Friday, June 26, 2020

Things I Tried to Bring to 'The Great Chicago Fire' Graphic Novel

When I was presented with writing the script for The Great Chicago Fire: Rising From the Ashes, I was a little intimidated. Chicago school kids study this topic inside and out. They become experts. Their teachers are already experts. Stacks of books have been written about this subject. What could I possibly bring to this that hasn't already been done?

As I began compiling research into this fascinating moment from history, I couldn't help but be impacted by current events happening all around me. A ban on Muslims entering America. Immigrants turned away at the southern border. Condemnation of refugees. Looking back at 1871 Chicago, Irish Catholic immigrants like Mrs. O'Leary were at the bottom of the social pecking order. And therefore easy to scapegoat.

So that's how I landed on telling the story through the eyes of two poor immigrant kids. While the graphic novel is nonfiction in that it relays the facts of the fire and includes first-hand accounts, I did use a device for the narrative arc: The fictive Franny and J.P., our protagonists, take us through the story and, I hope, make readers feel as if they're there in the action. Together with these siblings—and an orphaned puppy because we need kids to really care about what happens in the fire—we race down burning streets, past collapsing buildings, and into the lake to cool off.

I wanted kids to identify with Franny and J.P. and think about how frightening this disaster would feel. Unfortunately, devastating fires are not a thing of the past, as we see with Australia's terrifying wildfires in late 2019 and ongoing fires in the American West. I also wanted young readers to think about social issues, too, like how their parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents might have been treated when they arrived in America. And how we currently treat newcomers to our shores. The Irish who populated American cities in the middle of the 1800s were fleeing famine, starvation, and oppression, seeking a better life where their kids could thrive and prosper. How different is that from today's immigrants?

And through these protagonists' eyes twenty years later at the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, we see the city reborn with skyscrapers, new inventions and ideas, and hope. This part of the story was essential to me, in that when we write books for children, we need to give them hope. And we need to show them that while devastating things can and do happen in life, we can move forward. We can emerge better for it. Chicago burned to the ground, and it was terrifying. But like the phoenix that became a symbol of the city's rebirth, Chicago rose from the ashes.

Why should a child read this book? To start to understand that history isn't an isolated moment but rather a continuum. A raging river. And that we, both as individuals and as a people, learn from the hard times and work toward making things better. In the current moment of pandemic, economic instability, and push for social justice that is Summer 2020, let's hope again that we emerge from this better both as individuals and as a society.

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