Book Reviews

The Storm in the Barn by Matt Phelan

9 of 10: The Storm in the Barn is so beautifully done; it is the perfect blending of story and image, made even better, for me, by the fact that it’s historical fiction.

This is the week of graphic novels, I guess, around here for me. The Storm in the Barn won the Scott O’Dell Award a few weeks ago, an award for historical fiction for children/young adults. It created a bit of a hubbub because, whoa, graphic novel for a book award!? Is that even allowed? (Answer: Yes).

The book takes place in Kansas in 1937, right in the thick of the Dust Bowl years, with Jack Clark right in the thick of things. His dad is constantly after him about not being as useful as he could be, he gets beat up by the local town bullies, and his sister, Dorothy, has dust sickness. It’s a lot for an eleven year old boy to carry around on his shoulders.

The trouble is compounded by the fact that Jack begins to think he’s seeing some kind of rain monster/shadow lurking in the deserted barn near his home, but with everyone talking about “dust dementia,” he doesn’t know if he can trust his own eyes. And yet, he can’t quite get himself to stay away from the barn either, desperate to know what’s is lurking there, in part because rain is so desperately needed, and in part because he has so much he wants to escape from anyway. 

I will admit to knowing next to nothing about the Dust Bowl before I read this book, but it did a great job of giving enough background without disrupting the story, and I’m anxious to read more about it now. This really is historical fiction at its finest.

The art looked so familiar on this book, and the name Matt Phelan rang a bell, but it took me a while to place him as the illustrator for The Higher Power of Lucky (the Newbery winner in 2007, also known as “the book I tried to listen to on shuffle“).

This book is all him, the illustration and the writing, and it is gorgeous. The pictures are done a kind of washed out combination of pencil and watercolor that perfectly captures the desolate, endless nature of Kansas during that time period, not to mention the slightly sinister feel of the rain shadow. Oh my word, I just liked holding this book. Really, if you like stories about families, graphic novels, historical fiction, or good artwork, you should read this book.

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  • Reply Packrat January 28, 2010 at 2:00 pm

    Thanks – will watch for this.

    About twenty?? years ago, there was a TV mini-series done based on James Michener's Centennial. It was really good, but I still have nightmares about what happened during the dust bowl.

  • Reply megan January 28, 2010 at 4:09 pm

    Well, thanks for the next book pick for my out loud reading! And the main character has a great name! My J had a nonfiction reader of different black American heroes to read for homework, and in it was a short story about a big storm in Kansas–he loved it. This will be perfect.

  • Reply Yankee Girl January 28, 2010 at 5:34 pm

    When I read this one I couldn't get over how beautiful it was. I wanted to own it!

  • Reply Jenny January 28, 2010 at 10:17 pm

    That sounds really good.
    Have you read
    Out of the Dust
    by Karen Hesse?
    That's another good dust bowl read.

  • Reply Abby January 29, 2010 at 2:48 am

    I totally agree that this book made me want to learn more about The Dust Bowl. I thought this book was unexpectedly awesome.

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