Sunday, August 30, 2015

506 (2015 #63). The Storm in the Barn

written and illustrated by Matt Phelan

This graphic novel won the 2010 Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction written for children or young adults.  It was also a Texas Bluebonnet Award nominee in 2011-2012.

It's set in Dust Bowl Kansas in 1937, and it hasn't rained in four years, since now-11-year-old Jack would have been old enough to help around on the family farm.  Since there's no farming possible, Jack's father seems to perceive Jack as being useless.  Being picked on by the town bullies doesn't help.  The general store owner tells him stories of Jacks of folklore to bolster him.  His sister Dorothy suffers from dust pneumonia, and it seems the only bright spot is when she reads aloud from some of Frank Baum's Oz books. Like Oz, the only illustrations in the book that are not monochrome occur when Jack's mother reminisces about the past.

Otherwise, Phelan's pencil, ink, and watercolor drawings use muted tones, browns and beiges in the daytime, and blues and grays at night, inside the barn, and during the rain that finally comes.  In an author's note at the end, Phelan says some of his inspiration was the black-and-white images of Works Progress Administration photographers of the era such as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans.  He wrote,  "I began to imagine what the experience of living in the Dust Bowl must have been like through the eyes of a kid. Without the complicated explanation of the history of over-planting, soil erosion, and other factors, a young boy or girl would only know ... The rain had gone away. But where?"

While graphic novels are often good for struggling readers, the sparseness of the text in this story might be difficult for some.  I had problems interpreting what was going on in a few of the textless panel sequences.  For this reason - and because of a (thankfully not-too-graphic) section about killing off jackrabbits that were overwhelming the area - I'd recommend this book for somewhat older readers, age 11 and up.  I didn't really care for the fantasy element in the book (the "storm in the barn" pictured on the cover), but that will make the book more appealing for children.

© Amanda Pape - 2015

[This book was borrowed from and returned to the Hood County Library.]

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