The Storm in the Barn whisks reader back to dusty Kansas

January 27, 2011 at 8:14 pm Leave a comment

The Storm in the Barn written and illustrated by Matt Phelan; published by Candlewick Press, Somerville, Massachusetts; 2009.

Eleven year old Jack hasn’t seen rain since he was seven.  His sister is struggling with dust pneumonia and members of the community begin to think Jack has “dust dementia.”  It’s 1937 and Kansas has become the Dust Bowl.  When the neighbors move away from the desolation of a dust-covered farm, Jack notices bizarre activity emanating from their locked barn.  In between his trips to explore the barn, life around him becomes more desperate.  All the farmers gather to round up and slaughter rabbits (who have been eating the meager green that dares grow in the dust).  Bullies torment Jack.  But it is Jack, in spite of the world falling apart around him, who is the hero.

Phelan has created a surreal yet dramatically accurate portrayal of the Dust Bowl era.  His illustrations in this graphic novel are predominantly overheated browns when we are following Jack’s historically accurate life.  When folklore or fable appear, in the storekeeper’s “Jack” stories or in scenes within the barn, full color or cool blues tell the story.  It was painful for me to look into the faces of Jack’s parents; Phelan captures the essence of the WPA photos of the Great Depression in their hopeless, gaunt countenances.  And the “phantom” in the barn is frighteningly ominous; I rooted for Jack’s victory but doubted he could vanquish this evil presence.

Words are spare in Phelan’s book.  Incorporating folklore from the era, along with excerpts from L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, not only assist in the storytelling but also put the reader firmly in the time period.  The author’s note at the end of the book helps fill in the blanks of the story as well as put us in his shoes as he created this remarkable project.

It is no wonder this book won the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction in 2010, the first graphic novel to do so.  Nor is it surprising that it made ALSC’s Notable Book List.  Paired with Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust, the two would help sixth graders understand the desperation of this event in American history.  I’d also be sure to include images from the FSA’s photo project covering the Great Depression and Dust Bowl.  The Library of Congress has created a slideshow in Flickr ( that is invaluable.  This image is from the collection; Phelan must have been affected by this woman because his depiction of Jack’s mother is reminiscent of this photo.

"Migrant Mother" by Dorothea Lange

Teachers will be interested in reading through the suggestions on this website:  Certainly, I would include this book on a pathfinder about the Dust Bowl, especially since upper elementary and middle school students study the era.


Entry filed under: ALSC Notable Winner, Graphic Novel (fiction or non-fiction, grades K-6), Scott O'Dell Winner for Historical Fiction, Starred Review Book (Horn Book, Booklist. School Library Journal, Kirkus or PW). Tags: , , , , , , .

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