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Fall 2018 Publishers’ Preview: Five Questions for Don Brown

Publishers' Previews: Special advertising supplement in The Horn Book Magazine

This interview originally appeared in the September/October 2018 Horn Book Magazine as part of the Fall 2018 Publishers’ Previews, an advertising supplement that allows participating publishers a chance to each highlight a book from its current list. They choose the books; we ask the questions.

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Real-life stories intersect in The Unwanted, an illustrated account of the Syrian conflict and subsequent refugee crisis.

1. You chose a wide canvas for this story. How did you know where to start?

I followed the chronological backbone of the conflict. It has a start: the protests in Dara’a. It has an extended middle: widening protests, unfolding chaos, and the re-assertion of Syrian leader Assad’s power via Russian assistance. The end hasn’t yet arrived, but it is within sight and looks decidedly grim.

2. What is it like to document a tragedy that is ongoing?

There is a heightened sense of responsibility. I strive to get the facts right in all of my books, but where the victims or their relatives are still alive, incorrectly telling their stories would be a cruel additional wound.

3. In an afterword, you describe visits to Syrian refugee camps in Greece. What did these trips bring to your book?

They starkly underscored the personal nature of the tragedy. They reminded me that real people — people with spouses, parents and children, and people with both good and bad impulses, some carrying age-old sectarian grievances — endure the miseries of war and refugee life. And yet, amid the deprivations of the camps, generosity was inextinguishable. At one camp, a woman lent my wife a raincoat. It was a small gesture of kindness — under ordinary circumstances. Would I have trusted a stranger in similar circumstances?

4. Is it difficult to draw painful things?

The difficulty wasn’t in the painful nature of the imagery but in its seriousness. I didn’t want my drawings to drift unintentionally into glibness or flippancy. Art Spiegelman demonstrated, with Maus, that no tale is beyond a graphic novel, a fact proved by David Small’s Stitches, Jacques Tardi’s It Was the War of the Trenches, and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, to name just a few.

5. What do drawings do that photographs cannot?

A drawing is not constrained by the limitations of the physical world. An artist can expand, diminish, or group important elements in ways beyond a “realistic” photograph. And drawings are exempt from the voyeuristic quality that sometimes inhabits disaster photos.

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