be in, and since I never formally added the book to my TBR, I kind of forgot about it. But my daughter has discovered a love for graphic novels, and on our last trip to the library, I finally found that elusive copy of White Bird. Into my bag it went.
It’s been quite a few years since I read Ms. Palacio’s Wonder, so I didn’t quite remember Julian, Auggie’s bully, but he’s back in White Bird, interviewing his grandmother Sara, who survived the Holocaust thanks to the kindness of a local family. (The story stands alone, so reading Wonder beforehand isn’t necessary.) Julien is the boy who sits next to Sara at school. He’s survived polio and uses crutches, making him a target of many of the other students, but Sara’s never really spoken to him. The day that the Nazis come to take away the Jewish students, Julien helps Sara to hide, then takes her to his home, where her parents stash her in the barn.
As the war rages on, the two children grow, mature, and establish a firm friendship, and Sara comes to understand her prior selfishness and immaturity. But there are few Holocaust stories without loss, and through Sara’s story of survival, her grandson Julian learns what true friendship is, and how we can’t change the past, but we can move on as better people.
A beautifully drawn graphic novel, White Bird would make for a gentle introduction to an emotionally charged subject. The Holocaust and all its devastation and atrocities isn’t easy to introduce to children, but it’s a vital part of history that needs to be taught. Parents, you wouldn’t be remiss in checking this out of the library and just leaving it around the house. Odds are your kids will spot it and dive in. There’s nothing graphic or too overtly scary, but there are mentions of death; I’d put this as okay for mature fourth grade and up. Be prepared to have some discussions with your kids about the book afterwards; they’ll likely have a lot of big feelings when they turn the last page.
This is a fast read, but the story, though fiction, will stay with you. The drawings are simple, allowing Sara and Julien’s story to take center stage, and placing the reader in its various settings: running from the Nazis at school, hiding in a bale of hay in a barn, struggling to keep terror and an overwhelming sense of loss at bay. I’m glad I finally came across a copy on my library’s shelves, and I’m glad that it’s such a popular choice that I did struggle to find it. White Bird shouldn’t be missed. Especially not now that it’s being released in movie format on October 14, 2022.