White Bird written and illustrated by R.J. Palacio (graphic novel review).

October 22, 2019 | By | Reply More

A graphic novel like ‘White Bird’ presents an interesting review challenge because, while I don’t want to simply list what the book’s about, I also don’t want to turn the review into a political discussion. For many, ‘White Bird’ will be a politically charged book, drawing as it does direct parallels between the murder of six million Jewish people in World War Two and Donald Trump’s current immigration policies.

That’s a bold stance for a kids/teen comic and one that even Ruth Franklin, writer of the book’s afterword, raises an eyebrow at. The reason I think this is relevant is that when he reviewed ‘The Land Of Somewhere Safe’ for this site, Eamonn Murphy noted that the excessive swearing cuts off a huge potential market and I wonder how many American librarians that would have stocked this book will change their mind based on the author’s stance here.

That would be a shame, because ‘White Bird’ is intended as a historical primer on the events of the attempted Nazi extermination of the Jews and other racial groups. In the end notes, the author talks about ‘White Bird’ being a response to kids not being taught this chapter of history.

The book runs through a fictional account of one girl who lives through the events, quietly introducing us to the organisations and politics of the time. I can’t speak for the accuracy of the research, but the storytelling and character work is spot on, running the reader through a steadily escalating series of dilemmas and dramas that make it hard to put the book down because you need to know how it will end.

The artwork helps with this, presenting terrible events in a loose, sketchy style that implies a lot without being graphic. There are occasional patches of blood but nothing explicit and the deaths are rendered abstractly or perhaps more disconcertingly, off-screen and without any closure.

Perhaps, as a clever release valve for younger readers, the protagonist Sara is also the narrator, so you know she survives. The question is how and at what cost to those around her. Sara starts the story, like many teenagers, obsessed with fashion and friends and only thinking of herself, but she comes to understand how her actions have repercussions. As a work of fiction, there are mildly fantastical elements such as a convenient wolf attack but, to me, these read as fairytale metaphors and didn’t break the narrative.

So how to sum up? Speaking only for myself, I think ‘White Bird’ is an important book, to ensure that kids know that these terrible events happened and must never happen again. But even, though, as the weird uncle of the family, I give my nieces many books and graphic novels as presents, I can’t see myself giving them this one. It’s too bleak and sad to be a gift you just drop on someone. This is a book that you should find in a school library, one of those seemingly innocuous books that stays with you and starts you asking questions.

So: bleak, powerful, politically-charged but personal. Not great present material but important for kids to read anyway. ‘White Bird’ is a bit of a bugger to review, but comes recommended anyway.

Stuart Maine

October 2019

(pub: Random House. 220 page graphic novel. Price: £20.00 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-525-64553-5)

check out website: rhcbooks.com

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Category: Comics

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