'Wonder' Author R.J. Palacio on Making Her Graphic Novel Debut

R.J. Palacio_White Bird_Split - Publicity - H 2019
Hieke Bogenberger/R.J. Palacio/Knopf Books for Young Readers
The writer and artist shares a preview of 'White Bird'.

R.J. Palacio’s Wonder was a publishing phenomenon that spawned a movie adaptation starring Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson and a number of companion projects, including Auggie and Me and 365 Days of Wonder. Now, Palacio is returning to the series with White Bird: A Wonder Story, which sees her take the property in an unexpected direction — the graphic novel.

Written and illustrated by Palacio, who is a graduate of the Parsons School of Design and former art director, White Bird tells the fictional life story of the grandmother of Julian, the boy who bullied Auggie in the original Wonder novel. It’s a story that shows the impact of the Second World War and the rise of fascism on what had been a pastoral, fairy-tale childhood, with White Bird pulling no punches in connecting that historical moment to what’s happening in the world today.

Heat Vision talked to Palacio about the new book’s origins, and what it was like moving from prose to comics with the project, accompanying an exclusive excerpt from the book itself.

White Bird is the fourth entry in the Wonder series, but, for those only familiar with the original novel or movie adaptation, it might come as a surprise, in terms of subject matter. There are common themes throughout the series, most notably the importance of empathy and standing up for others, but are you surprised as a creator where the series has taken you?

Yes, for sure. I mean, a graphic historical novel about the Holocaust was definitely not the obvious next step after Wonder. But as you point out, there are common themes in Wonder and White Bird that, in a lot of ways, in hindsight, make this the perfect follow-up. Ordinary, everyday kindness is always a wonder, right? But in times of war, in times when such kindness could literally cost you your life, kindness becomes heroic.

On a somewhat related note, are the shared themes a reason for things like White Bird and Auggie & Me being part of the same series as Wonder, instead of stand-alone projects?

Yes, but really it’s because the story of White Bird is bookended by the story of Julian, the boy in Wonder who bullies Auggie Pullman. White Bird starts a year later. Julian’s in a new school, and he seems to regret the way he treated Auggie Pullman. He is working on a class project and asks his grandmother, who lives in France, to retell a story she already told him, briefly, that was recounted in The Julian Chapter, a companion novel to Wonder. So his grandmother tells the story of her life, which is the heart of the story of White Bird. Then it ends with Julian again, hearing his grandmother’s story, and — well, I don’t want to give away the ending. 

It’s impossible to read White Bird now without thinking of parallels with contemporary events, a parallel you make explicit in the “One Month Later” epilogue section to the book; was your desire to tell this story motivated by what’s happening today politically?

Absolutely. I started working on White Bird, literally, in January of 2017, when Trump first called for a Muslim ban and started talking about kicking trans soldiers out of the military. The words being mainstreamed by the media, because they were coming from his administration — “bans,” “roundups,” “deportations,” “infestations,” etc. — all those words have been used before, as we know, to tragic, horrific ends.

It really bothered me, and continues to bother me, that kids were hearing these words in the zeitgeist without having the historical context they need with which to judge them, to understand viscerally why seeing American “Nazis” marching in the streets is terrifying, or why the idolatry of a leader who panders to people’s worst instincts is dangerous. How can anyone be expected not to repeat the past if they don’t learn from it? In a way, that’s why Julian is the perfect character through which to tell this story. He’s somebody who has learned from his own mistakes and vows not to make them again. 

Actually, allow me to ask another question along the same lines: White Bird isn’t “just” a story rooted in historical events — there’s a glossary, a reading list and further resources for readers to learn more. Taken as a whole, the book feels as much an action item as anything else, the first active step in something greater. Was this your intent?

I know that there are kids who are Jewish, like my husband, that grow up never not knowing about the Holocaust. It’s part of their family story, their history. There are also kids who are not Jewish, like me, that did not grow up knowing about the Holocaust. And although I ended up learning about it before the required reading of The Diary of Anne Frank in the seventh grade, I know that there are kids right now in this country who know very little about the Holocaust. In fact, a recent study showed that two-thirds of all millennials in the USA had never even heard of Auschwitz. So I told the story of Sara Blum in White Bird, which serves as an age-appropriate entry into these themes. There are no “striped pajamas” in the story. We aren’t taken inside a concentration camp. There are other books that do that very well, but I chose to focus on events outside of those. Most of the action takes place inside the barn in which Sara is hidden by a heroic family in the French countryside. 

Having said that, I provided an extensive afterword, vetted by Holocaust historians, to give kids who’ve finished Sara’s story the option of reading more about the true history of what happened. It also provides a glossary and some suggested reading. 

I know this chapter in the world’s history is gruesome, and so difficult to discuss — much less, try to explain to kids. But it’s necessary. They need to know. The facts are the tools they need with which to fight that kind of thing ever happening again. 

