Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Storm in the Barn

This graphic novel set in 1937 tells the story of 11-year-old Jack Clark, a boy growing up in Kansas during the Dust Bowl Era.  Aside from the horrific impact the draught has had on his and his surrounding neighbors' livelihoods, Jack is dealing with other difficult things in his life.  There are the bullies, not to mention the sickness that is spreading through his town.  One of his sisters has dust pneumonia, and his other sister, the one he's supposed to watch, is always getting into trouble.  Then there's his father, who seems constantly disappointed in Jack, no matter what he does.

Jack hears the doctor talking about a new illness that seems to be related to the constant dusty conditions in his town:  dust dementia.  When he sees a shadowy figure in the barn near his house, a bizarre, spooky creature with a face like rain, Jack wonders if he has fallen victim to dust dementia.  But what if the stories he's heard are true?  What if the creature in the barn is somehow connected to the draught?  Jack knows he has to find out, but it's going to take more courage than he thinks he actually has...

This atmospheric graphic novel brings 1940s Kansas to life with its muted colors and evocative, dusty-looking layouts.  Jack is a character that it's easy to empathize with, and readers will find themselves drawn quickly into his story.  A word of warning, though: there is a rather horrific scene involving the death of rabbits that might require some conversation with younger readers.  It's not depicted graphically, but it is clear what is happening - and the scene is intrinsic to the tale.  For that reason, I probably wouldn't recommend this to children under eleven, but I most definitely would to early teens - and to lovers of historical fiction and graphic novels of all ages.

The Storm in the Barn by Matt Phelan (Candlewick Press, 2009)

Also reviewed at:
Books Like Bread"While mostly wordless, this graphic novel does an amazing job conveying the barren, windy world that the Dust Bowlers were surviving in."
A Library School Journey:  "The use of color throughout the book is amazing. The greys and browns of the dust is the predominant feature, with colorful pastel memories of better times, the dark indigo of the brooding storm, and the vivid blood red of the rabbit drive."
Reading Rants:  "This is a great graphic read for all ages, with something for everyone within Phelan’s soft edged, sweeping panels."


  1. I read this book earlier this year and loved it. I agree with you on the rabbit scene. I'm an adult and I was still shocked. Phelan brilliantly shows how desperate people were at that time. Great review.

  2. I just didn't like this one much at all. I would have preferred a straight forward historical fiction than the weird thing in the barn.

  3. How interesting...reminds me of really the only graphic novel I've ever read, Mouse (though I think it is spelled differently).

  4. Vasilly - I'm glad to hear you enjoyed this one, too - and that I'm not the only one who was unsettled by that scene. It was very powerful, but wow, definitely shocking. I agree that it really conveys that sense of desperation from that time.

    Nicola - I can see your point about the weird thing. I liked it, though! I thought it worked both as a fantasy element as well as a metaphor for the way nature can be so brutal and uncaring for no apparent reason, particularly when viewed through a child's eyes.

    VA Gal - Maus is definitely a book for adults (or teens). But this one, like Maus, deals with a difficult topic (while not as difficult as the Holocaust) in a sensitive and creative way. It would be an interesting addition to a classroom discussion on the Dust Bowl.


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