Blazing sights and sounds dominate the news. Very young readers may have “tuned out” the U.S. impeachment firestorms, but the vivid, heartrending images of Australia’s animals burned in that country’s worst-ever firestorm season are unforgettable. These wildfires sparked just as California’s recent blazes came under control . . . for now. Incredibly, some political leaders in both countries still deny the impact of climate change on increased wildfires. With Australia’s firestorm season still only half over, today is an apt time to spotlight the impact of fires on people as well as animals. (I also have a personal interest here, with good acquaintances in Australia and a son in California.) So today I look at relevant picture and chapter books aimed at young readers and a memorable graphic novel that will appeal best to readers teen and up.
Early elementary readers will appreciate the simple text in just-published The World’s Worst Wildfires (2019). Author Tracy Nelson Maurer also serves this audience well by providing historical as well global examples of wildfires notable for their duration, scope, and impact. Firefighting is briefly mentioned here, but it is not the focus of this primarily photograph-illustrated book, part of “The World’s Worst Disasters” series.
Little Smokey (2019), on the other hand, is all about firefighting! Author/illustrator Robert Neubecker’s vividly colored drawings heighten the adventures of a team of anthropomorphized airplanes, each with its own role in curtailing wildfires. Neubecker’s storyline shows how a “young,” small plane perseveres, discovering her place on this team and along the way earning the name “Little Smokey.” The cartoon-like features of people as well as airplanes here belie the relative sophistication of Neubecker’s visual storytelling: double spread pages emphasize dramatic moments while inserted panels and panel-free, montaged images move the action along briskly. Planes swoop and swerve, dive and dash. Rich, dense color is achieved by combining watercolor with digital illustration atop the initial pencil drawings.
Fans of The Little Engine Who Could will enjoy this book’s resulting straight forward story line and clear-cut characters. Little Smokey, with its retro Golden Book look, also holds potential for a range of audiences. I think it would work well as a tale read-aloud to preschoolers, while its extensive back matter about types of wildfires and wildfire equipment, personnel, and prevention will interest older or more able readers. Those kids could enjoyably gravitate to Kathy Furgang’s more informative, photo-illustrated Wildfires (2015), perhaps also joining tweens and teens in absorbed reading of another National Geographic, photo-rich book, Mark Thiessen with Glen Phelan’s Extreme Wildfire: Smoke Jumpers, High-Tech Gear, Survival Tactics, and the Extraordinary Science of Fire (2016). Thiessen often writes compellingly from the tense viewpoint of endangered firefighters in this 110 page volume. Yet both Thiessen and Furgang also point out how new growth occurs after wildfires and how “controlled burns” can contain some wild blazes. These books will satisfy readers seeking the “whys” and “hows” of wildfires, but other graphic works address the emotional scenes—the “wows” and “oh, nos”—current in recent news.
Stirred by images of Australia’s animal burn victims, readers will appreciate Nic Bishop’s Marsupials (2009). This award-winning author/photographer’s amazing close-up photos of healthy marsupials, primarily from Australia, is a comforting follow-up to those wildfire scenes. Bishop’s clearly-written text, with essential facts highlighted in colored print, will work well for readers later elementary age on up. A more playful overview of marsupials is available in What to Expect When You’re Expecting Joeys: A Guide for Marsupial Parents (and Curious Kids) (2012). Readers of all ages will appreciate the expressive features of illustrator Stephane Jorisch’s cartoon-like illustrations, but—while some readers will enjoy author Bridget Heos’ word play and jokes—other readers may find her wording at times too “cute.” Both books provide more information about well-known Australian animals, those spotlighted in wildfire news, than author/illustrator Frane Lessac’s A is for Australian Animals (2017). That colorful alphabet book—showing creatures in their natural habitats—is a better choice for readers wanting to know about the breadth and location of the continent’s species.
Big Red Kangaroo (2013), written by Claire Saxby and illustrated by Grahame Byrne, personalizes the typical experiences of this largest, widespread kangaroo species through the life of a fictional male called “Red.” I really enjoyed Saxby’s lyrical language—for instance, when these nocturnal creatures wake up “the night orchestra begins.” I also appreciated how she supplements this account of Red and his family’s experiences page-by-page with italicized factual information. Byrne’s somewhat abstract, somberly colored charcoal illustrations, appropriate for their nighttime setting, convey emotions through animal body language and features. Byrne makes consistent, effective use of double page spreads to dramatize and give context to the details Saxby describes. Readers see and understand more about the animal lives disrupted or cut short by wildfires, in Australia known as bushfires.
Similarly, as author/illustrator Brian Fies writes in the Afterword to his graphic novel A Fire Story (2019), his book is about not just his family’s experiences but those of “thousands of people who lost everything, and hundreds of thousands who were affected less directly but still traumatically.” The firestorm described in this memoir took place in Northern California on October 9, 2017. Fies, a professional cartoonist, coped at first by hand-drawing his impressions in a much shorter, 18 page version of A Fire Story, posting this online on October 13 and 15, 2017. It immediately went viral. It was even made into an animated video by Fies’ local public TV station. Readers will be intrigued to see how the original, powerful web comic, reproduced in the Afterward, has been only slightly altered but significantly expanded in the recently published 140 page edition.
Teens on up will best appreciate this memoir, with its emphasis on the firestorm’s impact on adults and families with young adult children. Fies includes the experiences of five other individuals or families, some poor or wealthy, as well as his own middle-class household. Beginning with the dramatic announcement, “On Monday, My House Disappeared,” Fies uses color to highlight the different stages and impacts of the fire storm. Physical destruction is coded orange or red, while immediate emotional trauma appears against yellow backgrounds. Dealing with the frustrating paperwork and hard choices in subsequent weeks and months is often signaled by blue. How does one cope with the loss of a lifetime of photographs and memorabilia? Fies effectively uses lists to bullet point such information, while overhead shots are one of the many effective visual techniques he employs to show the scope of the fire and its resulting physical confusion. Another technique highlighting significant moments or realizations is the centering of just one image on a panel-free page. The few photographs scattered throughout the book are effective codas, highlighting how insightful and dramatic the drawn narrative is, belying any assumptions about Fies’ cartoonish drawing style. The faces here show anger and anguish, impatience and annoyance.
There is as well, though, humor in A Fire Story, sometimes rueful or bitter, as Fies and others deal with the unrealistic “help” offered by well-meaning people and the ignorance some officials display. Sometimes, Fies even laughs at himself, as his own expectations change. There is also warmth and hope here, as Fries depicts his young adult children stepping in to help their parents and the kindness offered by both by neighbors and strangers from nearby communities. A Fire Story ends hopefully, with its author standing on bare ground, near burned tree stumps, watching his new home about to be built. In a boxed aside, he notes “Even if you lose the place and the stuff, home can still be the memory and hope and promise of those things.” The facing, final page visually confirms this realization, containing as it does only a centered image of flowers blossoming out of dirt.
Impressed by A Fire Story, I now intend to catch up with Brian Fies’ earlier graphic books: the award-winning memoir Mom’s Cancer (2005;2006) and the award-nominated Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? (2012), centered on ideas spawned at world fairs from 1939 onward. Having enjoyed Big Red Kangaroo so much, I will also be on the look-out for Claire Saxby and Graham Byrne’s other collaboration on Australian animals, Emu (2015; 2016). First, though, I shall probably catch up with an early work by Greg Egan, one of my favorite nonfiction prose writers. His The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America (2009) describing that president’s establishment of the National Park system is a tonic I need right now, as we face the conflagration that is President Trump’s impeachment and presidency. I need that reminder that disaster can be followed by restorative and transformative public policy.