White Bird by RJ Palacio

White Bird by R.J. Palacio is an award winning historical fiction example of a graphic novel written in 2019. The story is about Sara Blum, a Jewish girl in hiding for survival in Nazi-occupied France during World War II. She happens to be the grandmother, Grandmère, of Julian Albans, Auggie Pullman's tormentor in Wonder and Auggie & Me. The story begins with Julian speaking to his beloved Grandmère over FaceTime. He asks her to share her experiences of growing up in France during World War II. She has shared bits of the story before in Auggie & Me. In White Bird, Julian asks Grandmère to expand on what she told him about Tourteau and how she survived the Holocaust. At first, Grandmère is hesitant as the memories are so painful. But eventually she agrees, telling Julian, "Those were dark times, yes ... but what has stayed with me the most is not the darkness but the light. That is what I have held onto all these years ... and that is the story I want to share with you now."

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Student Activities for White Bird

Essential Questions for White Bird by R.J. Palacio

  1. Who are the main characters in White Bird and what challenges do they face?
  2. What were some allusions (references to real people, places, events, sports, and art/literature) present in the novel? What can you learn about the time period from these allusions?
  3. What are some of the themes, symbols, and motifs present in the novel? How does the symbolism help you better understand the characters and their motivations?
  4. What are some of the messages the author conveys to the reader about kindness and courage? Why is it so important to teach, learn about, and remember the Holocaust?
  5. What are some examples of prejudice and injustice in today's world that require "good people to decide to put an end to it"?

White Bird Summary

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Author R.J. Palacio places this profound quote by George Santayana at the start of the Prologue, setting the tone for the reader. Sara Blum had an idyllic childhood with her loving Maman and Papa in a picturesque town in France beside a fairytale forest. Her father was a successful surgeon and her mother a mathematician, the first woman professor in the town. The family enjoyed picnics among the bluebells at the edge of the forest where Sara's father would swing her in the air so she could "Fly high like a bird". Their innocent game of flying high above the world like a bird is woven throughout the book as the white bird symbolizes the beauty and interconnectedness of humanity.

Grandmère explains the incremental ways the Nazis and their French collaborators stripped the rights of Jewish people, oppressed them, and dehumanized them in propaganda. Sara also introduces us to Tourteau, her classmate at school who has always been tormented by bullies. She has not, herself, teased the boy, but she has stood by and watched. The classmates nicknamed him "Tourteau" as a cruel joke. It means "crab" in French and it was given to him because his legs had been partially paralyzed by polio as a child and he walks with crutches. His real name is Julien Beaumiers. Despite the fact that Sara sat next to him for three years in school, she never knew his name and only refers to him as "Tourteau" throughout the beginning of the story.

Then the worst happens. The Nazis begin rounding up Jewish people all over Sara's town. Her teachers try to hide the Jewish children, but they are caught by the Nazis and the children are sent to their deaths in concentration camps along with a teacher who wouldn't leave their side. Sara manages to escape! She hides in a bell tower and is discovered by Tourteau. He helps her sneak through the sewer tunnels which he knows well because his father is a sanitation worker. Tourteau brings Sara to his home and hides her in his barn. When Sara expresses her gratitude, she finally learns his name, Julien. Grandmère tells her grandson, "And that is the name, of all the names in the world, that I have held closest to my heart since then. It is the name I gave to your father. It is the name he gave to you, Julian."

Julien and his parents, Vivienne and Jean-Paul Beaumier, care for Sara throughout her time in hiding. They bring her food, clothes, and blankets. They visit daily; Vivienne helps Sara wash and Julien plays games and teaches her what he is learning in school. However, the Beaumiers were always in fear of the Nazis. If they were caught hiding a Jewish person, they could be executed. They feared their neighbors, the La Fleurs, because they had become withdrawn and the Beaumiers were sure that the La Fleurs were Nazi collaborators. Despite the isolation, the bats and mice, and the sadness over the loss of her parents, Sara perseveres throughout her years in hiding. Julien and Sara became best friends, confiding in one another; their feelings even blossoming to love.

