Let’s start this off with some context: I haven’t read Wonder, R.J. Palacio’s best-selling YA novel about a kid with a facial deformity, nor have I seen the movie it was adapted into. I did go and read a few chapters after reading White Bird, her first comic book, just for the sake of comparison, and it seems fine. I also don’t have any interest in acting as a comics gatekeeper. The more people who want to work in this medium, the better. It is great that big publishers are expanding their teams and lists devoted to comics, even if a lot of that expansion is in the kids’ and YA areas. Just imagine what this generation that’s being raised on comics is going to produce when they get old enough. That said, the more things that get published, the more bad things will be among them, and White Bird is one of those. The real question is why it is a comic book. That question should be easy to answer, but it’s not, which suggests that maybe it shouldn’t be.
Palacio came from an art background. She went to Parsons. She worked as an illustrator and then as a book-cover designer for years. But it’s not the same. The answer for why White Bird is a comic book rather than a word book seems to be that comic books are popular with the age range Palacio’s trying to reach rather than that the author has any particular love for the form and, unfortunately, it shows. I’m not sure I can think of a single page in the book that features words and pictures working at cross purposes, or even communicating different things. The panel structure feels clumsy but not repetitive. See, for example, page 43, where the bottom two panels of a 2 x 3 grid don’t line up with the ones above them. It feels like a decision made just for the sake of varying the structure, like a book in which you can tell that the author’s copy of Roget’s falls open automatically to the page that has synonyms for “said.” To me, it’s like watching one of those YouTube videos in which people deliberately do things that set your teeth on edge, like cutting a cake into bizarre shapes or combining Skittles and peanut M&Ms in a single bowl. Characters move clumsily, blurred backgrounds feel like Photoshop, people’s faces are boring, their expressions are oversold, and there are way too many scenes of people talking.
Okay. So that stuff can be explained. Palacio hasn’t done this before, but she decided to write and draw the book herself, with some assistance from Kevin Czap that isn’t quite clear (they inked it, but elsewhere Palacio suggests that she drew on a tablet; so maybe those were preparatory sketches?). But you know what else isn’t good? The writing. And not just because it doesn’t feel like comics. White Bird is a Holocaust story about a beautiful French Jewish girl who ends up being hidden in a hayloft by a boy who needs crutches due to polio and how she realizes that he’s nice. Also (spoiler alert): neighbors distrust each other because they each think the others are spies, but they all turn out to be nice people. Sara, our protagonist, is a passive character, a well-off girl with her head in the clouds who doesn’t seem to end up anywhere very different from where she starts. She gets lucky over and over and over again and ends up doing fine. Real people experienced that path, too. Someone has to get lucky, it being a big world with a lot of possibilities, and you don’t have to fridge anyone in your book for it to be effective, but there’s a lack of scale provided, and if you know any of that scale, Sara’s case feels frivolous.
I imagine it’s hard to write for children about the murder of millions of people for their ethnic identities, especially when it feels like we’re ramping up to something similar every day. But this reads like some Marianne Williamson love-and-light business, by which I mean it is vaguely creepy to feel like an author is suggesting that being nice to each other might have prevented the Holocaust. You can believe in nonviolence and still think that sounds like horseshit. Yes, kindness is incredibly important and maintaining it helps avoid dehumanization, but proselytizing alone is a losing tactic. Preaching and hoping the message sinks in is basically just hoping for divine intervention, which is exactly what happens to Sara when she’s about to be caught, not just once but repeatedly. And if you’re hoping for divine intervention, you’re not doing much to better your situation or anyone else’s. You’re relying on the kindness of strangers, and Blanche DuBois shouldn’t be anyone’s role model.