Dust Bowl Through the Lens: How Photography Revealed and Helped Remedy a National Disaster


The Dust Bowl was a time of hardship and disaster. The worst ecological disaster in our nation’s history turned more than 100 million acres of fertile land almost completely to dust. Hundreds of thousands of people were forced to seek new homes and opportunities thousands of miles away, while millions more chose to stay and battle nature to save their land. These terrible repercussions from the Dust Bowl contributed to the Great Depression, which impacted the entire country.


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The Dust Bowl was a time of hardship and disaster. The worst ecological disaster in our nation’s history turned more than 100 million acres of fertile land almost completely to dust. Hundreds of thousands of people were forced to seek new homes and opportunities thousands of miles away, while millions more chose to stay and battle nature to save their land. These terrible repercussions from the Dust Bowl contributed to the Great Depression, which impacted the entire country.

FDR’s New Deal army of photographers took to the roads during this national crisis to document the human struggle of the proud people of the plains. Their pictures spoke a thousand words, and a new form a storytelling—photojournalism—was born. These talented cameramen and women used photographs to inform the rest of the nation and bring about much-needed change. With the help of iconic images from Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein, and many more, Martin W. Sandler tells the story of this man-made natural disaster and these troubling economic times, ultimately showing how a nation can endure its darkest days through extraordinary courage and human spirit.

2009 Parents' Choice Recommended winner

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Editorial Reviews

Children's Literature - Phyllis Kennemer
Subtitled, "How Photography Revealed and Helped Remedy a National Disaster," this book pays tribute to the photographers that captured images of the suffering caused during the Dust Bowl era. Celebrating the emergence of photojournalism, the focus is on the role of photography in bringing the plight of the affected people to the public's attention, resulting in government programs to aid in their recovery. Each double-page spread has a full-page photograph on the right and a small inset photo along with the text on the left. The text mostly describes the photograph, names the photographer, and explains the circumstances surrounding the shot. There is little flow to the narrative as each double-page spread is self-contained. All of the photographs are, of course, black and white. Perhaps that is why much of the text is printed on colored pages, making some of it difficult to read, especially on the red pages. Sources for quotations and photo credits are provided, along with suggestions for further reading, an index, and a map showing the Dust Bowl Region. Reviewer: Phyllis Kennemer, Ph.D.
VOYA - Lucy Schall
This powerful photo-essay demonstrates how the dynamics of economics, ecology, artistic talent and personal compassion transformed photography into an information/ persuasion tool to effect social change. With text and full-page photos supplemented by smaller, clarifying images, Sandler begins with the boom of the 1930 wheat harvest and the automation and optimism that produced it and then follows with the 1931- 1937 Dust Bowl that inspired photographers to record rural devastation and the massive migration to California. He highlights photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Arthur Rothstein and the talents like Woody Guthrie, John Steinbeck, and Will Rogers that their images inspired. He illustrates the photographers' success by citing the "new" Life and Look magazines that with those powerful Dust Bowl images, influenced a government and nation to form migrant camps, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and the Soil Conservation Service. The Further Reading and Surfing suggestions include excellent young adult titles as well as sources to satisfy a maturing interest in both the period and media. This title is an inspiring and involving experience for middle school through adult audiences and, like the early photo journals and Sandler's previous award-winning Lincoln Through the Lens (Walker, 2008/VOYA December 2008), will spark interest in history and social issues. It is a treasure trove for social studies, English, art, science, or music teachers who are introducing a unit or a work related to the Great Depression. With a broad lens, Sandler emphasizes that the images and the people who record them are an integral part of social change. Reviewer: Lucy Schall
School Library Journal
Gr 4–8—This excellent photo-essay traces the history of the Dust Bowl from its causes to its resolution. In tandem, Sandler treats the role of the budding field of photojournalism. Forty-four spreads feature a page of clear, direct text with a large, well-reproduced image, many of which are set on color pages. Many of these, such as Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother" and Arthur Rothstein's "Fleeing a Dust Storm," have become iconic. The author repeatedly makes the point that it was in large part the force of these pictures that motivated the Roosevelt administration to take action in aid of both Dust Bowl farmers and migrant workers. Seldom has the connection between the arts and the general quality of life been made so clear. The text deals equally with those who fled the decimated Bread Basket for California and those who waited out the devastation and dust. Throughout, the use of primary sources is superb, with quotations from affected citizens, the photojournalists themselves, political and entertainment figures, and writers, giving a multifaceted picture of a seminal time in United States history. This book gives a more general picture of the time than Jerry Stanley's Children of the Dust Bowl (Crown, 1993) and is focused more specifically than Russell Freedman's Children of the Great Depression (Clarion, 2005). It provides a lesson in strength and perseverance that is certainly applicable today.—Ann Welton, Helen B. Stafford Elementary, Tacoma, WA
Kirkus Reviews
A unique approach to chronicling the Dust Bowl disaster focuses on the role photographers played in bringing the hardships of victims to national attention. The author notes that in the 1930s photographers were still discovering new possibilities for the relatively new medium. Rather than simply document the desperate circumstances, such photographers as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Arthur Rothstein used their work to raise the national social conscience and shock the government into action. Each page of text explains some aspect of the Dust Bowl, Great Depression or details on the art of photography and is paired with a photograph. Prefacing the text are quotes from Dust Bowl victims and such notables as Woody Guthrie and John Steinbeck. The one-page-per-topic approach can be frustrating, as some are worthy of more detail than what's given. More background information about the photographers would also have been welcome. Overall, though, Sandler offers an interesting perspective on the power photography has to shape public opinion and inspire social change. (sources, further reading/surfing, index [not seen]) (Nonfiction. 10-14)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802795472
  • Publisher: Walker & Company
  • Publication date: 10/13/2009
  • Series: Through the Lens Series
  • Pages: 96
  • Sales rank: 391,891
  • Age range: 10 - 14 Years
  • Product dimensions: 10.10 (w) x 10.30 (h) x 0.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Martin Sandler

MARTIN W. SANDLER is the author of Lincoln Through the Lens, which received two starred reviews and was named an Orbis Pictus Recommended Book, as well as more than sixty books, two of which have been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Among his other books are The Story of American Photography, which was named a Boston Globe–Horn Book Award Honor Book, and the six volumes in his award-winning Library of Congress history series for young people. He has won five Emmy Awards for his writing for television and has taught American history and American studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and at Smith College. Mr. Sandler lives in with his wife in Cotuit, Massachusetts.

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