An evening with author RAQUEL J. PALACIO at Waterstones, Amsterdam

It was an evening of kindness, promoting care and consideration, and channelled through the medium of literature. In a very special author event at Waterstones, children and adults alike were able to enjoy the company of Raquel J Palacio. In a personal, reflective and honest evening of story-telling, book launching and motivational reflection, it truly was an experience of ‘wonder’ for all.

Due to the success of her first novel Wonder in 2012 and subsequent novel, Auggie and Me in 2014 – which gave more of a background to three others ancillary characters – the 2017 film version of Wonder was a box office hit. But now she has returned to her publishing roots, in a way, with her most recent addition: a graphic novel, White Bird (released this year).

Opened by Tim from Waterstones, a passionate and enthusiastic lover of literature, he introduced the author with warmth and reminded us of her humble beginnings – Wonder became a hit from word-of-mouth, and that makes the story it tells one which everyone should be encouraged to read. Motivated by an experience with her son and a girl with a “severe facial difference”, Palacio felt inspired to give voice to this experience. It shook her and incensed her. It forced her to consider not only her reaction to the girl but also the treatment of the ‘others of society’. As a mother of two boys, she changed the narrative to a male perspective so she could draw on her knowledge of a young boy’s life growing up. She reminded the entertained children in the audience: “we, as parents, are forever eavesdropping on your language, interests and styles and behaviour… you might think we’re in the other room but we can hear you.”

Pursued by the success of her first novel (for instance, it is published in over thirty languages) she has been able to quit her publishing job and travel the world launching the book – but despite this, she felt that the other silenced characters (the bully, his oldest friend and classmate) needed to tell their stories too. When asked, she explained the importance of deciding to tell Julian’s story – to help readers understand the bully’s perspective and reminding them that bullies are often bullied too. This lead to the Choose Kindness Movement: an attempt to share a message of positive social change, by encouraging the practice of acts of kindness. 

It was after the release of these novels that she started to receive messages from teachers in America thanking her for including historically relevant references in her books. In particular was the mention of the holocaust, which is not in the curriculum until post-GCSE/16 level.

In light of the current climate in America: 2016 Trump election, hateful rhetoric from the new president amongst protests and violence, Palacio couldn’t believe that schools were unable to teach children vital lessons from the past. As someone with a Jewish husband and Columbian immigrant parents, she was utterly appalled to learn that 66% of millennials in the USA had not heard of Auschwitz. It was then, she said, she realised “she had a platform to tell stories in a bigger way” and to “tell stories in an age appropriate way”. 

This is where the idea for White Bird was born. Set in a ‘fairytale’ existence, in a French village, the protagonist exists in a life sheltered from the war until Germany invades. Telling the story of Julian’s grandmother, Grandmère, she admits it is another tale of the holocaust – like Anne Frank – although it is ultimately about kindness. Why the holocaust? Palacio expressed her sentiment with these words: “it was a time where to have courage could cost you your life”, and so she felt it was important to draw attention to it now. Alarmed by the lack of historical context in young people’s lives, she acknowledged how this would be impeding them from being able to understand the shocking nature of events such as Nazis marching through streets in America.

The floor opened for questions, and one important one to consider is why she chose to use the graphic novel form. Firstly, she recognized that to write a novel you have to isolate yourself; while she was trying to do this, she felt bombarded by the news and outside world which drew her to the graphic novel form. It is “more accessible” because as a writer you can sketch anywhere and you can reach a wider audience, she “missed drawing” and found it was “more social than a novel”. She did sketch the entire book herself in pencil and she got the talented Kevin Czap to ink it, but she did the colour herself. This was a graphic novel that was produced like a movie in her head: “you’re the director and script writer, cinematographer and costume designer and set decorator and so on”. “A lot of the craftsmanship of writing is about driving the narrative” and, with a novel. “the writer can depend on the reader to use their own imagination to fill the gaps in the narrative and create the images that are alluded to”, whereas with a graphic novel she was forced to research minutiae of details. All in all, the whole book took a year and half to complete, some pages taking a few hours while others took weeks. 

What made writing the White Bird different to her other novels, is that she felt she was working on something necessary. Writing this, she said, was an active resistance to the troubling times we are living in. She wants to help kids see connections between current events and history – which is why she chose the epigraph “if we don’t remember the past, we are condemned to relive it”.

The title of the book, ‘White Bird, comes from a poem about the plight of refugee children, about innocence and hopes and dreams and longing. She hoped to reflect that imagery in her book. She ended by emphasizing her own hopes: that people are left looking for more, who finish her book armed with a glossary of new words and an introduction to historical context. She, for one, has no room or time for history deniers: “facts are facts and opinions are opinions” because, in her mind, confronting the past is the only way you can move forward. 

With her vision laid out before them, fans of Palacio’s books queued up to meet the author and have their new purchases signed. Some eager and excited school children had brought along their well-thumbed editions and gushed with delight at a chance to ‘share a selfie’. But we all left feeling a little more mindful of the power and leverage a book can have and the importance of telling stories, new and old. 

As the warmth of the recently refurbished Waterstones was left behind, the busy, brightly lit streets of the Kalverstraat welcomed us yet it was hard to ignore the sharpness of the cold that wrapped itself around ankles and wrists like a snake. In this moment, I felt gratitude for the relative safety we live in, compared to and probably as a result of those who have suffered in the past – in the holocaust and other terrible persecutions. Taking a time to ponder the depth of her children’s books, it seemed she had a cautionary tale about confusing ‘state safety’ with the oppression of others, and anarchy with freedom of speech. In a world where we are buffeted by news reports of protest, police brutality and surveillance states, perhaps White Bird has flown the nest at the right time.    Rose Fawbert Mills    19th November 2019