Andrea reviews WHITE BIRD by R.J. Palacio, Random House, 2019, 978-0-525-64553-5, 220 pages.
I was drawn to this book for various reasons. The library has multiple copies, who the author is, and finally because a friend is always trying to get me to read more graphic novels. The author is the same person who wrote the multiple-award-winning children’s book, WONDER, the story of August “Auggie” Pullman, the young guy who had severe facial deformities and had to deal with bullies in his junior high class since he started mainstream school versus being homeschooled. The biggest bully at Beecher Prep was Julian who also receives the most extreme punishment for the way he treated Auggie.
WHITE BIRD is told from Julian’s POV when he skypes his grandmother Sara (whom he affectionately calls “Grandmere”) for a Humanities project at his new school. He is supposed to interview someone who lived during World War II. Grandmere tells him if she is going to tell Julian her story, she’s going to tell all of it.
Palacio is a brilliant artist and storyteller who does tell Grandmere’s story. She tells how Sara grew up in an affluent home in Germany- her father was a well-respected surgeon and her mother was a math teacher. Sara was the only child and admittedly a “little spoiled.”
Life was good until it just wasn’t. Nazis raided homes, schools, and businesses. Her own beloved mother was taken to a camp in Auschwitz. Sara did not know what happened to her father. Sara’s own school was raided but she was able to barely escape by slipping in the belltower. The school outcast, Julien who was a polio patient, noticed her escape and was able to get her into his parents’ barn after dark. His parents compassionately hid Sara in the hayloft while the raids continued. Although not ideal, it was necessary for Sara to hide in their barn for over a year until Germany surrendered.
The white bird of the story is, of course, a dove that represents peace and freedom. Sara reflects on how her father referred to her as a bird when she was younger and would throw her up into the air. She was as “free as a bird” and could fly just as high and fast. Palacio depicts Julien’s soul also as a white bird after he was killed in a Nazi raid.
Grandmere hangs up with her grandson (both are in tears) and then picks up the newspaper where the headlines are about the border patrol. Another white bird taps on Grandmere’s window and then flies above a peace rally. The story ends with Julian’s holding a huge sign at the rally that reads NEVER AGAIN #WeRemember.
This is a beautifully inked book that like all stories of the Holocaust is haunting and powerful. WHITE BIRD will stay with readers for a long, long time.