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Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans

drowned cityI was fortunate enough to be in the crowd when the Tamaki cousins’ This One Summer was announced as a Caldecott Honor book (at the Youth Media Awards, where the Coretta Scott King, Caldecott, Newbery, etc. are announced) this past January. I remember hearing more than a few audible gasps in the theater, and with good reason: not since The Invention of Hugo Cabret had a book for the older end (what I’d consider ages 10-14) of the Caldecott age range been recognized. (Incidentally, This One Summer was arguably the most controversial pick of last year’s award winners, as evidenced by the lively discussion found here.) Admittedly, this year’s committee members don’t have anything to do with last year’s books, but at the same time the fifteen folks on the 2016 Caldecott committee do not live in a vacuum. They are no doubt aware of books for older kids, probably more so than any other committee BT (Before Tamaki).

But what about the actual books? Have there really been any graphic novels for older readers that have a chance this year? Absolutely, and to my mind, Drowned City heads the list. Don Brown’s second full-length graphic novel is brilliant in its conciseness, both textually and visually, and is certainly one of my top three Caldecott-eligible books this year.

The reader’s first glimpse of New Orleans is iconic and terrifying: an eagle’s eye–view of the city in the distance with a foreboding gray-black mass of … SOMETHING … in the foreground. The menacing cloud obscures the borders of the large panel. An inset above the faraway skyline shows a FEMA staffer claiming, “When I have a nightmare, it’s a hurricane in New Orleans.” It’s a brilliant bit of storytelling and design, with text and graphics combining to create a palpable feeling of dread.

When Katrina “crashes ashore” in the nearby town of Buras, Brown uses four panels stacked top-to-bottom to show the storm’s destruction in sequence. This is not the only time panels are laid out to maximum effect: at one point later in the book, two wordless panels follow a textbox which reads, “Swollen dead bodies lie in streets and float in the water.” The illustrations show just that: stark depictions of death over which additional words truly would have been intrusive. This gruesome, yet brutally effective, montage effect would fit perfectly in a war documentary.

But as chilling as Brown’s artwork is, it can also be quite beautiful. In one illustration, Brown depicts the storm as a sort of buzzsaw with a hole in it (the eye of the hurricane). The water being churned up by the monster storm is a gorgeous blue-green, the kind of water you’d expect to see at a resort in Cancun or off the coast of some Greek island. His people aren’t exactly pretty (they never are in any of his work; Kadir Nelson, he ain’t), but the messy lines, the imperfect humans with poorly defined features … they fit this subject perfectly.

Many from the children’s book world will question why the Caldecott committee would seriously consider graphic novels: thankfully, Elisa and Pat Gall have covered this. But for an award given to a book that “essentially provides the child with a visual experience,” why wouldn’t graphic novels get a look? Of course the committee will consider this book, and hopefully several other graphic novels (Jessie Hartland’s Steve Jobs: Insanely Great is another one that’s high on my list), but the real question is: will graphic novel–loving committee members be able to build consensus around one or more of them? Fingers crossed: I do so love those gasps of disbelief when certain award winners are announced.



About Sam Bloom

Sam Bloom is a former elementary and middle school teacher. He is currently senior children's librarian at the Blue Ash branch of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County in Ohio.



  1. Hadn’t thought of DROWNED CITY for the Caldecott, but now that you suggested — I’m on board. It is one of my favorites of the year too. I also love STEVE JOBS and would be wildly elated to see it get attention.

  2. Susan Dailey says:

    Thanks for your insight on this book. I agree with your comment about Brown’s style being perfect for this subject. When I think of his work, the word “muddy” always pops into my mind–so appropriate for the subject he tackled very well.
    And while my rational mind understands the argument for graphic novels being eligible for the Caldecott, my storytime loving heart screams “NO! A graphic novel isn’t a picture book. And please, please, please, don’t give the award to a book for tweens/teens!” But I’d be delighted to see this get an award. Do you think it might get some Sibert love?

  3. Oh man, Susan, where were you when I was writing this?! Muddy is the PERFECT way to describe Brown’s style! Also: embrace your rational side! Graphic novels ARE picture books! They should be included in the conversation – and recognized by the Real Committee – much, much more going forward. Finally, in regards to Sibert love: I hope so!

    Monica, STEVE JOBS really is so, so very wonderful. Actually, there are some days where I like that one better!

  4. This had some amazing drawings. I thought it was cool that it was a graphic novel

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