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Choosing Sides

The following guest post is by author Don Brown. Brown will be one of the keynote speakers for the Children’s Book Awards Luncheon at the 2016 NCTE Annual Convention.

DonBrownI’m drawn to history, fascinated by it, entranced by it. The chance to immerse myself in a different time has always been irresistible, and not merely for the chance to measure the nuts and bolts of my era against another. History reminds me that a shared humanity transcends time, space, and circumstance. It teaches me that love, hate, generosity, ambition, greed, self-sacrifice, and treachery have spun the windmills of human action forever.

Human nature has been the stock and trade of fiction writers forever; smart narrative history writers embrace it as well. But, you ask, doesn’t affixing generosity, ambition, greed, self-sacrifice, treachery, or a host of other value-laden labels to events or people obligate the writer to pass judgment, to take sides?

Yes.

While there have been times when nations or people were unequivocally wanton, predatory, or just plain stupid, it is ambiguity that mostly rules the day. Faced with uncertainty, a good history writer—grounded in the facts, and mindful of nuance—will still arbitrate and interpret.

He or she will have a “point of view.”

“Pay attention to this! Ignore that! This is my worldview—embrace it!” a good history book will proclaim.

The abandonment of New Orleans by local, state, and, especially, the federal government is the unapologetic point of view of my book Drowned City. It is the main thread running through the text, underscored by illustrations played out in
graphic-novel/comic-book panels.

Point of view stakes out the story on a landscape of moral high and low ground. It entwines the author’s knowledge and passion with the narrative. It reveals a context that the reader might not have been aware of. Without it, the story is as compelling as a grocery list, and with less utility. The cool part is that the reader doesn’t have to embrace the book’s point of view for it to be successful. It can be rejected, as long as the reader is provoked to thought.

And isn’t that the point of reading?

© Don Brown 2016

DrownedCityDon Brown is the author of many widely acclaimed books for children and young people. His graphic novel Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans is one of the most celebrated books of 2016, winning the 2016 NCTE Orbus Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children.