Everyday pleasures like spending time with family or watching a favorite TV show are things we often take for granted. Reminding readers to count their blessings, two new adventured-filled titles feature brave heroines who struggle to survive despite government oppression.
J. Kasper Kramer’s impressive debut novel, The Story That Cannot Be Told, begins, appropriately enough, with the words “Once upon a time . . . ” The tale opens in 1989 in Communist Romania. Ten-year-old Ileana lives in Bucharest with her parents. Their life is somewhat bleak—they have access to one TV channel for two hours each week (it broadcasts Communist Party sessions), and their apartment has been bugged by the authorities—yet they’re a loving and tight-knit trio.
Ileana has inherited a passion for writing from her father, a literature professor, and they share a unique bond. “He could hear what was inside a story’s heart—what made it beat or let it die—and he’d shared that gift with me,” she says. Ileana makes up her own narratives in her special book, which she calls “Great Tome”—an assemblage of construction paper and spiral-notebook sheets with a glitter-encrusted cover.
That book, her prized possession, becomes an outlet for escaping the grim reality that her uncle Andrei, a subversive poet recently arrested by the secret police, may be dead. When her parents realize that they, too, could be in danger, they send Ileana to live in a remote village with grandparents she doesn’t know. As her love for newfound family members and their little town develops, Ileana finds her courage tested in ways she never imagined.
Kramer mixes elements of fairy tale, folklore and factual history into an irresistible adventure. It’s a novel readers will love getting lost in, a moving tribute to the power of shared stories and the value of cultivating an independent spirit.
Similar themes can be found in R.J. Palacio’s White Bird, one of fall 2019’s most anticipated titles for young readers and an important act of storytelling. In this beautifully executed graphic novel, Palacio revisits Julian, whom many readers will recognize from the beloved bestseller Wonder, along with his French grandmother, Sara.
Julian, who is writing an essay about Sara for school, contacts her (via FaceTime), and she relates her extraordinary experiences as a young Jewish girl in World War II France. In a narrative enlivened by plot twists, betrayal and a cast of remarkable characters, Sara recalls how German troops came to her school to arrest her and the other Jewish students. After she hid from the soldiers, she was rescued by a boy named Julien, whose family allowed Sara to live in secret in their barn. Because of their compassion and generosity, Sara survived. Hers is an unforgettable account of wartime years lived in fear, but it also highlights the importance of kindness, which she describes as “a light in the darkness” and “the very essence of our humanity.”
Filled with striking thematic juxtapositions—between history and modernity, nature and civilization, freedom and oppression—White Bird succeeds, in part, because of the author’s marvelous artwork. Palacio renders human figures with straightforward clarity, placing them against backdrops that range from sharply detailed to subtly impressionistic, and her panels lend the narrative a what-happens-next urgency that keeps the reader invested.
Resurfacing in the present day, the story comes full circle in the end, as Julian makes a poignant promise to Sara. This ultimately affirming entry in Palacio’s Wonder chronicles is destined to become a classic of its kind.