Wednesday, November 4, 2015

2016 Contenders: Drowned City, by Don Brown

Hurricane Katrina was the sixth-deadliest natural disaster in the history of the United States. Even that fact possibly understates the significance of Katrina to modern history; three of the events with more fatalities happened during the 19th century (the 1889 storm that led to the Johnstown Flood, the 1893 Cheniere Caminada Hurricane, and the 1900 Galveston Hurricane), and the other two (the 1906 Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire, and the 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane) took place during the Teddy Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge administrations, respectively. Americans had certainly experienced mass tragedies related to war and terrorism, but no natural disaster on the scale of Katrina had occurred in the US in living memory -- or in the modern media age.

We now have ten years of perspective on Katrina, and dozens of books have been written on the subject, including titles we've reviewed here. Drowned City belongs in the very top tier of those books, and may be the best of those written with a juvenile audience in mind. It briefly but effectively sets the stage -- important, given that much of its readership is too young to remember Katrina -- and then brilliantly describes conditions inside the ruined city, as well as the responses to the tragedy, which ranged from the heroic to the unforgivably incompetent.

All of this is done in spare, poignant language; this is a book that shows, rather than tells. The few lines of dialogue are taken directly from primary sources and news reports, all noted in the carefully cited back matter. Although we can tell where Brown's sympathies as an author lie, he holds back from using words that blame, preferring instead to let his readers come to their own conclusions.

Of course, Drowned City is a nonfiction "graphic novel," and so the interplay between the words and the images is where much of the book's meaning is created. The body language of Brown's figures perfectly captures the range of emotions surrounding Katrina, and his stark wide-screen drawings of the utter devastation that followed the storm pack a visceral punch. Brown does not shy away from the hard realities of his subject; although it's all tasteful, and I maintain that the book is certainly appropriate for a middle-school reader, Drowned City includes pictures of storefronts being looted, corpses floating in the flooded streets, and people trying to break out of their attics before the water rises high enough to drown them.

Up until the last couple years, I would have assumed that Drowned City was too visual an experience to show up in the Newbery rolls; after Flora & Ulysses and El Deafo, I'm less sure. I do hope the Sibert committee notices how carefully Brown has used his sources, and how clearly he presents his information.

Published in August by HMH Books for Young Readers


  1. This is at the top of my list of YA recommendations. A splendid job of recreating the images and news reports into graphic novel form.

  2. This is at the top of my list, too. I hope it is recognized.