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The Storm in the Barn by Matt Phelan

I was familiar with some of Matt Phelan's earlier work – picture books like The Very Hairy Bear by Alice Schertle and A Box Full of Kittens by Sonia Manzano, middle grade novels like The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron and Eileen Spinelli's novel in verse, Where I Live. But just yesterday, the UPS man brought me a package containing something new and terribly exciting indeed: The Storm in the Barn, a graphic novel written and illustrated by Matt Phelan. According to the publisher, the book is appropriate for kids 10 and up, and I'd say they got that right.

The story is set in Kansas during the Dust Bowl. Our main character is the aptly named Jack Clark, age 11, a young boy who is worried about his sister Dorothy, who is suffering from dust-related pneumonia, and who is relegated to chasing after his baby sister Mabel, who sometimes goes where she ought not to go.

Why did I say that Jack Clark was aptly named? Well . . . let's just say it has something to do with the nature of this particular story, which is party tall tale/fairy tale (a la "Jack and the Beanstalk" or "Jack the Giant-Killer", or, well, any of the so-called "Jack tales", American tall tales based in the Southern Appalachians). It's so common for boys in those sorts of tales to be named "Jack", in fact, that in Ian Beck's book, The Secret History of Tom Trueheart, the main character (Tom) has six older brothers, all of whom are heroes, and all of whom are named "Jack." But I digress. And "Clark" has its root in the same word as "Clerk", which originally comes from the idea of a religious scholar once known as a cleric. A cleric is generally a good guy; a clerk is generally someone we think of who serves a useful purpose. Jack Clark is all of these things – plain and simple, a hero, a good guy, and a boy who serves an extremely useful purpose, as it turns out. And he does it by employing the sort of bravery and cleverness that his namesake in the Giant-Killer and Beanstalk stories did.

In this story, Jack Clark discovers a mysterious being hiding out in the barn abandoned by neighbors who could no longer stand to live in the dust and the drought. Over time, he manages to figure out exactly who that being is. Jack, used to being bullied and overlooked, makes a decision to act in hopes that he will help not only his sister, but his town, to recover from the effects of the drought.

The book's most memorable spread is – for me – found at the bottom right corner of page 128, and is at the center of a particularly gripping (and violent) episode in the book, when Jack observes his father and other men (plus older boys) engaged in a jackrabbit drive. The author's note at the end of the book makes clear that the particular event depicted actually occurred during the Dust Bowl, and is one of the events that most haunted survivors of that time on the plains.

The written portion of this graphic novel is actually quite small, percentage-wise, with words only as needed to convey the story and fill out the context for the pictures. The menacing form in the barn is well-done indeed, conveying secrets and power more than creepiness, although there's decidedly several frissons to be had when in the presence (visual or implied) of the being in question. Dorothy Clark, Jack's sister, is a compelling character; you can tell that she and Jack are quite fond of one another, and Dorothy spends her time reading (when she's not sleeping or coughing, that is) about another Dorothy in a different Kansas, who travels not only to Oz but also to the desert near the Land of Ev. Another character of whom I'm particularly fond is Ernie, the kindhearted man who runs the general store. Not only does he try to protect Jack from the older boys who bully him, but he also tells Jack tall tales, all of them involving a hero named Jack. And he's not just kind to Jack's face; he also harbors great expectations for Jack, believing that one day Jack will do something truly heroic.

The artwork in the book is stunning. You can get a sense of some of it from this book trailer, created by Matt Phelan and available on YouTube:

I don't know about you, but when I think of the Dust Bowl, I think of, well, dust. And it's for that reason that so much of the book is done in pastel tones of tan and brown and grey, with some yellow thrown in to depict the curtain of sheets hung around his sister Dorothy's bed. It's not all sepia, however. There are some more colorful spreads when Ma tells the story of how the land used to be, before the drought. And the spread that really got to me is very bright indeed.

This book is a must-have for all libraries everywhere (I kid you not - public libraries are going to want it, as are elementary and middle school libraries for sure, and I think it'd work really well in high school, too). I expect to see this one on awards lists come early next year. Librarians attending ALA in Chicago this weekend are encouraged to get to the Candlewick booth on Sunday from 2-3 p.m., when Matt Phelan will be signing ARCs of this book. (Got that tidbit from his blog, where you can also see a spread from inside the book (click on the photo to embiggen it).) He's already done an interview with Zack Smith at NEWSARAMA, which includes a few spreads you can click on, as well as great information about Phelan's inspiration and influences.

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( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 9th, 2009 01:09 pm (UTC)
VERY cool!
Jul. 9th, 2009 04:26 pm (UTC)
I knew you'd dig it.
Jul. 9th, 2009 01:13 pm (UTC)
this sounds so good- i love his art work and i can't wait to check it out!
Jul. 9th, 2009 04:26 pm (UTC)
I hope you like it!
Jul. 9th, 2009 01:23 pm (UTC)
Wonderful post. I will be hunting this one down on Sunday.
Jul. 9th, 2009 04:27 pm (UTC)
Lucky you, going to Chicago!
Jul. 9th, 2009 03:03 pm (UTC)
His drawing style reminds me of the guy who did The Snowman.

Thanks for sharing :)
Jul. 9th, 2009 04:27 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I can see that - it has a "gentle" sort of quality to it, even with the menacing being in the barn.
Jul. 9th, 2009 11:16 pm (UTC)
I just got that book! its next on my reading list...

I think I'll read it now!
Jul. 10th, 2009 01:40 am (UTC)
I'm going to bet that you'll like it.
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )

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