You have to be careful if you set out to get prolific children’s nonfiction author Don Brown to come to your library. You might accidentally get Donald Mitchell Brown, Jr., who writes adult thrillers and military nonfiction. Or you might get Dan Brown, an adult writer of best-selling thrillers that have been turned into movies. But if you get the correct Don Brown he will fascinate your students with his stories and how he goes about researching and writing his books. As he says, “I love when kids, notoriously uninterested in history, embrace my enthusiasm for the subject.”
Don Brown came relatively late to the writing of children’s fiction, although he made up for lost time once he got started by publishing at a furious pace with several different publishing houses. He was a free-lance illustrator and it wasn’t until he was 40 years old, married and with two young daughters, that he decided to give them a story about a female role model by writing and drawing it himself. This is how Ruth Law Thrills a Nation came about in 1993.
It is noticeable that Brown started as an artist and fits quite readily into the current nonfiction graphic novel genre that is so popular in children’s books. He uses his art to set a consistent tone and to provide atmosphere for the time and place he is working in. What is rarer is to find an artist who also has the skill set to do voluminous historical research and to distill it down to manageable, high interest text for young readers. According to Brown, it is easier to engage young readers by choosing dramatic and even tragic subject matter. But the research into these tragic events can be much more difficult. “As a New Yorker, the book about the 911 attack (America is Under Attack!) struck a personal chord and was emotionally draining. I felt I owed a special debt to the victims to accurately tell their story to a generation who had not lived through the tragedy.” His book coming out in the Fall of 2018, Unwanted, about Syrian refugees, was also difficult to stay unemotional and objective about. Another criteria for picking subjects, other than dramatic stories, has been picking female protagonists because he feels they have been underreported in children’s nonfiction.
Don Brown is both a student and a practitioner of graphic novels. He follows graphic novel artists of both children’s books and adult books. He is particularly impressed by the works for adults by a couple of Frenchmen, Nicholas De Crecy and Tardi. He also found the American David Small’s Stitches to be “a superb and unsettling memoir”. His artistic style has also been influenced by his study of cartoonists such as Ronald Searle and Ralph Steadman. He is also a great fan of the work of children’s book artists such as Peter Sis, Lane Smith, John Klassen and Laura Vaccaro Seeger.
Another strength of Brown is that he moves back and forth easily between picture book nonfiction and books for older readers. He will do picture book biographies like Aaron and Alexander (written before the famous musical hit Broadway), Wizard From the Start or Henry and the Cannons, but he also does nonfiction graphic books for middle school and teen readers like The Great American Dustbowl, Older Than Dirt and Drowned City. It is his opinion, “With care and sensitivity, I believe most subjects can be presented to both younger and older readers.”
Mr. Brown has written some historical fiction as well through the years and he finds the research has to be just as painstaking, “portraying history inaccurately can only damage your fictional narrative.” Although his historical fiction was well-reviewed he has decided that “the focus of my attention now is on nonfiction.” He also has never felt like he needed to illustrate other people’s texts because “I’ve been in the fortunate position of being too busy illustrating my own books to consider working on another author’s project.” Too many books and not enough time is probably inevitable for someone who researches, writes and illustrates their own books.
There is no end to the stories that fascinate Don Brown. He is currently working on nonfiction graphic novels about the moon landing and the 1918 Spanish influenza.