White Bird: A Lesson in Trust by Sarah Derringer
I know. I was thinking the same thing.
You see, I, like millions of other readers, read and loved Wonder. I fell in love with the book’s message of overcoming challenges…I bought the shirt that says “Choose Kindness”…I shared the novel with my sixth grade students- pouring over the characters, analyzing their motivations, writing the next steps for Auggie…I led a study trip of students grades 5-8 to the local IMAX theater when the Wonder movie debuted in our city…I was all in- as a reader, a teacher, a mother- I was in Wonder heaven!
But that’s where I stayed. I never branched out to read the other “Wonder stories.” In fact, I only had a vague understanding of what they were- I’m ashamed to say that I assumed them to be just popularity-riding offshoots of the bestselling book…I simply didn’t give them my reading time. Cringe- how snooty of me.
I know some of you are shaking your heads. Questioning my lack of commitment to the original text I claimed to love. Judging me for judging these follow up stories. (I am too, believe me!)
Last month I learned the error of my ways. I was in Cincinnati to attend the Guts tour meet-and-greet with Raina Telgemeier, and I found myself with a few minutes to stop by Joseph-Beth Booksellers. Since I was already in a Guts-inspired graphic novel frenzy, I thought I’d peruse the graphic novel section to see if there were any must-haves for my middle school Language Arts classroom library back home in Indiana.
I barely made it through the door when I saw a huge display featuring a brand-new graphic novel geared towards young adults- and to my surprise, I saw the iconic cover art of R.J. Palacio’s Wonder featured on the same display. I was thoroughly confused when I read the description on the back of the book and found that this new book was referred to as a “Wonder story,” and that White Bird tells the story of Julien’s grandmother’s Holocaust experience. Huh?
I pulled out my phone to figure out what I was missing- how we jumped from Julien the modern-day bully to a 1940’s Holocaust story, and I found the missing link in Auggie & Me: Three Wonder Stories. From the reviews I read on my phone, I could tell that “The Julien Chapter” was going to be the text that would fill in the blanks for me, but that was back in my classroom in Indiana. Drat!
So I did what any story-hungry book hoarder would do: I bought White Bird and read it cover to cover- starting in Raina Telgemeier’s meet-and-greet line, and finishing in the hotel later that evening.
As soon as I flipped on my classroom lights Monday morning, I grabbed my classroom copy of Auggie & Me, and as soon as my first class came in and settled into their couches and cozy spots for DEAR, I sped through “The Julien Chapter.” During my next class’s DEAR time, I lined up Wonder, Auggie & Me, and White Bird so I could cross-reference the three texts. Sure enough, the narrative flowed across and through the three pieces: Julien’s story- and the story of Sara, his Jewish grandmother- came together to create a satisfying sense of closure on Julien’s character development.
Through this jumbled up reading experience, I discovered a new reading truth: you must trust the stories you love. Trust the story: when you are sucked into a novel- when you feel that deep-heart connection to the characters, stick with the author. When beloved authors choose to continue a soul-changing narrative in different forms and mediums, whether you think you’ll like them or not, trust in the author’s judgment. Don’t be a book snob: hold that first favorite book loosely, and trust the author to deepen their story in their own way– follow the author through uncharted and unexpected territory, even if you don’t want to.
White Bird is an excellent graphic novel; I’m confident that Wonder fans will love the backstory and the redemptive qualities it brings to Julien’s character experience, but I think those who have yet to fall in love with Wonder will love it too. Sara’s story stands on it’s own two feet as a well-researched introductory experience for middle grade readers with varying levels of exposure to the horrific tales of loss and the inspiring tales of hope found in Holocaust-era historical fiction. This graphic novel format provides younger readers with an easy access point to a difficult chapter of human history; the book treats the period and the characters with respect, neither sensationalizing or downplaying the events of the time. R.J. Palacio includes resources at the end of the book to help support readers with little Holocaust background knowledge, and she also provides resources and recommended readings for readers who’d like to continue to learn about this period of history through literature and nonfiction.
I’ve been a reader for almost 40 years, a teacher for over 15 years, a mother for over 11 years. I’ve spent years thinking I am pretty well-read in the realm of books, particularly YA fiction. But R.J. Palacio’s White Bird put me back in my place, and reminded me that I need to analyze less and just read for fun more- I need to trust the masterful storytellers, and follow them where they lead me.
Sarah Derringer is a reader, wife, mother of three, and middle school Language Arts teacher in Indianapolis, Indiana. She passionately seeks to instill a love of reading and a passion for words in all those she encounters.