Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans Written and Illustrated by Don Brown

“As it does with all big storms, the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida, assigns it a name: Katrina.”

So I’m on a role with New Orelans-themed books this week. Today I read Don Brown‘s (2015, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) graphic novel Drowned City: Hurrican Katrina & New Orleans. This 2016 Orbis Pictus Winner and 2016 Sibert Honor Book is a nonfiction gem.

I’m not always a fan of graphic novels, but Brown does an amazing job of pulling readers into the destruction and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Here’s what I LOVE about the book:

(1) The graphic nature of the book helps readers relate to and understand the absolutely horrific circumstances that were Hurricane Katrina and aftermath. The layout of Brown’s pages help move the story forward. Some pages have single panels, and others have multiple. This variance really engages readers. Take a look:

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(2) The book draws you into a story you think you already know.  I don’t know that I learned anything new from reading Drowned City, but Brown’s storytelling ability definitely drew me into the story. If you are drawn into a story about which you already know most of the major details, you know you are reading a quality text! Brown has a brilliant ability to tell a story. I felt as though the book was being read aloud to me.

The interspersed quotes from various people (e.g. the person who wanted to go “anywhere” when being evacuated from the Superdome, the people who did not want to lose their animals, and the people who regretted not leaving town, etc.) makes you consider the individual’s lives that were impacted by the storm. The book provides a wonderful and devastating introduction to the event for kids who were not alive or are too young to remember what happened after Hurricane Katrina hit.

(3) Although I can certainly understand why a lot of children’s books keep the subject matter humorous and lighthearted, I also really appreciate Brown’s honest depiction of the tragedy that exists in our world. Drowned City refuses to avoid the grotesque details of those moments when only humans’ dark natures prevail.

(4) The book makes a statement. Brown charges several local and national leaders with not doing what was needed for the people of New Orleans. Drowned City reads as an indictment of key stakeholders’ failure to communicate, care for, and serve the people of New Orleans. And whereas he does not sugarcoat several people’s missteps, he also comments on the resilience of the people of New Orleans (this same spirit is seen in Trombone Shorty).

Here are some teaching ideas for the book:

(1) This can be a read-aloud at any grade, K-16. It can also be used to guide students through the research process. Why must students always write traditional research papers? Why not have students turn their research findings into a graphic novel?

(2) Have students consider the impact of the images in the text. Brown includes a lot of print text, but the story is really brilliant because of the way the print and images work together to create meaning. Students can look deeply into  and discuss the panel selection Brown selects. Why are some pictures an entire page whereas other take up only a third of the page?

(3) Older students can research further the key stakeholders implicated in Brown’s text. Brown names particular governmental leaders and organizations. Students can delve deeply into other sources’ information about actions taken in the aftermath of Katrina and come up with some policy suggestions for future natural disasters.

Let me know what you think of Drowned City in the comments below! Please also share how you use graphic novels in your K-16 classroom!

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