As part of the Syd­ney Tay­lor blog tour in asso­ci­a­tion with the Asso­ci­a­tion of Jew­ish Libraries, acclaimed author and artist R. J. Pala­cio dis­cuss­es her recent Syd­ney Tay­lor Award for Mid­dle Grade for White Bird: A Won­der Sto­ry, and the respon­si­bil­i­ties of writ­ing Holo­caust-themed fic­tion for children. 

Emi­ly Schnei­der: Raquel, I’d like to ask you some ques­tions about your Syd­ney Tay­lor Award-win­ning graph­ic nov­el, White Bird, a real­ly excep­tion­al addi­tion to the large body of children’s books about the Holo­caust. We have just com­mem­o­rat­ed the sev­en­ty-fifth anniver­sary of the Auschwitz lib­er­a­tion, and it seems more cru­cial than ever to edu­cate peo­ple about what that means. So many read­ers know you as the author of Won­der. To some extent, White Bird was born from a Won­der char­ac­ter — Julian. What led you to open the door to a very dif­fer­ent book a panora­ma of World War II, the Shoah, and the moral issues of that time — through Julian’s rela­tion­ship with his grand­moth­er Sara?

R. J. Pala­cio: I know that I have a very wide read­er­ship with Won­der. And I real­ly was think­ing a lot about how, as an author, I can con­tribute to the con­ver­sa­tions that are being had right now about injus­tice, about intol­er­ance. A lot of events in the world today, unfor­tu­nate­ly, remind me of those dark times. I want­ed to use my plat­form to teach chil­dren for whom the Holo­caust might be some sort of dis­tant sto­ry. They’re not being taught it in schools, and they might not have direct knowl­edge of it. I always felt that it was wrong to be grow­ing up in a world where the large per­cent­age of the pop­u­la­tion that is Jew­ish — whose ances­tors, whose grand­par­ents, whose aunts and uncles or great aunts and uncles per­ished in the Holo­caust — grow up with a vis­cer­al knowl­edge of those times. Because it’s passed down: the sto­ries, the pic­tures, all that they remember.

At the same time, there is anoth­er pop­u­la­tion of kids grow­ing up not know­ing any­thing about the Holo­caust. The idea that there are almost two worlds here seems wrong to me. I was think­ing about how to best use my time to bring a whole pop­u­la­tion of kids — a whole gen­er­a­tion of kids, the Won­der gen­er­a­tion — to under­stand and learn from the lessons of the past. I hon­est­ly don’t think that every­one in the Unit­ed States is grow­ing up learn­ing about this. So I decid­ed to use my plat­form, and what­ev­er stand­ing I have with­in the children’s book com­mu­ni­ty, to shine a light on those times.

ES: You’re describ­ing your rea­sons for writ­ing White Bird as part­ly didac­tic. Yet the book that result­ed doesn’t seem didac­tic at all. It’s imbued with empa­thy, with com­pelling char­ac­ters and with evoca­tive images; it has a kind of a cin­e­mat­ic qual­i­ty. What made you feel that you were the per­son to illus­trate your sto­ry, rather than work­ing with a dif­fer­ent illustrator?

RJP: I appre­ci­ate the part about not being didac­tic, because I’ve always believed that you can’t preach at kids. You can’t teach them to be kind; you can inspire them to be kinder. When I tell a sto­ry, I’m try­ing to send a Tro­jan horse” mes­sage, by mak­ing tru­ly relat­able char­ac­ters. In terms of decid­ing to illus­trate it myself, my back­ground is in illus­tra­tion. I went to the Par­sons School of Design, and I trained as an illus­tra­tor and a graph­ic design­er. For many years, that’s what I was doing for a liv­ing before I became a pub­lished author with Won­der. When I start­ed telling the sto­ry of White Bird it came to me in a very cin­e­mat­ic way. I imag­ined it almost as a movie. I thought, this is a graph­ic nov­el.” I laid out the entire book as I was writ­ing it, with the intent of hand­ing it off to an illus­tra­tor. At some point I thought, Well, I can’t give this away. I have to do it myself.”

When you’re draw­ing, as well as writ­ing, his­tor­i­cal fic­tion you have to research on a total­ly dif­fer­ent lev­el. I like the exam­ple of a char­ac­ter who opens a barn door. When you’re draw­ing a graph­ic nov­el, you actu­al­ly have to know what a barn door in 1940s France would have looked like. Every­thing of his­tor­i­cal per­ti­nence needs to be rep­re­sent­ed in a way that’s accu­rate and, of course, illus­tra­tive. I guess part of me was­n’t sure that some­one else could apply the same research stan­dards that I want­ed; I guess I’m a lit­tle bit of a con­trol freak, and I just want­ed to do it myself!

