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83 Days in Mariupol: A Librarian’s Perspective Review

83 Days in Mariupol by award-winning author Don Brown is not a feel-good graphic novel. It doesn’t shy away from the horrors of war, including shelling, bombing, gun violence, rape, baby and child murder, mass graves, starvation, thirst, and more. Is it necessary in a school library? Probably, considering the ongoing war in Ukraine. Did I enjoy reading this book? Not really.

AUTHOR: Don Brown
ILLUSTRATOR: Don Brown
SERIES: none
PUBLISHER: Clarion Books
PUBLICATION DATE: May 16, 2023
PAGES: 128
GENRE: graphic novel, nonfiction
SETTING: Mariupol, Ukraine, 2022-2023
GIVE IT TO: Grades 8+

AWARDS AND KUDOS

  • Booklist starred
  • BCCB starred
  • SLJ starred
  • Hornbook starred

PUBLISHER’S SUMMARY

A city ruined. In once quiet residential streets, two armies battle, driving people into cellars and basements with little food or water. No lights or heat. Dwindling medical supplies. Shells and bullets deliver cruel, random death to the young and old, men, women, and children.

This is Mariupol, a Ukrainian city and early target of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Bordering Russian-occupied territory, the coastal city seemed doomed to a defeat that would come within days, if not hours. Could Mariupol, and Ukraine, survive? As Russian rockets threatened the city, Ukrainians resisted, and with a heroic combination of sacrifice and bravery, the besieged city endured…for months. But it all came at a steep cost.

With compassion and his keen journalist’s eye, Sibert Honor creator Don Brown illuminates the horrors of Mariupol and the depredations of its people not seen in the city since World War II. He also shows that outside of Mariupol, the city’s agonies were mirrored by similar events occurring in towns and cities across Ukraine.

THE SHORT VERSION

Due to the nature of the content (war in Ukraine), I can see this book winning awards next January. Personally, I think it’s one of those books that wins awards based on the importance of the idea rather than whether it is well-done or appeals to YA readers.

WHAT I LIKED

I guess my favorite part about this book (and why I read it) is that it’s about the current war in Ukraine. I live outside the US and intentionally avoid any news coming from the US, but Ukraine news still trickles down to me. I wanted to know more about this important and historical situation, and I’m betting some high school students will also want to know more.

I love the graphic novel format to inform teens about current events. I’d love to see more books about the current situation in Ukraine, especially if those books told stories about specific people and families.

WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE

Oh my goodness, it is really not my intent to trash this book or the author. I really do respect the idea behind this, and I do think we need more graphic novels for teens about current and previous wars. I read several Goodreads and professional reviews, so I know I am quite alone in my “didn’t likes” here. But here goes…

MISLEADING MARKETING

Did the author actually go to Ukraine to write this book? I see nothing in the book to indicate that. Yet is is advertised as “a war diary” in the title and “journalistic” in the publisher’s blurb (see above). That makes it sound more personal than it actually is. This book reads more like a summary of Western news headlines…because that’s what it is.

SUPERFICIAL AND TOO SHORT

Where is the in-depth look at the causes of this war? Where is the examination of Russian propaganda (mentioned on one page only)? Why couldn’t there be more than one page about the extensive history between Ukraine and Russia? Where is the discussion of this war’s impact on other European nations? Where are the individual stories that are more than just a line or two?

At only 128 pages, there is ample opportunity to double the length of this graphic novel so it can properly portray this war.

IT IS NOT JOURNALISM

The publisher’s summary uses the phrase “journalist’s eye” to describe the reporting in this book. This is not journalism; it’s a cobbling together of news headlines and quotations that are in news articles.

The 4 pages of source notes and bibliography are all news articles.

I see no indication anywhere that the author went to Ukraine or that he personally interviewed any of the people whose stories appear in the book. It feels lazy, and it most definitely isn’t journalism.

Source Notes, page 1 (you can click the image to see it larger):

This is a Librarian's Perspective Review of 83 Days in Mariupol by Don Brown. It is a YA graphic novel about the ongoing war in Ukraine.

NOT A “WAR DIARY”

The book’s full title is 83 Days in Mariupol: A War Diary.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a diary as, “a book in which one keeps a daily record of events and experiences.”

This is not a diary. A diary is a personal account of someone’s experiences. This would be someone who has BEEN THERE and done that. If the author actually traveled to Ukraine and experienced any of this war firsthand or interviewed those who did experience it, it would have been mentioned, either in an author’s note, or more likely, within the story itself.

It wasn’t mentioned at all.

WHERE ARE THE PERSONAL ACCOUNTS?

The personal accounts of any of the Ukrainians whose stories briefly appear in the book would have made such interesting reading. It would have been so much more authentic than the one or two lines we get for most of the stories.

