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Drowned City – 2016 Orbis Pictus Winner, Sibert Honor

Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans

Written and Illustrated by Don Brown
Published by Houghton Mifflin Books for Children
ISBN: 978-0-544-15777-4
Grades 7 and Up
In the interest of full disclosure, we want our readers to know that Mary Ann served on the Orbis Pictus Committee that selected Drowned City as its 2016 winner.

Book Review
“A swirl of unremarkable wind leaves Africa and breezes toward the Americas. It draws on energy from warm Atlantic water and grows in size.” So begins the “vicious hurricane” that becomes Katrina, and so begins Drowned City, Don Brown’s masterful work of graphic nonfiction; through it, the genre of graphic nonfiction has come of age. Brown includes the speech bubbles and dialogue that are so much a part of the graphic novel and comic genres. However, it differentiates itself from graphic “nonfiction” of the past with its precision. No speech bubble is left un-sourced. If there is dialogue, the words are lifted from a news story or interview and carefully given attribution in the Source Notes, and an extensive bibliography is included that invites teen and tween readers deeper into the exploration of the tragedy. This is narrative nonfiction at its best, with swift pacing, rising tension, and an unfolding of actions that range from the horrifying to the beautiful. Brown does not spare his readers from the worst of details; images of dead bodies and starving people are clear, though handled responsibly. Through text and illustrations, events are depicted from the perspectives of all involved, from first responders, hospital workers and everyday citizens, to President George W. Bush himself. Drowned City prompts critical thinking in the areas of science and engineering, public policy, human rights, civic engagement, and, of course, race and social class. Its audience of teens and tweens, who have no memory of the events of 2005, except those who living in Louisiana or the greater New Orleans area, whose very lives have been permanently impacted by these events, will soon be voting citizens in our democracy. For them, this book is essential reading, providing diverse readers with an accessible pathway into complex considerations.
Teaching Ideas and Invitations
Genre Study: Graphic Nonfiction. Drowned Cityis a “standout” within the field of graphic nonfiction because it is actually nonfiction, and is decidedly nota graphic novel. Why do we still call all book-length texts adopting the comic book format graphic novels, when they aren’t? As mentioned in the above book review, even though Don Brown uses speech bubbles, each piece of dialogue has a source attribution from a newspaper or magazine article, television or radio story, or government report. Working with your school librarian, collect a range of graphic nonfiction. You might want to draw on the YALSA Great Graphic Novels for Teens list (again, please note the terminology with your students – graphic novel award with a nonfiction section). Most likely, your books will disproportionately be biography, a common form of the genre. Have students read the texts and compare and contrast them to Drowned City. You might want to include Brown’s other piece of graphic nonfiction, The Great American Dust Bowl. How are they similar? How are they different? Task them with developing evaluation criteria for graphic nonfiction. What elements are essential?  How much liberty should author-illustrators have? Finally, have students take on the genre, and attempt to create “graphic nonfiction shorts” on a topic, in which they adhere to their own evaluation guidelines.
Examining Text Construction: Digging Into Drowned City. Using the Tree Ring model introduced in Teaching with Text Sets,have your students immerse themselves in the source material used by Brown to create the text. Start off by having them read the graphic nonfiction work. When complete, have students share their questions about Hurricane Katrina and the events as they unfolded in August 2005 and then organize their questions by category. Use those categories as a “way into” the back matter of the text. Have students categorize the source material listed in the back of the book so that the sources align with their questions. Working with your school librarian (if you are lucky enough to have one), put together a digital repository of Brown’s source material.  Much of it is open-source; for those that are not, the digital databases provided by your state for public and school libraries can help. Books can be obtained, if necessary, through inter-library loan. Have your students explore the resources to see specifically want was included and excluded in Drowned City. What did Brown include and exclude? What new questions do they now have about representing this enormously complex event? Finally, have students read other books on the topic, or excerpts from them, to compare and contrast how others have represented this event. High school teachers will want to draw from this selected list from Lit Hub. Middle school teachers will want to draw from this selected list from School Library Journal.
Civic Engagement: Have your students read Drowned City (2015) and watch Spike Lee’s documentary When the Levees Broke (2010). You might decide to have the class start with the book and half with the documentary, and then switch places. How do they represent the same event in similar ways? What are the differences? To what do you attribute those differences? What people appear in both texts? The documentary was released for the fifth anniversary of the hurricane, the graphic novel on the tenth. Are there any differences due to that five-year gap? If you are a language arts teacher interested in exploring the concept of civic engagement more deeply with your social studies or humanities department, you might want to use the Teaching theLevees curriculum project, created by teachers and teacher educators in conjunction with the documentary, as a starting point.
Science Integration: New Orleans as a “Fishbowl” If you are a middle or high school language arts teacher, team up with a science teacher in order to better understand the biological, physical, and engineering sciences that explain the natural and manmade elements of the Mississippi Delta region and Lake Pontchartrain that impact New Orleans. Use the NPR podcast “Billions Spent on Flood Barriers But New OrleansStill a Fishbowl” as a catalyst for your exploration. Next, have them explore the digital texts listed below in Further Explorations to see the challenges that current engineers face, and the ways in which environmentalist and wildlife experts are also considering the challenges. Digital links in a previous Classroom Bookshelf entry on Over in the Wetlandscan also contribute to this exploration.
Role-Playing While Reading. Have your students read Drowned City from the perspective of one of the following: engineer, first responder, urban planner, elected official, and health care professional. You may want to brainstorm other perspectives as well, and ensure that your students understand their roles at some base level before they begin. As students read, they should take three-column notes on what people in “their” role are doing and/or what events transpiring connect to that person’s role in some way (example: an urban planner was most likely not in the Ninth Ward during the storm, but students can “mine” details about the Ninth Ward from the perspective of someone who is an expert on urban planning). The first column should list what happens and what people say and do. The middle column should include a statement on what your students think should be happening. The third column should list any questions they have at that point in the book. Students can be placed in small groups based on their role, in which they compare and contrast their findings, and then in mixed-role groups. When the book is completed, students should mine the resources in The New York Times and National Public Radio links listed below. What is happening now to prepare New Orleans for the next hurricane? What are people in the roles the students “took on” doing?  In their small groups, have them write official reports to you on the current progress that is being made, any of the controversies surrounding that, and any original recommendations. You might even want to have students present their findings to a panel of local people in those roles.
Natural Disaster Planning. How prepared is your area for a natural disaster? What forms of weather are most common? What event has been your “Katrina” on some level? After reading Drowned City,have your students list the challenges faced by the city of New Orleans before, during, and after the hurricane. What were the key problems faced by public officials, first responders, and citizens? Next, list the most “threatening” natural event/disaster that might hit your area. Have students conduct research in small groups on how different local agencies provide support and make recommendations. Students might want to take photographs of parts of your town, city, or county that are particularly vulnerable. Next, have your students use Piktochart to create an original infographic that shares that information with your school community.
Book Clubs and Katrina. Students may want to explore the events of Hurricane Katrina in book clubs/literature circles that include Drowned City as an option.  At the high school level, you can obtain adult fiction and nonfiction titles from Lit Hub for fiction and nonfiction, and at the middle school level, you can obtain middle grade and young adult fiction and nonfiction titles from School Library Journal and the Classroom Bookshelf entry on Jacqueline Woodson’s Beneath a Meth Moon. Students can explore individual texts in their book club groups. When completed, they can be placed in mixed groups in which they compare and contrast how the events related to the Katrina were depicted in each text. What are the experiences of African-American citizens, as well as the characters based on them? Students can write from the perspective of people featured in the nonfiction works or as characters in the novels, and perform first-person monologues.
Critical Literacy

