The graphic novel Wildfire grapples with the experiences of Julianna, a middle schooler, and the traumatizing effects of wildfires when her family loses their home in Western Oregon. The wildfire, in this instance, was caused by human negligence when some of her classmates naïvely shoot firecrackers in the woods just beyond the farmyard. Everything physical Julianna knows and cares about is obliterated by this one foolish act that she witnessed. Her pet goats survive, but she can’t take them with her when she and her family relocate to an apartment in Portland.
Julianna decides to keep her personal involvement with the wildfire a secret from her new classmates. Her new friends in grade eight are politically engaged and all belong to an environmental club which she reluctantly joins. One of the other members of the club is also a recent incoming student and, to Julianna’s horror, she recognizes Carson as one of the boys she warned about lighting the firecrackers back home. He joined the club as a condition of his mandated community service and agrees that Julianna can keep her background secret to herself. However, the trauma, stress, and anger that Julianna reins inside builds and builds until she becomes overwhelmed.
Julianna is a sympathetic and realistic character who undergoes growth and self-knowledge throughout the story arc. While the story revolves around a harrowing instance, it is a character-driven tale that should resonate with young readers. The readers, along with Julianna, learn about climate change and collaborative positive action possibilities such as trash cleanup days, tree planting, and protests. Julianna also learns that listening to other people and trying to understand their motivations and experiences can aid in mediating her own anger and angst. The author embeds relationships, environmental knowledge, post-traumatic stress, mental health, and healing into a thoughtful and realistic narrative with her writing style and illustrations. At times the text is didactic when exploring the climate crisis, but the storyline absorbs these soapbox moments as a shared experience with the characters in the graphic novel.
The thick outlines and basic backgrounds, combined with intense hues of colour, add to the vibrant settings and animated faces and emotions of the characters who are illustrated with varying skin tones.
The book concludes with a note from the author about the incentive for writing this book and information and resources for young people to become involved with climate justice and action. Recommended for middle schools, especially with those who have more than a passing experience with wildfires themselves.
By Breena Bard
Little, Brown, 2023
Publisher Age Rating: 8-14
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)
Character Representation: Anxiety, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder