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The Storm in the Barn by Matt Phelan

November 11th, 2009 (07:19 am)
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If you're looking for a page-turning graphic novel that is both educational and kid-friendly, look no further than The Storm in the Barn by Matt Phelan. This riveting story of one family's struggle during The Dust Bowl is not to be missed.

Kansas circa 1937 is shown through the eyes of an eleven year old boy named Jack Clark. While a bunch of bullies swings at him with their fists and their harsh words, a dust storm blows through town, and Jack runs off. Soon, we meet his family: Pa is gruff, Ma is sad, his sister Dorothy is sick, and his littlest sister, Mabel, has never seen rain. Jack overhears the doctor telling his father that Dorothy's condition is called "dust pneumonia," and that a new trend, "dust dementia," has started to spread. After seeing an odd face in the abandoned Talbot farm, Jack begins to worry that he too has been made ill by the storm.

Using pencil, ink, and watercolor, Phelan has created stark, dusty images of distinct, proud characters that will certainly stay with the reader. As Jack's level of courage goes up and down, so does his posture: sometimes he is slouched, and he often hides his eyes under the brim of his hat, but when push comes to shove, he stares, he shouts, and he stands straight up. There are wordless panels which express a great deal, such as the two panels on one of my favorite pages (199, which comes towards the very end, so don't you dare skip ahead!)

With her songs and and her smile, little sister Mabel steals every single scene - rather, panel - that she's in. Whenever she was shown skipping around with her umbrella, I thought of the Morton Salt Girl. Her natural curiosity and happiness nicely countered the sadness expressed by other, older characters.

Phelan also weaves in the power of storytelling: While bed-ridden Dorothy reads Ozma of Oz by L. Frank Baum, Ernie down at the General Supply tells young Jack tall tales which always star a courageous boy named Jack.

I highly recommend this book for young readers and their families.

To learn more about the origin of this book, read my recent interview with Matt Phelan.

I also posted this review at GuysLitWire.