Katrina and Race. How did Katrina impact white Americans and African Americans in different ways? How did middle class, working class, and poor African Americans get treated differently by the media? Do African Americans continue to bear the burden of Katrina disproportionately? Start of with this Salon article that appeared just after the hurricane. In the article, the writers discuss how Yahoo News exposed the racist language of Associated Press, one of America’s major news sources. The story compares two pictures of people wading through the high waters. In one picture, the white Americans have “found” food while in the other, the African American “looted” the food. Have your students discuss this specific use of language, and then mine through the digital resources below to analyze other Katrina-related texts with this lens. Students can share their findings with one another, and then use that experience to investigate the language used in your local paper over a period of several weeks. What do they notice? What are the implications for their own language use?
Looking at Language: Whether or not you complete the above Science integration, have your students listen to the same NPR podcast “Billions Spenton Flood Barriers But New Orleans Still a Fishbowl.” Ask them to listen to the language used to talk about flooding, the levees, and natural weather events such as hurricanes. You might want to create a graphic organizer in advance with the names of people who speak in the podcast, and their public/private roles. What language does each use to talk about the flood barriers and levees? After they listen to the article, have students compare and contrast the differences in language used in small groups. Why are the remarks on language by Sandy Rosenthal, of the grass roots group so important to consider? In particular, he states: “And it is my hope that when anyone talks about the flooding of New Orleans that it’s similar to the Titanic. When anyone talks about the Titanic 100 years ago, nobody talks about the iceberg. The iceberg, like a hurricane, exposed human mistakes and human arrogance.” What makes such a statement so powerful? What does he mean? After listening to the article, have those small groups select another topic to research together over several days. As they research, what terms do they find appearing and reappearing in the texts they explore (text, audio, video, visual)?  How do people use the language in similar and different ways, and why? How are these terms possibly embedded in issues of power and privilege?
New Orleans of the Future: Is the city prepared for the next hurricane to hit? What are the planning processes currently underway? What Drowned City revealed to your students, who most likely have no personal memory of the disaster, is the ways in which people in different parts of the city and the country viewed the unfolding disaster from very different perspectives. More importantly, race and class identities were key determinants in who survived and who didn’t, who faced squalid conditions and extreme danger and who managed to escape for the duration of the storm. How does current work impact different populations of the city and how can one find out? Have students explore information provided by different entities such as the UnitedStates Army Corps of Engineers, the City of New Orleans, and non-profit groups such as What information is provided consistently across these different sources? What information appears on one or two sites but not all three? What problems can your students anticipate the city experiencing when the next hurricane hits?
Further Explorations
Don Brown’s Official Website
YALSA Great Graphic Novels for Teens
HBO: When the Levees Broke
Teaching the Levees (Curriculum for When the Levees Broke)
Hurricane Katrina, New York Times, Times Topic
Hurricane Katrina, National Public Radio (NPR)
Hurricane Katrina, The History Channel
City of New Orleans Website
United States Army Corps of Engineers, New Orleans District

Mary Ann Cappiello About Mary Ann Cappiello

Mary Ann is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former public school language arts and humanities teacher, she is a passionate advocate for and commentator on children’s books. Mary Ann is the co-author of Teaching with Text Sets (2013) and Teaching to Complexity (2015) and Text Sets in Action: Pathways Through Content Area Literacy (Stenhouse, 2021). She has been a guest on public radio and a consultant to public television. From 2015-2018, Mary Ann was a member of the National Council of Teachers of English's Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction (K-8) Committee, serving two years as chair.