Isn’t that a beautiful cover? It’s definitely indicative of the artwork inside. I am finding, after reading more and more graphic novels, that I now have no problem following the panels as they are laid out. Of course, now that I’ve said that, the next graphic novel I read is going to confuse me to no end. But today’s beautiful graphic novel, The Storm in the Barn by Matt Phelan, was not confusing to read–at least not in terms of following the panels. It’s the story of Jack Clark, an eleven-year-old boy with little to do during the Dust Bowl years. Normally, he would be helping his family with work on the farm but because of the drought, there is no farm. And his sister is sick with “dust pneumonia.”
Jack is the kind of kid I always identified with; he is ignored and bullied and told not to do or touch things by his father. He has a friend at the soda pop shop in town. The soda jerk tells Jack stories about more famous Jacks, who have defeated kings and other mythical creatures. These stories are illustrated in a different way than Jack’s life. They look more like comic books, utilizing the graphic format brilliantly. In time, Jack finds himself in a bit of a fairytale in his neighbors’ abandoned barn.
I won’t spoil it for you but I will say this–I had trouble with some of the panels inside the barn. I think that Phelan deliberately makes them somewhat blurry, so the reader can feel the uncertainty that Jack feels. This might work better for a more visual learner than myself. At times, I found my self missing the words. However, Phelan’s deliberate use of repeat panels to show long pauses was brilliant and helped me pace myself. Even the choice of page color–a yellow, dusty color–was deliberate.
And so, I can’t really dislike this book. I think it would make for better reading alongside a non-fiction book about the Dust Bowl, so that you really understand the magnitude of the problem early in the story (though Phelan does drop in some facts later in the story). It deserves to be read far and wide, and it manages to make historical fiction into a fantasy/fairytale/folklore. That being said, it lost it’s SLJ BoB match today to Tales from Outer Suburbia and I can’t say I’m up in arms about it.
Bottom line: If you like swishy watercolors and American folklore, you want to read this book. Even if you’re a bit older than the middle grade kids it’s marketed to.