Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans

The NCTE Orbis Pictus Award recognizes excellence in the promotion of nonfiction in children’s books. It was established in 1989 and named after the book Orbis Sensualium Pictus (or The World of Things Obvious to the Senses Drawn in Pictures) by John Amos Comenius. The Orbis Pictus was published in 1657 and considered to be the first picture book meant for children. The Orbis Pictus is awarded annually by the National Council of Teachers of English to one American book published the previous year. Five Honor Books may be recognized, and up to eight additional recommended books can be named.
The criteria:
• Nonfiction literature which has the main purpose of informing the children.
• Biographies are considered; but not textbooks, historical fiction, folklore, or poetry.
• The book must be published during the previous calendar year in the United States.
• The book must meet the literary criteria of accuracy, organization, design, and style.
• The book must be useful in classroom teaching grades K-8, encourage thinking and more reading, model exemplary expository writing and research skills, share interesting and timely subject matter, and appeal to a wide range of ages.

Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans written and illustrated by Don Brown appropriately won the 2016 Orbis Pictus Award. Brown dedicates this detailed account of what happened during and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to, “the resilient people of New Orleans and the Golf Coast.” It begins with information about how a hurricane forms, “Early August, 2005 a swirl of unremarkable wind leaves Africa and breezes toward the Americas.” Brown describes how Katrina is named and grows; detailing wind power, dates, and the rising fear of the coming destruction. Many are able to evacuate, but “about 200,000 people still remain” because they are afraid, do not want to leave, or have no means of escape. Brown then details the horrible disaster of where it lands, how the levees break, and the thousands that die in desperation. Brown continues to describe the aftermath and the devastation of thousands without a home and proper care. He portrays the confusion and the lack of order from the mayor all the way up to the president, and how that effected the spirits of the people, “President Bush and Governor Blanco quarrel over control of the Louisiana National Guard in the City.” He leaves us with hope in the end, “One ruined neighborhood, the lower ninth ward, is over-grown with plants and weeds and has just 15 percent of the population it had before Katrina. But new houses are going up, built atop deeply driven piles, giving them firm roots to stop them from floating away during the next Katrina. The man setting the piles is a ‘born and raised’ New Orleanian: ‘We’re coming back. This is home. This is life.’”

I believe the book does a wonderful job informing children both in prose and in illustrations. Brown provides two pages of sources for the reader to continue research on the storm, victim accounts, and government dysfunction. The illustrations had me crying. Truthful and heart-wrench depictions of people caught in attics, trying to save their children, and having to leave their pets behind. This books is timely, and can encourage multiple conversations among a number of grades, ranging from, “would you help an evacuated family?” to “what would you do in this situation?” Brown is not afraid to tell the truth, “New Orleans is left mostly to soldiers, disaster workers … and the dead. Corpses drift in the floodwaters, lie in street gutters, and rest amid rubble, on cement patios, and at the feet of office buildings. Many are hidden in the houses and attics where the people died.” My instinct is to always censor these types of subjects, but you simply cannot. I would have a hard time discussing the deaths and the destruction with a child, but I know it’s so very important to teach them their history. Brown does a phenomenal job handling such a tragic subject. The book is very organized by dates, detailed in specific events, and the style is appropriate. I encourage you to get this book, especially in classroom settings, and use it to help you discuss difficult topics children will face in their future.

What are your thoughts?