Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez. Carolrhoda Lab, 2015
A gripping work opens with the explosion of the white school in New London, Texas, in 1937. The fictional story, woven around the facts of this actual event that killed almost 300 students and teachers, examines racism, sexual abuse, religion, and the powerful pull of family. At the center is the love between two teenagers, Mexican American Naomi and African American Wash. Much of the novel is in flashback. Wash befriends Naomi and her younger half-siblings, twins Cari and Beto, after they move to town. Naomi’s white stepfather, Henry, sexually abused her years before when her mother was dying. She told no one. When it becomes clear Henry’s intent, at the suggestion of his pastor, is to marry Naomi, she is desperate to leave, but she won’t go without the twins. Wash is determined to run away with them, despite his own family’s plans for him to go to college. Then the school explodes. In the aftermath, an angry and grieving white community is looking for someone to blame, and Wash is in their sights. Vivid, complex, and nuanced in both characters and telling, this novel is also incredibly forthright, building to a brutal climax. The violence is horrifying, but to make it anything less would be to undermine telling the truth of racism and sexual violence. But there is a thread of hope in one survivor’s determination to tell the story whole. © Cooperative Children’s Book Center
- Fire is a recurring theme in the book. Why do you think the author repeatedly uses fire and how does it affect the story?
- What role does gossip play in the story? Does it affect the outcomes of any of the characters in the end? What purpose do the chapters from the point of view of “The Gang” have?
- This story is based on a historical event. Why do you think most people have never heard of such a tragic event?
Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans by Don Brown. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015
An informative and deeply moving chronicle of Hurricane Katrina opens as “a swirl of unremarkable wind leaves African and breezes toward the Americas. It draws energy from the warm Atlantic water and grows in size.” As he did in The Great American Dust Bowl, Don Brown offers a factual account that makes brilliant use of the graphic novel form both to provide information and to underscore the human impact and toll of a disaster. As the storm builds and unleashes its power, it wreaks havoc—on levees and on neighborhood and on people, so many people. Some of those affected wouldn’t leave the city of New Orleans; most of them couldn’t, and this becomes an integral part of his narrative: all the failures that pile up one after another. Empty Amtrak trains leaving the city before the storm when Amtrak’s offer of transport was ignored; thousands of people in misery at the convention center with FEMA seemingly oblivious to their well-documented plight; some police deserting their posts, even joining the looting. The travesties go on and on. But there is courage and compassion, too, including many who risked their lives to help others. Brown pulls no punches in a book offering a clear and critical point of view. The straightforward presentation of grim and sometimes shocking facts paired with emotionally rich images results in a work that is powerful, poignant, and sometimes haunting. There is clear documentation with an extensive list of source notes for this notable work. (MS) ©2015 Cooperative Children’s Book Center
- What lessons have we learned from the many failures of the response to Hurricane Katrina? Are we more prepared to help people in the event of another natural tragedy?
- Clearly poverty played a role in the tragedies of Katrina. How do you think things would have played out differently in a more affluent city?
- What were some of the stylistic choices made by Don Brown when he illustrated this book? How did choices affect your reaction or further your understanding?