The evolution of Julian as a character — from bully to empathetic protagonist and, at the end of this book, face of a resistance, if not The Resistance — is fascinating to have followed through the series. It’s subtle, but I feel as if you’re making a point about the ability (or necessity) for people to change and grow, and also for others to not necessarily write people off based upon bad behavior in their past. Am I misreading? The final pages of White Bird feel particularly striking, when compared with who Julian was in Wonder. He’s come a long way.

Julian’s story arc is pretty remarkable, and important, as it does show readers that one mistake can never define you if you learn from it. And Julian ultimately does learn from his mistakes.

Of course, it took the diligent and persistent guidance of the only adult — other than Mr. Browne — who realized the kid needed some help, and that was his grandmother. His parents were kind of useless in that regard. They were too blind to see that their son needed help — not academically, not socially really, but morally. Julian needed to be shown a better way to be, and his grandmother, by opening up about her own past — in which she herself made some mistakes — was the bridge he needed to connect his own life and hers. I think, through her story, he sees himself for the first time, not as the hero of his own story, but as the villain in someone else’s. And it mortifies him. I think we know, he’s not going to go down that path again. We should all have a grandmother like that!

I’m curious about the move into comics for this book. What was it about the medium that made you want to create White Bird as a graphic novel? Or, approaching the question from a different direction, what is it about the story that needed to told in comic form?

I tend to think visually, maybe because my background is in art and I majored in illustration at Parsons. But when I write prose, I tend to be fairly cinematic in my approach. White Bird came to me in a way that felt especially apt for exploring in a visual medium. It kind of felt like a movie in my head that I wanted to storyboard.

But there was another motivation, to be sure. I had been working on a different novel when the 2016 elections happened, and I found that, suddenly, I couldn’t do what I needed to do to finish. When you write, you have to isolate yourself a bit. Turn off the social media. Hunker down in a quiet place. But there was so much happening in the world that I couldn’t not be a part of it. I put the prose novel aside. And then the idea for White Bird came to me, like this fully formed movie in my mind, and I realized that the graphic novel format would actually let me engage with the world while working. I can draw while watching the news at night, for instance. I can color while listening to podcasts. I could work without having to be isolated. And, in that way, I’m lucky that I actually could do that. Art school paid off for me, I guess.

Following up on that, how did you create the book? Your afterword acknowledgments mentions not only Kevin Czap, but also iPad and iPad Pencil. Were you sketching things out digitally and passing them along to Kevin to color…? Was there a finished script before you started drawing …? This is my inner-process junkie leaking out, I confess.

I’d never created a graphic novel before, so it took a while before the process became streamlined. Basically, I sketched the whole book out first using one of those little red-paneled “comic book” books. Most were thumbnail sketches, though at pivotal scenes, I’d make tighter sketches. Then I exported those sketches into my iPad, which I was only learning to use, and started tightening the sketches. Changing panel sequences. Working on the pacing. I got some invaluable tips at this point from my friend Mark Siegel, who, as publisher of First Second Books, knows everything there is to know about this format.

Then, once I had my “tight” sketched draft, we handed the sketches off to Kevin Czap to ink. Kevin’s job was to give the art a consistent, strong line so that any sketchy backgrounds, any lazy drawing, would be addressed and corrected. Then Kevin would give me the final line art, which I sometimes changed a bit, such as adding to, and converted into a sepia line. That’s when I began coloring the panels in layers. And that became, really, the most time-consuming part of the project. I probably spent a year just coloring the panels every day, all day long.

I worked in layers in Procreate. I had my palette set up. I wanted the backgrounds to have a watercolor wash feel to them, with faded lines, to evoke a depth of field distance. Then I exported my layered files into Photoshop and worked on my big Mac to clean up the art — apply textures, lighting effects, etc. It helped that I know Photoshop very well, since that was what I worked in for years before writing Wonder.

The obvious final question: White Bird feels like quite a departure from what came before, both in terms of medium and subject matter. What does this mean for you as a writer and a creator? Has it stoked a desire to do more comics work? To move in a different direction in terms of what you’re writing, and drawing, perhaps, about? What’s next, and how has working on White Bird shaped that next move?

White Bird really was a departure in so many ways, and I like doing that. I like having had different careers in my life. I was an art director, an editor. I’ve illustrated children’s books. I became a writer at 45. We’re living in an age where we don’t have to just be one thing. But, ultimately, all the different things I’ve approached have always been in the service of one thing, which is to tell a story.

I suspect I’ll always be drawn to telling stories, in one form or another. As for what comes next, I’m going on a book tour next month that should last until right before Thanksgiving. Then I’ll go on a little winter vacation with my family. And come January, I’ll get to work on my next project — whatever that may be.

White Bird: A Wonder Story is released Oct. 1, published by Knopf Books for Young Readers. As Palacio said above, she will be touring to support the book; the graphic below contains information about her appearances. Palacio will also be appearing on the “Sharing One’s Truths: Non-fiction, Memoir, Historical Fiction and More” panel at New York Comic Con on Oct. 3 (4 pm, Room 1A18 at the Javits Center) alongside J. Michael Straczynski, Liana Finck, Erin Williams and Lauren Tarshis.