The Storm in the Barn tells the story of Jack Clark, an eleven-year-old boy who is facing lots of problems as a result of the dust bowl. His sister Dorothy is suffering from dust pneumonia, he’s become the target of several town bullies, and his parents feel that the only way to survive is to move. Jack is convinced that he sees a sinister being in an abandoned barn, while others are just as convinced he’s suffering from “dust dementia”. Is this thing he senses the cause of the dust bowl, or just a figment of his imagination?
This is a unique graphic novel, because of the personification of the weather into a soaked, cloaked figure who kidnaps the rain. The 2010 winner of the Scott O’Dell award for Historical Fiction, some bloggers are delighted while some feel this manifestation detracts from the historical element of the novel, placing emphasis on the fantastical rather than the historical. Regardless of how you feel, the book is beautifully illustrated. This graphic novel is sparsely colored, with different shades of pencil gray being accented by the sparse coloring of muted dusty yellows and browns — and watercolor blues in the instance of the rain stealing manifestation. The close up expressions of Jack’s face convey more of his feelings than the few sentences of dialogue which are uttered, and I think Phelan made the right decision in telling the story almost completely in dialogue and the pictures. There are mentions of Dorothy and the Oz series, which I think provides a really nice correlation for people unfamiliar with the dust bowl.
I do question how much broad appeal there is for readers, and parents might be turned off by a scene where jackrabbits are viciously clubbed to death because they are “eating whatever might wanna grow.” Parents, librarians and teachers might want to pair this with Years of Dust by Albert Marrin, which I reviewed a few months ago and does a much better job explaining the causes and effects of the Dust Bowl, or with the photographs of Dorothea Lange that apparently inspired the author/artist. Other bloggers are pointing to another Scott O’Dell Award winner, Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse, which also won a Newbery Award. I have not read this book yet, but hope to maybe next month. (My to-read-list is quite long enough for February already!)