With atrocities such as these, the reader should easily FEEL the pain, grief, sorrow, and waste of war. But all we get are short, factual statements. This happened. Then this happened. Then this. There is little emotion behind what should be a very emotional story.

LITTLE MENTION OF PROPAGANDA

Some explanation of the war’s purpose feels a bit propaganda-y. The page below in particular is problematic for me. The author introduces Russian propaganda in one line at the end of the page. This is the first and last mention of it. Really?

This is a Librarian's Perspective Review of 83 Days in Mariupol by Don Brown. It is a YA graphic novel about the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Russian propaganda is such a huge part of this (and any) war. 83 Days in Mariupol is only 128 pages, so there is plenty of room to add a few pages to explore specific propaganda and add some serious intrigue to this story of war. I know I always enjoyed examining old war propaganda cartoons and posters in school, and I would have loved to see some specific examples of it in this book.

That the propaganda isn’t shown or described makes it more an accusation without support than fact. I know Russian propaganda exists. I know there is a ton of it, as there is anywhere, including in the US. But if you are going to mention it, then it should be explored at least a little. To be honest, this page reads more like Western media propaganda to me.

THE GLOVES ARE COMING OFF NOW…

Overall, this just feels lazy, like an award-winning author capitalizing on a tragic situation in a cheap and easy way. If Don Brown had traveled to Ukraine, if he had interviewed survivors, it would have been presented in the Source Notes, if not within the text. This isn’t presented at all, so it clearly didn’t happen.

The saddest part to me is, this will likely be an award contender next January. Awards tend to beget more awards, just as they do in movies and music and even at school. The same people tend to win over and over because we EXPECT them to win. 83 Days in Mariupol has already garnered four starred professional reviews. Did the reviewers read the same book I did? Or did they just expect the book to be so amazing that they overlooked serious flaws?

DIVERSITY

All people depicted are either Russian or Ukrainian. There is a brief mention of refugees of color being turned away at the borders of other countries (which also should have been explored further).

ARTWORK/ILLUSTRATIONS

Okay, here we go again…I was not a fan of the illustrations, either.

I liked the cover. The orange of the flames, the deep red of the title, and the varying shades of gray and brown draw me to the book and catch my eye.

Beyond the cover though, most of the illustrations just aren’t that interesting or engaging. They are just gray and white scribbles. Most people have simple facial features or no facial features at all. Maybe that’s a style choice to show that these could be any Ukrainians, but it does not make me feel any connection to the people. Again, I want their stories, not regurgitated news headlines.

Sample illustrations (you can click the illustrations to make them larger):

This is a Librarian's Perspective Review of 83 Days in Mariupol by Don Brown. It is a YA graphic novel about the ongoing war in Ukraine. 
And can we just stop with the teeny-tiny white font on a gray background? I read this one page at at time (not a two-page spread) on my large iPad. The display screen is 11 inches, larger than the 23cm (9 inches) size of the printed book. Even enlarged for my screen, the print is soooo small. And it’s not a great font for reading. Here are a few examples:

This is a Librarian's Perspective Review of 83 Days in Mariupol by Don Brown. It is a YA graphic novel about the ongoing war in Ukraine. This is a Librarian's Perspective Review of 83 Days in Mariupol by Don Brown. It is a YA graphic novel about the ongoing war in Ukraine. This is a Librarian's Perspective Review of 83 Days in Mariupol by Don Brown. It is a YA graphic novel about the ongoing war in Ukraine.

THEMES

  • war, war atrocities, Ukraine, Russia, Europe, NATO, Donbas region, Crimean Peninsula, rape, brutality, refugees, starvation, bombing

LIBRARIANS WILL WANT TO KNOW

Would adults like this book? I don’t think “like” is the right word here, but yes, I do think many adults will find it informative. Clearly, it’s already gotten much love from professional library journal reviewers.

Would I buy this for my high school library? Despite my many issues with this book, I would still buy it for my high school. Plenty of high schoolers do not know much about the situation in Ukraine, and the graphic novel format will help them understand what’s going on if they don’t watch the news.

Would I buy this for my middle school library? This one is a no, mainly due to the extreme violece. The five professional reviews currently in Titlewave all recommend Grades 9-12. 83 Days in Mariupol does not hold back on the atrocities of war. Rape, mass graves, dead bodies, a dead baby…these are all depicted in both images and text. I personally think this is okay for 8th grade though.

Would I buy this for my elementary school library? Definitely not. It’s not for elementary at all.

MATURE CONTENT

Language: There is some profanity, including at least one F-bomb. It’s not gratuitious.

Sexuality: none

Violence: Extreme–rape, murder, dead bodies, mass graves, a dead baby, a dead teenager, a dead pregnant woman, torture (electric shock)

Drugs/Alcohol: none

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