*Each week in the month of August I'll feature one children's book about Hurricane Katrina.*
Tackling a historical, national event is a daunting task for any author. Make it an event from recent history and the difficulty increases. Now do those things and write it for children. How much can you say to present a horrific event to children realistically without making it melodramatic or nightmare inducing? This was the task at hand for Rodman Philbirck and with Zane and the Hurricane he manages to tell a full scope story that will keep inquisitive readers fascinated and wondering how such a thing ever happened in America.
I can only imagine how Philbrick outlined the story to be sure to cover benchmark markers that locals experienced during Katrina without making them feel like contrivances. The story will be hard for some. Bodies float in water, smells of rot and ruin surround Zane and his friends yet many young readers will be able to grapple with the subject matter.
Zane is in New Orleans with his dog Bandit to visit his grandmother before she passes away. He doesn't really know her, and she is the last in the New Orleans family line which comes from his dad's side. Hailing from New Hampshire, he doesn't understand the culture, foods or dialect of the place that he is visiting.
"The pastor, he's got a big voice that fills the place, and soon we're all kind of swaying back and forth in out seats and you don't even have to know the words, they're already in the air, waiting for you to sing them."
The storm hits and Zane and his dog are separated from his grandmother. There is no electricity, he has no phone signal and knows very little about the city in which he is stranded. Eventually he connects with a local girl, Malvina and her guardian, Mr. Tru. They attempt to find dry land and in the process come across thugs, they are mistaken for looters, they witness the chaos at the Superdome and see innocent people being treated as criminals.
"The stink is so awful it hurts, and Mr. try says there must be dead bodies trapped inside some of the houses, but there's nothing we can do about it."
Philbrick is an outsider to New Orleans and because he wrote his main character Zane as a fellow outsider it welcomes us all in to that position. To observe and experience the events as closely as one who is not of the place can. It doesn't tell the whole story of Katrina, it doesn't even tell the whole story of Katrina for the three central characters, but it does use empathy and intelligence to present the story that many young readers may be unfamiliar with. This book would be an excellent choice for accelerated readers or a grade school book club to discuss.