The power of kindness to change lives is a recurrent theme in the writing of R.J. Palacio, and it’s one she revisits in White Bird: A Wonder Story, a full-color graphic novel that she is both writing and illustrating. The book, whose cover is revealed here, centers on Julian’s grandmother, whom the author introduced in Auggie & Me: Three Wonder Stories, a companion to 2012’s Wonder. In White Bird, Grandmère relays her experience as a Jewish girl hidden away by a family in Nazi-occupied France during World War II. Due in September with a 250,000-copy first printing, this graphic novel also encompasses the heroine’s pre-war fairytale life and her wartime friendship with a boy who, like her, is shunned for being different.
Palacio’s message of the need to “Choose Kind” has been heartily embraced by young readers, parents, teachers, librarians, and booksellers. Wonder has been published in 50 languages, remains on the New York Times bestseller list, where it spent 183 weeks in the top spot, and has spawned (in addition to Augie & Me) 365 Days of Wonder: Mr. Browne’s Precepts and We’re All Wonders, an acclaimed film from Lionsgate, and a licensed merchandising program. Together, Palacio’s books have sold more than 16 million copies worldwide.
The inspiration for White Bird had two key sources, Palacio explained. After the 2015 release of Augie & Me, which briefly touched on Grandmère’s harrowing wartime experiences, the author received a number of emails from parents and teachers. “They wrote to tell me that they thought the story was the perfect, age-appropriate introduction to themes of the Holocaust for their students,” she said. “Those issues are so dark and hard to talk about that the Holocaust is actually not covered in most school curricula until the seventh grade, when many students are assigned to read Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl. In my opinion, that first exposure comes way too late in the game. So I began thinking of a story of a Jewish girl in hiding, and what it’s like to feel ordinary when others see you as different—and what it’s like to have edicts take away your rights and privileges little by little. I thought that story might be something good for me to do someday.”
That someday arrived shortly after the 2016 presidential election, when, Palacio recalled, “Suddenly we couldn’t turn on the news without hearing about deportations, roundups, and bans, which truly alarms and saddens me. I was, and am still, worried about the impact this is having on our children, who are witnessing these events without the historical context they need to process them. I’m constantly reminded of the George Santayana quote, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,’ which is the epigraph of White Bird. I wrote this book because I believe that now, more than ever, we need to teach our children about the past, so that they can protect their own futures.”
The author added that her new book gives additional dimension to the gist of Wonder, since “each book is a call for kindness, yet White Bird is ultimately about the unrelenting courage of people who had everything to lose from being kind—but they were kind anyway.”
A New Medium for the Message
Though creating a graphic novel is a format shift for Palacio, it in some ways brings her back to her artistic roots. Raised in New York City, she attended the High School of Art & Design and received a BFA from the Parsons School of Design, with a major in illustration. And for many years before writing Wonder, the author worked as a graphic designer and art director.
“I had a couple of different motivations for doing White Bird as a graphic novel,” she said. “One was that I wanted to get it out there as quickly as possible, given the story’s timeliness, and I thought I could create a graphic novel faster—but my goodness, both the writing and drawing have taken me a long time!”
Yet the project was both a welcome return to Palacio’s visually oriented professional past, and a good fit with her family-centric present. “It was really nice to get back to drawing again,” she observed. “On an elemental level, that was freeing for me. As I composed each scene, it was very cinematic—I felt in a way that I was storyboarding a movie. And creating it all on an iPad made it so much easier to engage with my family at the same time, whereas when I’m writing a novel, I tend to turn off the world. With this project, I was able to stay attached to the world, which is very important given the times we are living in.”
Knopf senior executive editor Erin Clarke, who has been Palacio’s editor since Wonder, was thrilled when the author (whose given name is Raquel) told her that she wanted to expand Grandmère’s story into a graphic novel—and was “entirely blown away” when she saw her initial samples of text and art. “Looking at them, I had the same reaction I had when I first read Wonder in manuscript form,” the editor recalled. “What Raquel showed me was incredibly special—it was a seamless marriage of words and art. She revealed a secret talent I did not know she had.” Clarke is hopeful that White Bird’s format “will bring new readers to the Wonder message, while drawing in readers who have read and loved Raquel’s other books.”
Palacio’s latest project is clearly close to her heart—on multiple levels. “It’s meaningful for me to share this book with my family,” she explained. “My husband, who is also an artist and graphic designer, is Jewish, and his mother lost family in the Holocaust. For her, it never went away. So for us, this is a very personal issue, but it is also a human problem. It’s staggering and sad that we find ourselves in these prejudicial times again, and we all must take a stand and speak out from whatever platform we have. With this book, I am using my platform as an author and artist. I hope White Bird lets young readers know that silence is not an option.”
White Bird: A Wonder Story by R.J. Palacio. Knopf, $24.99 Sept. 2019 ISBN 978-0-525-64553-5