The Deadly 1918 Flu Epidemic Gets a Fresh Treatment

Middle school students often tell me that history is boring. “We just memorize facts about dead people,” they say. Already, these 12- and 13-year-olds have come to see historical knowledge as little more than a list of names and dates. All breadth and no depth, the history they’ve encountered has been stripped of meaning. Where are the specific people? Where are the personal stories? No wonder so many kids are indifferent to our past.

Thank goodness, then, for nonfiction books like FEVER YEAR: The Killer Flu of 1918 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 96 pp. $18.99; ages 8 to 12), by Don Brown. This is graphic nonfiction: In an effort to return life and humanity to the historical story, Brown uses both words and pictures. His goal is clear — put readers directly into the action and make them part of the events. He achieves this goal in an unexpected way.

At first glance, the book’s text appears to be just the sort of history-telling that kids complain about. A typical page reads like this: “Thirty-five miles northwest of the pier, 45,000 soldiers crowded the Camp Devens Army base. On September 7, 1918, an infantryman reported sick. The infection exploded: The hospitals overflowed with 800 patients. In one 24-hour period, 66 men died.” By itself, the passage is hardly riveting. But here’s the thing. The text is not working alone. Brown uses an additional language in “Fever Year” — a visual one — and that language soars.

Brown is a master of the graphic page. Like some sort of artistic juggler he tosses panels one on top of another, changing perspective from image to image and switching scale and point of view in stunning and surprising ways. The result is both effective and affecting. When, for example, he zooms in on a micro-organism immediately followed by a close-up of a distraught scientist, he gives readers a real sense of the chaos. We can feel that time is running out.

In another anguishing yet astonishing series of wordless panels, Brown takes us to a soldier’s sickbed. The perspective is intimate. Positioned above the young man’s pillow, we experience his suffering through six almost identical panels, beginning with the onset of the patient’s first symptoms and ending with his final breath. It is a bold creative choice. With just a few simple lines, Brown has made us witnesses to the boy’s death. And suddenly, an event that happened a century ago truly matters. We feel sorrow and anger. We feel fear. But above all, we feel powerless — as powerless as people in 1918.

Brown’s drawings themselves are descriptive, but never fussy, retaining the freshness of pencil sketches made in the moment. These loose renderings, especially of people, were obviously made by a sympathetic and thoughtful hand. Yes, they are informative. More important, they are charged with authentic emotion.

Quotes. Statistics. Dates. Fact. Brown has taken the so-called “boring stuff” of history, combined it with masterly graphic composition and sensitive drawings and created something wonderful — a story that not only pulls us in, but pulls at our heartstrings. He has made the past matter. Young readers will not be indifferent to this telling. They certainly will not be bored.

Candace Fleming’s latest biography for young readers, “The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh,” will be published next spring.

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