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2023 Winner

Don Brown Wins CBG 2023 Nonfiction Award

By Betsy Kraft

Don Brown loved comics as a kid.  Among his favorites were Prince Valiant, Pogo, Superman --even Mary Worth.  Later he copied the style of cartoonist Bill Mauldin who drew images of two GI Joes on the battlefield during World War II.  It was decades before Brown, this year’s Children’s Book Guild Nonfiction Award winner, became the widely popular author/illustrator of more than forty children’s books.


Brown feels history has been pushed aside in primary and secondary schools. So he began to create stories showing not only known facts but also their broader implications in the country and the world.  When reading history, he looks for the actual events, but then “stays on for the story.” 


Children’s history books have tended to portray events and people as only heroic and avoid more nuanced interpretations, Brown said. He talked of Richard Johnson, President Van Buren’s vice president, as an example of a deeply flawed person who was responsible for atrocities to Native Americans but took a slave girl as his common law wife.  He acknowledged her openly, gave her his last name, and arranged for their two daughters to be educated as “free women of the future.” Such contradictions appear frequently in history, Brown noted, and children should not be shielded from the complexities of the past.


His picture book biographies feature many well-known characters such as Teddy Roosevelt, Thomas Edison, and Dolley Madison. But they also include those less famous.  He tells of Ruth Law, who, in 1916, overcame obstacles to attempt a one-day flight from Chicago to New York. Alice Ramsey’s Grand Adventure is the story of a turn-of-the-20th century young woman who was the first female to drive an automobile across the United States--even on unmarked dirt roads.


In his series Big Ideas that Changed the World, Brown explains in thorough and accessible detail the development of electricity (All Charged Up), computers (Machines that Think), and space exploration (Rocket to the Moon).

Once graphic novels came onto the children’s book scene Brown embraced the genre with enthusiasm.  In graphic novels, there are no rules, he said, and he can use dramatic and engaging drawings to profoundly enhance his text.  What followed were more than a dozen books for older teens. Not one to shy away from difficult subjects, Brown tackled somber topics such as the tragedy of 9/11 (America is Under Attack), the plight of refugees from Syria (The Unwanted), and Hurricane Katrina (The Drowned City).

The CBG award is certainly not Brown’s first.  His books have received YALSA Awards for Excellence in Nonfiction and have been included on YALSA’s best books of the years.  He has also received Sibert Honors, the Middle East Book Award for Youth Non-Fiction, and an Orbis Pictus Award.  His titles have been acclaimed by the Horn Book, Kirkus Review, School Library Journal and The New York Times.  In a starred Booklist review of A Shot in the Arm, the writer said: “Brown could be considered the format’s premiere historian for young readers; his exhaustive research is always coupled with an understanding of human motivation and an inviting, unostentatious visual style, all while connecting the past to the world we live in now. “


Brown was unanimously selected by the Guild’s nonfiction committee comprised of Tamara Stein, Katherine Marsh, and Caroline Hickey.  Presentation of the award began in 1977, each year honoring recipients including Isaac Asimov, David Macaulay, Jean Fritz, Tanya Bolden, Russell Freedman, and Catherine Reef.


Each of his books takes Brown approximately one year to write, astounding given his meticulous research and detailed illustrations.  His just-released book 83 Days in Maripol: A War Diary continues to educate and capture young readers, librarians, teachers and adults eager for more of his captivating stories of the past and present.


At this year’s Nonfiction Award celebration, the Guild also presented its annual Youth Literacy awards to Twinbrook Elementary School (Montgomery County, MD), Langdon Elementary and Charles Hart Middle Schools and School Without Walls (Washington, D.C.), and Summer Fun Stuff/Do Kind Works (Montgomery County, MD/Washington, D.C.).  Each winning school or organization received a $500 gift certificate to First Book.

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