Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Storm in the Barn by Matt Phelan

Illustrator Matt Phelan breaks into the graphic novel world with this very nice historical fiction for middle-grade readers. While The Storm in the Barn also contains the supernatural element of the King of Storms, the portrayal of Dust Bowl life makes this an excellent addition to that era's nonfiction literature. An author's note at the end of the book provides information on the his inspiration of WPA photography* and an American Experience documentary called "Surviving the Dust Bowl".

The book appears to be long (102 pages) but it reads quickly. My 6 year old read through it this morning and offered this bare-bones summary: "This bad guy is the rain and this boy wants it to rain. So he battles the rain and he makes the thunder and it rains."

So there's that, but there's much more. There's the story of neighbor's abandoning their land and the itchy feeling of uselessness and restlessness among those staying behind. The story of a sister with dust pneumonia and a boy they think has dust dementia. There's superstition and the vicious extermination of an overpopulation of jack rabbits. There is a great use of story within the story - sister Dorothy's parallel reading of the Wizard of Oz books and the Jack tall tales.

The illustrations, done in pencil, ink, and watercolor are appropriately muted. When color is necessary it pops off the page to good effect. I am a fan of Phelan's style and think his illustrations of people, especially children, are some of the best out there. He achieves great movement and expression with minimal lines.

*I recommend Elizabeth Partridge's Restless spirit : the life and work of Dorothea Lange for more info on WPA photography. One of my favorites and the author personally knew Dorthea Lang. (and while you're at it, read the Woodie Guthrie one, too.) Next on my reading list is her new book. Stay tuned for that review.

Candlewick 2009
library copy


Patti said...

I'm so glad you reviewed this. I do have to say it didn't work for me. I didn't like the muted colors, really the whole thing wasn't to my taste. I know I'm in the minority though, people are loving this. Glad the kiddo liked it!

joanna said...

I read it for the first time at night with not-the-best lighting. I wasn't super impressed with the King of Storms and overall my impression wasn't as high as I had anticipated. But when I re-read it in the morning and could see the illustrations better, particularly the King, I found myself liking the supernatural part more.