I’ve always believed that you can’t preach at kids. You can’t teach them to be kind; you can inspire them to be kinder.

ES: Your atten­tive­ness comes out in the book because it’s so full of doc­u­men­tary evi­dence: maps, news­pa­per head­lines, metic­u­lous­ly drawn peri­od set­tings and cloth­ing. It seems effort­less to chil­dren read­ing it because of your efforts.

RJP: Yes, and I felt real­ly strong­ly that I did­n’t want to use that time peri­od as some kind of dra­mat­ic back­drop for a sto­ry that could have been set any­where. The very rea­son to tell this sto­ry is because it is one of mil­lions from the Holo­caust. You have to work with­in the con­fines of his­to­ry in a way that does hon­or to the peo­ple who lived it. Every detail matters.

ES: The book is also a tes­ta­ment to multi­gen­er­a­tional con­nec­tions; it begins and ends with a video chat between Julian and his grandmother.

RJP: I love that con­nec­tion between grand­chil­dren and grand­par­ents, that direct con­nec­tion between the past and the present. That nar­ra­tive device was a good way for me to be able to segue from Won­der, which is a mod­ern sto­ry. Julian starts out as sort of the bul­ly in Won­der, but he lat­er has a redemp­tive arc. It’s his grand­moth­er who is able to con­nect with him, to make him under­stand that what he did with Aug­gie in Won­der was real­ly wrong, but that it also does­n’t define him.

ES: You could have made White Bird a com­plete­ly real­is­tic graph­ic nov­el, but you chose to weave mag­i­cal real­ism and myth into the sto­ry. I’m curi­ous about that.

RJP: I want­ed to give Sara, who is a Cha­gall-like artist, the abil­i­ty to think and dream out­side of the con­fines of her sit­u­a­tion. The white bird is basi­cal­ly her imag­i­na­tion, which is able to take flight and see the world. Visu­al­ly, it’s excit­ing and appeal­ing, and also nar­ra­tive­ly. Even though she is con­fined her mind — her soul, her imag­i­na­tion — is not, and nev­er could be.

ES: You took a real artis­tic risk in intro­duc­ing this ele­ment of myth and dream into a Holo­caust sto­ry, where the com­mit­ment to his­tor­i­cal accu­ra­cy has become almost sacred. Most of your read­ers have not grown up in a total­i­tar­i­an soci­ety. How did you approach the insta­bil­i­ty of the set­ting, the fact that the char­ac­ters are nev­er sure who are the vil­lains, the bystanders, or the heroes?

RJP: Through Sarah’s eyes, basi­cal­ly. She is the lens through which read­ers view her world. They are with her on her jour­ney as, lit­tle by lit­tle, her rights get stripped away, and her, her world becomes small­er and small­er. The speed with which the col­lapse ends up hap­pen­ing is fright­en­ing. I was always very con­scious of the fact that, my main read­er is ten or eleven years old, but I want­ed them to be able to expe­ri­ence that with Sarah.

ES: You’ve struck a bal­ance between a ter­ri­fy­ing sto­ry and a redemp­tive one. Why did you choose to have Sara and Julien’s love for one anoth­er be a part of the sto­ry as well?

RJP: Because I have always been struck by the child’s capac­i­ty to want to be hap­py, a sort of evo­lu­tion­ary instinct of a child to reach for the sun some­how. Julien and Sara have so much in com­mon. They are young. Once it seemed like free­dom was immi­nent, they were final­ly able to at least have one moment that she would car­ry with her always.

Because I have always been struck by the child’s capac­i­ty to want to be hap­py, a sort of evo­lu­tion­ary instinct of a child to reach for the sun somehow.

ES: In the epi­logue, Julian rec­og­nizes the need for activism. But Sarah also reminds him, Remem­ber you car­ry the name of the kind­est per­son I have ever known.” She’s tem­per­ing his activism, remind­ing him to have empathy.

RJP: I thought it was impor­tant for Julian to make those con­nec­tions between his grand­moth­er’s sto­ry and what­ev­er lessons he will take away when he sees any kind of injus­tice happening.

I’m so inspired by the activism of kids these days, whether it’s march­ing against cli­mate change, or try­ing to draw con­nec­tions that they’ve seen between cer­tain poli­cies that are being enact­ed right now in our own coun­try, includ­ing deal­ing with refugees. Julian would be part of that. He would take his grand­moth­er’s words, her sto­ry, and his way of hon­or­ing her is to do exact­ly as she said: Julian, if you see injus­tice, you must speak out.”

