#ALAMW19 Recap: Interviewing Don Brown, author of The Unwanted, 2019 Nonfiction Award Winner

If you were living in a refugee camp and met a non-refugee stranger in need, would you be willing to give them the coat off your back? What if you were thousands of miles away from home, and that was the only coat that you owned? During his time at the Syrian refugee camps in Greece, this is the selflessness and generosity that Don Brown and his family experienced from the refugees there. In his book, The Unwanted: Stories of Syrian Refugees, the 2019 YALSA Nonfiction Award Winner, Brown (the book’s writer and illustrator) imparts this message, that Syrian refugees are ordinary individuals placed in extraordinary circumstances, forced to make terrifying decisions but maintaining their humanity, generosity, and kindness.

What inspired you to write a book focused on the Syrian refugee crisis?

Well, at the height of the crisis – this is a depressing story – there was the news report of the drowned infant on the beach. I don’t know if you remember this.

Yes. Very well.

It was very disturbing. That tragedy pointed me in a certain direction and I started to research, started reading about it. It touched me and I realized that, as time went by, I think it was a story that many people didn’t quite fully grasp and, I’m pretty sure, young people didn’t fully grasp. I thought it would be a terrific tale to tell them so that they could understand it on a human level.

This is a heavy book, and deals with very serious content. But it’s a book that is important to have available for young readers in this day and age. Are there any myths that you dispel in this book that you would like your young readers to take particular notice of?

I don’t know if there are myths that I meant to dispel. I think I just wanted to portray such a complex and grand tragedy on an individual human scale because you can get lost. They say (and I might be getting this quote wrong somehow), “A million people die, that’s a news report. One person dies, that’s a tragedy”. Because it’s down to an individual. You can project yourself into an individual. And I think that’s what I was trying to do – I wanted the reader to project themselves into those situations. Show that the people who were caught up in it were really not much different than we are. I want them to think about what would happen if this tragedy affected them. How would they react? What would their life look like? I think I just wanted to bring it down to a digestible scale.

How long did it take you to conduct and compile the research to accurately convey the experience of the Syrian refugees as you have it here in this book?

The whole process was roughly one year – that’s including doing the artwork. The research wasn’t difficult to accumulate. There’re tons of articles if you dig into it, cross all sorts of media. Newspapers, magazines, books.

Yes! You have an excellent bibliography here.

Yeah! Anybody could go online tomorrow and you’d be awash with stories about the Syrian refugees. I did travel to Greece and visited a few camps. My interactions with people in the camps was limited. But I didn’t really need their stories to finish the book. Not to discount their stories, but there was nothing really extraordinary about hose individual stories. The true impact is the sheer volume of stories told over and over and over again. In these visits, I just wanted to confirm what I had read. What was inferred about the experience seemed to play out in real life. In that sense, the visits were invaluable –  to keep the correct tone of the book.

Can you talk about the impact that your art has on the way that you tell these stories.

Every piece of art should have a point of view, so every book should have a point of view, and I’m trying to share that.Obviously the text promotes that point of view; the art should be the handmaid to that purpose. Somehow it has to add to or enhance it, so that’s always in the back of my mind. The whole idea is really a collection of vignettes that’re woven together to make a greater story. Any particular vignette, there’s something I’m trying to convey, either of terror or want or hunger or fear. So I’m trying to figure out how to make the art advance that particular element of the vignette. One spread shows a family escaping over the Turkish border at night. It’s done pretty much in silhouette. The idea of the family moving up the hill, the three panels show them moving up the hill slowly, holding hands sometimes, kids running ahead sometimes, from a long shot so the figures look relatively small. I think I was looking to put the solitary nature of their struggle, going up the hill is a metaphor for trying to accomplish something. Those kinds of things go through my head.

Are there any other takeaways that you feel are worth mentioning after you visited the refugee camps and spaces in Greece?

I think people should be able to extrapolate a refugee crisis in Europe, coming out of the Middle East, to the refugee situation in the Mexican American border and how we should approach that. Do we approach it with fear and anger, or generosity and openness of spirit? There was a time in this country when we embraced immigrants. We took in over one hundred thousand Cubans at one time. After the Vietnam War, we took over three hundred thousand Vietnamese people into this country. So I think the question for Americans isn’t that we have to take in all refugees or immigrants, which I don’t think anyone espouses. But we should certainly take in some!

Considering the size and the wealth of the country, I think it should be within our powers to be generous, because the situations could be reversed. We could be those people knocking on the door begging for shelter. I think that’s what I’d like a reader to take away.

The last line in the postscript is “There are about 5.7 million registered Syrian refugees. In the first 3 months of 2018, the US has accepted 11 for resettlement.” That is a stark fact.

Yes, yes it is. It doesn’t say good things about the United States. It doesn’t necessarily say good things about the current administration or the people who run this government. I think a different leader could expose America’s basic good heartedness.

I have one last question for you, and you’ve kind of touched on this a bit, but I just want to make sure we cover everything. If there’s one thing you’d have the world learn from reading this book, what would it be?

I think the one thing…I’d go back to what I said, that this could be you. Remember, this could be you. That’s the underlying message.

Any upcoming projects?

I have a couple of graphic novels coming out next year. One is a part of a series about big ideas that changed the world and the first one is Rocket to the Moon. It talks about the history of the science behind rocketry, people going to the moon, it’s the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong moon landing. Another book is coming out with Houghton Mifflin. That’s a book about the Spanish Influenza. The rocket book is for slightly younger kids; the Spanish Influenza book is for the same age group that would be interested in The Unwanted.