The Storm in the Barn

Winner of the 2010 Scott O’ Dell Award for Historical Fiction

Written and Illustrated by Matt Phelan

In his first graphic novel, established children’s illustrator Matt Phelan depicts the story of Jack, a boy growing up on a forlorn Kansas farm in the midst of the American Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Without rain, there is nothing much for Jack to do on the dead farm. His sister is sick with dust pneumonia, his father will not allow him to help with anything, and he is bullied by older kids in town. While dejected and exploring one day he finds something mysterious and truly frightening locked in the neighbors’ abandoned barn. Will he confront this menace and save the town? The book consciously echoes American folklore, tall tales, and Baum’s Wizard of Oz tales, all while making a bridge from these through its comic strip format to the stories of Superman and other comic book superheroes, which had their origins in this same time period. Although there is text, this is a story told mainly through pictures. The sketched illustrations and subtle colorings are extremely evocative of the desperate landscape and the even more desperate people. In an afterword, the author/illustrator describes his indebtedness to the “stark black-and-white images” of the WPA photography of the Dust Bowl Years. The roughness, intensity and raw emotion of the times are all on
display here.

This is a fascinating and unique work that really brings this period of history to life, and will be a great pull
for reluctant readers/students. Recommended for jr. high and even upper elementary, but be aware of one
unfortunate minor swear word in the first pages (a character curses the “damn dust”) and some violence
(Jack is beat up by bullies, and there is a meant-to-be-disturbing scene of violence against animals).

Review by Joshua Whiting, Granite School District Library Media Program
Rating: ★★★★✩
Interest Level: Grades 5-9

Matt Phelan – Website

The Storm in the Barn
Written and Illustrated by Matt Phelan
Candlewick Press
204 pages
Release Date: September 27, 2011 (paperback reprint)
ISBN: 978-0-7636-3618-0 (hardcover); 9780763652906 (paperback)

[I have a paperback copy of this to give away. Leave a comment if you would like it. I will pick a winner on October 24, 2011.]

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5 thoughts on “The Storm in the Barn”

  1. An “error occurred” with the video, but according to your review it sounds like a perfect book for our library. A great mix of historical fiction with a graphic novel/fantasy flare. The students will love it!

  2. This looks like a great book for 6th graders. Our upper grade teachers have asked us to add titles for their students. The drawings look compelling!

  3. I would love to share it with my book club. We did some reading of the dust bowl era, and I think that they would be interested in this one.

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