ES: Did you antic­i­pate any crit­i­cism or push­back at mak­ing this clear anal­o­gy between what Sarah had expe­ri­enced and what her grand­son needs to speak up about today?

RJP: I did. But the events lead­ing up to the Holo­caust didn’t just hap­pen out of the blue. It starts with rhetoric, then with legal­iz­ing inhu­man­i­ty in the courts and in sys­tem­at­ic poli­cies that are enact­ed through gov­ern­ments, the drum­beat of what hap­pened in Ger­many, and, ulti­mate­ly, what hap­pened through­out Europe after Hitler took pow­er. My book makes those con­nec­tions. Some peo­ple have tak­en it in a very sim­pli­fied way, say­ing that you can’t pos­si­bly com­pare kids who come over ille­gal­ly and are kept in iso­la­tion with con­cen­tra­tion camps. I haven’t made that com­par­i­son at all. All I’ve said is we have to pay atten­tion to the rhetoric that’s out there. Injus­tice towards one group of peo­ple is an injus­tice to all of us.

ES: Your state­ments about his­to­ry bring me to the exten­sive back­mat­ter of the book. You’ve rec­og­nized the need to define basic terms like anti­semitism and con­cen­tra­tion camp, as well as explain­ing much more spe­cif­ic parts of his­to­ry and pro­vid­ing addi­tion­al sources of information.

RJP: It was super impor­tant for me. I’ve gone on book tours, and I go to cer­tain states where I can tell you that it’s not com­mon knowl­edge. Some­times peo­ple are afraid of what I might tell their kids. I under­stand; if this isn’t your world, maybe you’d rather not talk about it. The fact that six mil­lion peo­ple were mur­dered because they were Jew­ish is some­thing that absolute­ly has to be taught, because there’s no room in the world for Holo­caust deniers, or mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion of any kind.

As I say in my clos­ing notes, it’s for the kids who are inspired to read and know more. I was real­ly very con­scious of the fact that there would be a good por­tion of my read­er­ship for which the Holo­caust was a com­plete mys­tery. I men­tion in the book how my first intro­duc­tion to the Holo­caust was The Best of LIFE, from the archives of LIFE mag­a­zine. So, I had very lit­tle knowl­edge of it myself; I remem­ber com­ing across this book of pho­tographs and get­ting to the pic­tures of the con­cen­tra­tion camps. I remem­ber the feel­ing of shock and hor­ror. I want­ed to have a place where read­ers could get infor­ma­tion in a way that was age appro­pri­ate and would make a last­ing impres­sion on them.

I under­stand; if this isn’t your world, maybe you’d rather not talk about it.

ES: Final­ly, I have a ques­tion about the idea known as our own voic­es,” that writ­ing about the expe­ri­ences of mar­gin­al­ized groups is most authen­tic when mem­bers of those groups tell their own sto­ries. In in the after­word, you speak very per­son­al­ly about your lim­it­ed knowl­edge of the Holo­caust as a child, com­pared to that of your hus­band, who is Jew­ish, and whose par­ents lost so many fam­i­ly mem­bers in that tragedy.

RJP: I was very con­scious of this ques­tion: is this my sto­ry to tell? We are much more con­scious of rep­re­sen­ta­tion and of a being able to tell a sto­ry from one’s direct expe­ri­ences. I came to the con­clu­sion that, ulti­mate­ly, my approach was going to be that of a sto­ry­teller telling a sto­ry, a sto­ry that takes place around events that actu­al­ly hap­pened. I felt a need, as a cit­i­zen of the world, to use my voice to decry anti­semitism. I don’t think it should be left to only Jew­ish peo­ple to remem­ber the Shoah, and I don’t think it should be left to only Jew­ish peo­ple to fight antisemitism.

It has to be on all of us, so the words nev­er again” have rel­e­vance and import. The only way for that to hap­pen is if we all use our voic­es to tell sto­ries that illu­mi­nate, that edu­cate, and that inspire empa­thy. I think that of all the awards I could have won, the Syd­ney Tay­lor Award means the most to me, exact­ly because it acknowl­edges that I did the research; I hope I was able to hon­or what hap­pened, hon­or the six mil­lion lives lost, whether I’m Jew­ish or not. I hope I suc­ceed­ed in con­nect­ing with chil­dren today, for whom the Holo­caust may be a dis­tant story.

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Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.