Bye-bye retro carpets, heavy dark-brown mahogany shelves, and centrally located customer service; hello, newly refurbished Waterstones Booksellers Amsterdam! The central floor of the bookstore has now been fitted with a podium, which works like a small stage, where authors and other speakers can address a sitting or standing audience. The books on the shelves are more conspicuous, the emphasis no longer being on the mahogany, but on the wall-to-wall literary collection. The brighter lighting fulfills the bookstore’s promise to give its customers a clear view of all its books, making it easier to locate specific titles. The central customer service area has been moved to a less dominant position, providing more space on the central floor for readers to mill about, ponder, and browse.
When I arrive at the bookstore, around one-hundred children (some from the International School of Amsterdam, others from the general public) are seated and listening intensely; the overall feeling was intimate and communal. Waterstones has a large following of young readers and customers, all actively taking part in various readings. The author and graphic children’s novelist RJ Palacio, or Raquel Jaramillo Palacio, is the person currently capturing the children’s attention. Palacio is already famous for her best-selling book, Wonder, a story about a young boy (August, or ‘Auggie’, Pullman) with severe facial differences. Wonder is also a lovely story, dedicated to spreading kindness and learning to stand up for people who can’t easily do it for themselves.
But this time, Palacio is in town to promote her new book, White Bird.
Palacio tells us that her motivation for writing White Bird was partly the lack of knowledge many children in the US seem to have about the Second World War, and partly her observations of the current American administration; she was starting to see deep connections between the past and the present. Palacio says she formed a strong desire to reinforce the concept of “never forget”, by creating a new story for children. The author’s new graphic novel depicts a ‘grandmère’ (grandmother) telling a young boy her story of what it was like to be Jewish in France during the war, and how she survived through the kindness of others; kindness for which those offering it could have paid a very high price.
Palacio wrote and drew at the same time, which gave her the freedom to make executive decisions about elements such as costumes, setting and conveying characters’ emotions. Most importantly, Palacio tells us, the illustrations had to be well-researched visually.
How did you feel about your novel, Wonder being turned into a movie?
It was scary handing over ‘my child’ to be raised by someone else, but it was exciting at the same time. Tough choices were made when trying to find the right cast, but it all worked out in the end. We were excited to hear that Owen Wilson and Julia Roberts were going to be starring in the movie as Auggie’s parents.
Why did you call the new book White Bird?
The name was taken from a poem called Plight of Refugees, which I was reading at the time.
What do you want your readers to take away from the book? I want children to learn more about the historical event of the Second World War. I have included further reading in the book, to ensure that this information is available to them.
How long does it take to write a page - including the illustrations?
This depends, but on average a few hours to a few weeks.
Do you have another book in mind?
No, not currently, but this could of course change.
When did you start to write and draw?
Even as a young child I was writing and drawing - particularly horses.
I would like to mention Tim Butler, without whom events like Palacio’s reading of White Bird would not be possible. Tim’s passion is curating Waterstones Booksellers Amsterdam, organizing literary events there, and motivating the bookstore’s following of readers – of all ages. Without Tim, the Waterstones literary community would be adrift.