Years ago, my family and I visited the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. There’s a section called “Daniel’s Story” that is designed for younger visitors. This is a great exhibit because it walks families with younger children through the story of a Jewish boy during the Holocaust. Unfortunately, this was the only part of the museum we were able to visit that day since our children were only 7 and 9 at the time.
It’s not easy to introduce this topic to younger students, and it can be difficult to find age-appropriate Holocaust books for young readers. White Bird is perfect for kids in grades 5-8, who are just starting to hear about the Holocaust. It’s not a happy story, but it will certainly help introduce readers to what happened and why we all have a responsibility to ensure this never happens again.
AUTHOR: R.J. Palacio
ILLUSTRATOR: R.J. Palacio
SERIES: companion to: Wonder
PUBLICATION DATE: September 3, 2019
GENRE: historical fiction, graphic novel
SETTING: mostly in France, 1940s
GIVE IT TO: MS, HS
Julien is a character in Wonder who bullies Auggie, a classmate with a congenital birth defect that causes facial disfigurement. The story starts out in the present, shortly after Julien’s parents move him to a new school because of his conflicts with Auggie. On a video call, Julien’s grandmother Sara tells Julien the story of how she contributed to the bullying of a boy in school, and this boy ended up saving her from the Nazis during the French occupation.
THE SHORT VERSION
A must for every school library, including elementary. Like Daniel’s story that I mentioned at the top of this review, White Bird introduces younger children to the atrocities of the Holocaust in an age-appropriate way. It’s incredibly sad, and yes, the Nazis murder people. But it’s also hopeful and shows readers how kindness can shine through even in the darkest of times.
WHAT I LIKED
I read this in one sitting. It’s easy to get into and difficult to put down. It’s sad but also hopeful.
I loved the characters of Julien and Sara. Julien is a boy in Sara’s class who walks with crutches since he survived polio as a child. No one in school really talks to him, and he does not have any friends. Some students bully him with mean words and nicknames, and others bully him physically. But Julien is brave and kind. He clearly learned this from his parents, who are also brave and kind people.
Sara is a bit spoiled, and she admits this a few times. Before the Nazi occupation of France, Sara had an easy, happy life with her educated parents, fashionable clothes, and a few good friends. That changes quickly, however, when Nazi police come to Sara’s school and pull all the Jewish students–Sara included–out of class. Sara falls behind the group, which ends up saving her life. She hides in the school’s bell tower until Julien finds her there and takes her home to his parents to hide her.
WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE
I’ve seen negative reviews of this book where adult readers did not like the author “inserting her politics” at the end. I do understand that point of view, but I can see the comparison the author is trying to make here. The USA did for a time turn a blind eye to Jewish refugees escaping the Nazis. There’s a whole scene in Gratz’s Refugee where the US turns away a cruise ship full of Jewish refugees, which did actually happen. And according to this article from Smithsonian.com, “even with millions of European Jews displaced from their homes, the United States had a poor track record offering asylum.”
At the end of White Bird, Sara (as the grandmother) sees a headline about anti-Semitism and Islamophobia increasing. Sadly, the author did not make up these headlines. Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are increasing throughout the world, especially in the USA and Western Europe.
Considering all that, why is R.J. Palacio’s inclusion of these headlines considered “inserting her politics” into the story? I think if people really knew what the refugees–families with small children–fleeing Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras are running away from, maybe they would be more keen to eliminate the government red tape and horrible detention facilities and actually work toward helping these people. Sure, the US doesn’t have to help the refugees, but it’s the right thing to do. Just like Julien’s family helping Sara is the right thing to do.
The illustrations are full-color with lots of oranges, yellows, browns, blacks, and blues. Some contain the bright red blood of people who are beaten or shot. A white bird appears throughout the book, symbolizing freedom.
LIBRARIANS WILL WANT TO KNOW
Themes: Holocaust, kindness, bullying, resistance, disabilities
Would adults like this book? yes, though some will not like the political statement at the end
Would I buy this for my high school library? YES! Sara and Julien are both in high school, and there is a little romance, too.
Would I buy this for my middle school library?: YES! Many eighth graders study the Holocaust and The Diary of Anne Frank in eighth grade. This book would be a great alternative for ELL students who might find Anne Frank too difficult to read. It could also serve as an introduction to this difficult-to-talk-about topic.
Would I buy this for my elementary school library? YES, but know your school’s culture. There is gun violence and bloodshed. It’s not gratuitous, and it helps to make the story more realistic and heartbreaking. Additionally, many students read Wonder in elementary school, and I think fifth graders would ask to read this. Most reviews recommend Grades 5-8, but SLJ recommends it down to Grade 4.
A note on the binding: My book’s binding is not like anything I’ve seen before. It’s looks like a paperback with cardboard hardcovers glued on the front and back, with the paperback spine uncovered. I’ve just read it today, and I can already see some “fuzzy” stuff coming off the hardcover part (see the left-side photo below–look for the hair-like stuff below the R and P and the white tear at the top-left of the spine).
I thought maybe this was just my book since it traveled all the way to China from The Book Depository in the UK. But when I read others’ reviews, I see that I am not alone in my complaint. I paid $25 for the hardcover, but it is not worth $25. I see Amazon lists it at $16.59 as of today, Titlewave lists it at $21.29, and The Book Depository is now down to $22. It’s still a bit too steep for such flimsy binding. I do not think this binding will hold up well in a school library.
WHAT DO LIBRARIANS NEED TO KNOW ABOUT WHITE BIRD?
Sexuality: mild; one chaste kiss (two frames on the same page)
Violence: medium; shows at least two murders and alludes to several others, gun violence, assault (also shows blood)
Drugs/Alcohol: mild; one character slips prescription sleep aid medication into another’s drink
BOOKTALK OR DISPLAY THIS WITH:
Have you received your library copy of White Bird? How is the binding holding up?