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Wonder Writer R.J. Palacio Talks White Bird and Writing the Holocaust Now

Writer R.J. Palacio's 2012 novel Wonder told the story of August "Auggie" Pullman, a young boy with a disfigured face, and his struggles with moving from homeschool to Beecher Prep. The book went on to receive positive reviews from critics and awards, in addition to selling millions of copies worldwide and receiving a film adaptation in 2017 starring Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson. Wonder deals with many different themes and issues, but one of the most prominent is bullying. A boy named Julian Albans bullies Auggie for his differences throughout the book, eventually getting suspended for doing so. Her newest work and first graphic novel, White Bird, returns to Julian and explores his grandmother Sara's story of living in France during the Nazi occupation and Holocaust, but don't think the book is just out to tell a story about the past: it's just as much concerned with now as it is with then.

CBR caught up with Palacio to talk about White Bird and talked about returning to Julian and the importance of a graphic novel about the Holocaust at this moment in time.

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CBR: You’re also an illustrator/designer, but a lot of your creative writing work has been prose. Although you previously wrote and illustrated We're All Wonders, White Bird is something of a bigger undertaking. Why did you decide to tell this particular story as a graphic novel?

R.J. Palacio: I tend to think in images, so whether I’m writing a novel or drawing a picture, it’s the scene in my head that I’m ultimately trying to express. Sometimes words are the best way to do that. But sometimes written language isn’t quite enough. When the story of White Bird first presented itself to me, as these things do, like patter in your head that you can’t shake, I knew right from the beginning—because it was so cinematic in scope, in my mind—that it would be best conveyed visually, sequentially, as a graphic novel. And I’ve always loved the graphic novel format. I went through quite a comic book phase when I was a young teen, and although I knew it would be a huge undertaking, I guess it seemed worth it because I was sure it would be the right format for the story.

Julian is this character who starts out in Wonder as a seemingly-shallow, cruel bully. However, in a move you don't see often enough in literature for younger readers, you've returned to him and fleshed him out more here and in such entries as The Julian Chapter. What makes you keep coming back to him as a character?

Palacio: When you’re writing a character, it’s always important to understand what motivates them. And I knew that one of the drivers behind Julian’s terrible bullying of Auggie Pullman in Wonder is that, deep down inside, he was a little afraid of him. He’s afraid of the difference, as, quite frankly, many of the kids were at first, in their own ways. But whether they found that built-in empathy inside themselves on their own or were nudged and guided to it by the adults in their lives, they ultimately got there, and started being able to see Auggie as he saw himself, just “an ordinary kid.” Not better or worse than anybody else. Just ordinary. Julian, however, never got there on his own. Never got the help he could have used from his parents, who were blind to his ways. And his fear came out as hostility, anger, even jealousy. And he does some really bad things and ends up paying the price on many levels. That’s where his story ended in Wonder. But I felt a little badly for the kid. I know that there were kids in the real world who saw themselves in Julian, whether they cared to admit it or not. And I wanted to give Julian a chance, if not to exonerate himself, because he can’t, at least to become more self-aware, which then might lead to atonement and redemption. I think it’s important that kids know that one mistake doesn’t define you. One bad act doesn’t make you a bad kid—not if you acknowledge and learn from your actions, and use that knowledge not to do it again. It’s always important to remind kids that everybody has a story to tell. When you remember that, you can’t help but be inherently more compassionate.

White Bird features a lot of quotations from Muriel Rukeyser, who used her work to really fight for, and advocate on behalf of, others, which is something you're also passionate about. Can you tell me a bit about how you see the role of the writer/artist in affecting the world?

Palacio: I have always loved Rukeyser’s work, and have always been astonished that she’s not more widely known to the public. Her poems are full of such tender regard for humanity, but also outrage over inequities. I started rereading her poetry just before embarking on White Bird, so it was very much on my mind as I was writing.

I can’t ever presume to speak for all writers or artists, or what motivates them. I just know that for me not to use whatever platform I have now, not to speak out against the injustice I see happening now, on our American borders, against families fleeing poverty and war and devastation, wouldn’t feel right. I see the connection between the hateful rhetoric in the zeitgeist now, the mainstreaming of hate speech, the normalization of discrimination, and the situation in Europe just before World War II. And it frightens me. It angers me. Terms like “bans” and “roundups of immigrants” and “mass deportations” and “infestations,” etc.—those have been used before, and we know where they’ve led. Six million Jewish people were killed, and countless Romani and homosexuals, because ordinary people in the world didn’t do everything in their power to rise up to stop it. People will argue: “Oh, most people didn’t know.” They didn’t know because of willful ignorance. They didn’t want to know. They didn’t want the horrible truth to disturb them. In my mind, the willful ignorance of others is the one thing writers and artists can actually address. Writers and artists can make looking away from hard truths impossible.

This idea of Choose Kind is really at the center of your work, and it's a principle you uphold and explore throughout White Bird. Did writing about the Holocaust affect that belief?

Palacio: Not at all. If anything, it strengthened my belief in the kindness of people, and the power of kindness to change lives. The atrocities committed not only by the Nazis but by complicit governments in Europe point to that capacity within people for horrific cruelty toward others. We know that. But we also know that buried in the ashes of countless, nameless victims are stories of kindness and decency and perseverance and hope that the world will never hear. That those stories may have been left untold doesn’t mean they didn’t happen. We know from the survivors themselves: despite losing everything, they didn’t lose their humanity. That light inside them couldn’t be extinguished.

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The vast number of people in this world have stories that are never broadcast on the news, that aren’t the center of a “breaking story,” because they’re not the anomaly. They’re normal and ordinary people going about their lives, expending little kindnesses on one another without fanfare. We don’t hear about these people because the news is really only about anomalous behavior, the worst of people. I try to write about the best of people—ordinary people—in the act of living. I really do believe that kindness is something people have to choose to practice. It’s not like “niceness.” I mean, some people are just inherently more “nice” than others. The thing about kindness is it’s something you have to choose to stand for. Sometimes, especially with kids, all you have to do is remind them about the importance of kindness, and they want to be kind. It’s empowering for them.

It’s always challenging to choose to be kind. Sometimes it’s inconvenient. Sometimes we’re feeling a bit lazy about it. And that’s under ordinary circumstances. To choose to be kind in those times, when extending yourself on behalf of another person could literally cost you your life? That’s when kindness becomes heroic. The line between kindness and heroism is really more about the circumstances than the action. And that’s why kids are empowered by the call to kindness, I think. It’s a way for them to be the heroes they want to be.

Although White Bird primarily looks at the Holocaust, you also draw a clear line to very real issues going on right now. What are you hoping readers -- especially young ones -- take away from the stories of Sara and Julian?

Palacio: I’m hoping that they draw their own connections, because I’m very careful not to make this a political book (though, obviously, you know where I stand). I don’t think kindness should ever be politicized, and I don’t think kindness belongs to one party or another. It’s not red or blue. So I don’t write red or blue.

But if kids read this story about a little girl whose government turns on her, tries to dehumanize her through propaganda, strips her of her rights, and eventually separates her from her parents, sending her mother to a camp and forcing her into hiding—well, that story could be told right now, in our own country. And that’s tragic.

As Primo Levi said: “It happened, therefore it can happen again.” We have to give kids the tools, the stories, the history, they need to understand that, and to never let it happen again.

White Bird goes on sale October 1 from Knopf Books for Young Readers

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