The Great American Dust Bowl – a graphic novel by Don Brown- is worthy of independent reading in 5th grade and up. I’d also recommend student-led discussions about Brown’s craft and “how” he puts together this text. This would also be a great read for middle school striving readers and English Learners who are grappling with textbook content on this period. Brown’s illustrations “get at” the gravity of the terrible storms during this period and his prose is straightforward. My only gripe is that he doesn’t make it clear enough that pulverizing the land (out of greed and out of desperation) led to this issue. He describes how tractors made plowing easier but doesn’t really hammer the idea that this tore the grasses from the earth – the grasses with deep roots that had held the soil down. Then when he describes the drought and the beginning of the dust storms – there is one sentence buried in a paragraph that gets at how the plowing was so destructive (actually, this is implied) – “neither grass nor wheat could hold the dry pulverized earth together.” That we destroyed the land and there was nothing to hold the sand down IS A HUGE part of why the DUST BOWL happened. BUT if readers have some background knowledge on this, then the effects, the impact that Brown describes and illustrates will be all the more powerful.
After I read The Great American Dust Bowl, I looked up Don Brown and realized I had another book by him – America is Under Attack (2011). This is not a graphic novel, but again – Brown’s writing is straight to the point and his illustrations reveal the tension, the sense of urgency, the devastation of this situation. I would say a much younger reader is the audience – maybe a sophisticated 3rd grader who can handle the content BUT again I’d put this in striving and EL middle school students’ hands as a start to digging deeper. My caution would be to create some kind of graphic to keep what was happening in the North and South towers straight – Brown begins to refer to what’s happening in each, creating a thread of connected events in particular towers. I found myself having to look back to see what had happened in which tower previously.America Is Under Attack (Brown, 2011) is one of four titles in a series. I have not read the other three, but would be interested in reading and considering for a classroom library!