Monday 16 September 2019

White Bird

White Bird by R.J. Palacio, (Penguin Random House), 2019. Hard cover. 220pp. RRP $39.99

Reviewed by Pauline Hosking

Here is another venture into the world of R.J. Palacio’s Wonder. This time it’s a young adult graphic novel for which she’s created both text and illustrations. The sparse, unfussy drawings are an excellent medium to tell a powerful tale.  

White Bird continues the story of Julian, the classroom bully from Wonder, whose backstory was fleshed out in Auggie and Me. It begins when Julien makes a FaceTime call to his grandmother Sara and asks her to tell him more about her experience as a Jewish child in France during the Second World War.

Through her eyes we see how the Nazis gradually changed life for the French, many of whom chose to look the other way and ignore what was happening. Young Sara herself is guilty of this to some extent because she stands by while the crippled boy in her class – the original Julien – is bullied. When the Jews in the village are rounded up, Julien’s family bravely hide Sara in their barn. Sara and Julien fall in love but sadly Julien becomes a casualty of the war.  

‘Evil will only be stopped when good people decide to put an end to it,’ says Vivienne, Julien’s mother. Sara realises she can and should act differently in future. And so does present-day Julien. By the end of her story, Sara has transformed her grandson from a bully into an ally. The final pages are a call to readers to resist contemporary prejudice and xenophobia.

White Bird is highly recommended as an easily accessible, deeply moving, retelling of a shocking historical time. There is an afterword, author's note, in-depth glossary with photos, a suggested reading list and a list of organizations and resources – all of which will be valuable resources for students and readers of any age. 
The white bird itself, which appears as a motif throughout the book, variously signifies hope, kindness and freedom. 

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