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