Stories of Syrian Refugees: Don Brown’s "The Unwanted" | Interview

In a series of vignettes depicting the experiences of Syrians before and after they choose to flee that country, and information on the refusal of many countries to accept these victims of violence, Brown has created a heartbreaking global and personal story.

 Listen to Don Brown reveal the story behind The Unwanted courtesy of


Don Brown has explored numerous topics in his illustrious career as an author and illustrator of books for children and teens. His subjects are historical figures and events, and most recently, incidents of tragic proportions from the Great American Dustbowl to Hurricane Katrina (Drowned City) to the 9/11 attacks (America is Under Attack). In 2017, the author visited Syrian refugee camps in Greece. On September 18, HMH Books for Young Readers will publish Brown’s resulting work of graphic nonfiction, The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees. Along with a series of vignettes of capsizing boats, sedated babies, children scavenging for food, and close-up images of individual faces, information on the number of refugees, and the refusal of many countries to accept these victims of violence, Brown has created a heartbreaking story that is both global and personal. The author’s dedication reads, “Across the world, more than 65 million people have been forced from their homes, half of whom are under eighteen years old. This book is dedicated to them.”

You have written a number of books that address catastrophic events and conflicts. How do you approach writing these complex stories, and what are your considerations when relating this information to a young audience?

I’m convinced large and complex stories can be broken down into small, digestible parts. America is Under Attack, Great American Dustbowl, Drowned City, and The Unwanted are collections of vignettes that are representative of larger facts. A chronological backbone—sometimes measured in years and other times by the hour—gives the vignettes shape.

As for presenting troubling information to young people, I believe they have a greater capacity for serious information than most adults give them credit for, though with the caveat that this is true when the information is presented honestly and without embellishment. Honestly, no readers, including young ones, like to be patronized, and once [something strikes that note] it makes them suspicious of everything you have written. Writing straightforwardly and without embellishment robs upsetting information of much of its emotion, letting readers digest the material in a manner consistent with his or her experience and knowledge.

And in illustrating this material, how do you approach it?

Illustrating destruction and violence is tricky. I’ll dial up or down the graphic nature of the art depending on the age of the intended readers. The Unwanted is aimed at an older audience, and the imagery is more evocative, though not explicit. Still, I tried to draw “around” the violence. For example, I didn’t directly depict the torture of boys but instead drew an indistinct, cast shadow of it.

Beyond the book’s opening mention of the Arab spring of 2011 and the incident in Syria that sparked mass protests and Bashar al-Assad’s ruthless response that escalated into civil war, you focus on the refugee experience in The Unwanted, and, as you state, “disregard information beyond that constraint.” Can you talk about that decision?

I was drawn to the plight of the refugees and wanted to keep my focus on them. I included only the necessary context to tell their story. Adding a full exploration of the life and politics of Syria—a confusing hodgepodge of ancient prejudices, local resentments, conflicting ambitions, unfulfilled desires, and international meddling—would have resulted in an ungainly tome of suspect interest to young readers.

The desperation and brutality that the refugees experience prior to their escape from Syria, and often, the violence and cruelty they face after leaving that country, are powerfully depicted. In addition to providing a historical overview, developing empathy must also be one of your objectives.

Yes. I’d like my readers to focus on our shared humanity and not our regional, ethnic, and religious differences.

In your author’s note you expressed “discomfort” as a “voyeur to tragedy” while visiting refugee camps in Greece as part of your research. But by bearing witness to this crisis, and others, don’t you offer readers information that leads to insight, potentially change?

I hope my books lead to insight!

My “discomfort” was a personal one. Perhaps I was too hard on myself at the time, but faced with a great tragedy in the flesh, heartbreaking and immediate, and seeing the NGO volunteers, impossibly dedicated and committed, the notion of my bearing “witness” seemed academic and anemic.



         Listen to Don Brown reveal the story behind The Unwanted courtesy of



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