One day, Julien sees Sara's treasured sketchbook in his principal's office at school. He secretly takes it as a present for Sara because he knows how much she loved to draw in it every day. Sara is delighted but their joy is short lived. Vincent, a classmate who became a Nazi and who passionately hates anyone who was different from him, follows Julien and accuses him of stealing. He beats Julien ferociously until Sara starts to stand up in hiding and bats swoop down from the loft and scare him away. Later, Vincent realizes that Julien must be hiding Sara, the one Jewish classmate who escaped the Nazi roundup. Vincent has the Nazi's kidnap Julien while he is walking to school. The Nazis abduct Julien along with patients from hospitals and mental institutions. Then, Vincent sneaks out to the Beaumiers and into the barn where Sara is hiding. He shoots at her and barely misses, but she is able to escape through a window and into the nearby woods. By chance, while she is running from Vincent, a wolf leaps out, attacks, and kills Vincent. Sara sees her sketchbook lying next to Vincent and realizes that he must have taken it from Julien. She knows that Julien must be in danger. She rushes to tell Julien's parents. They try in vain to rescue Julien, but the Nazis murdered Julien along with the other hospital patients. Grandmère describes it as the Massacre of Mernuit Forest in May, 1944.

Sara manages to survive the war with the help of the Beaumiers and is eventually reunited with her father. But, her beloved Julien, her mother, her Jewish classmates, and 6 million Jews were murdered by the Nazis along with 10 million Russians, Poles, Serbs, Romani, disabled, LGBTQ, and others in the Nazi's evil effort to eliminate anyone who was different from them. At the close of her story, her grandson, Julian, tearfully promises his Grandmère that he will help to ensure that no one ever forgets and that history does not repeat itself. Julian says, "I will never let them forget. I will shine my light ... for you." Grandmère reminds Julian and the reader that, "Evil is only stopped when good people come together to put an end to it."

Check out other lesson plans on history and literature during World War II and Holocaust

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How To Facilitate a Discussion on White Bird By RJ Palacio in Class


Discuss Historical Context

This story by RJ Palacio is based on the events of the Holocaust which is one of the most significant and sorrowful events in history. Teachers can discuss some basic facts and context of the Holocaust to give students some context to the story. Students can also conduct some independent research like reading about people's stories, studying about the concentration camps, etc to gain more knowledge.


Compare With Real Events

Though White Bird is a story, it is based on some true events. Students can compare the events presented in the story with real-life events to evaluate the authenticity of the information. For this exercise, students can use T charts for a side by side comparison and add additional insights they can find on this chart as well.


Encourage Curiosity and Questioning

Ask follow-up questions to stimulate further study of concepts using Socratic questioning. For instance, ask the students “Can you think of any instances in real life where someone has shown great generosity in the face of hardship?” Teachers can use general questions initially to get the students interested and later on ask more specific questions according to the story.


Use Group Exercises

Divide the class into smaller groups to debate particular sections of the text. Each group can take a specific aspect of the story to critically analyze by performing research. These aspects can be related to themes, history, characters, and other literary components. Groups should then present their findings to the class.


Reflect and Discuss

Encourage the students to reflect on all the information that they have learned and share their thoughts and opinions. Teachers can also discuss lesson plans with students to get their feedback and incorporate any activities recommended by students that would help them learn in a better way.

Frequently Asked Questions About White Bird by R.J. Palacio

What is the connection between “White Bird” and “Wonder”?

"Wonder" and "White Bird" are connected because "White Bird" elaborates on the narrative of Julian's grandmother, Sara Blum, who is referenced in "Wonder." It helps us comprehend Julian's family background better. Students can compare both stories to find out better how the characters are interconnected and impact each other.

Is ‘White Bird” a real story?

Although "White Bird" is a work of fiction, it was inspired by actual historical occurrences, notably the Holocaust, a horrific time during World War II when the Nazis persecuted millions of Jews and other people.

Who are the main characters of the story?

The story is based on the survival of Sara Blum who is a young Jewish girl escaping from the Nazis during the Holocaust. Besides Sara, readers also get to know Julien (the boy who helped her despite getting bullied) and his family.

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