Thursday, January 7, 2010

Book Review - Children's - The Storm in the Barn

The Storm in the Barn
Matt Phelan
Children's Fiction

Kansas, 1937: the Dust Bowl may be coming to an end, but the farmers and families who have had their livelihoods ravaged by the drought have no way of knowing that. In a small town, young Jack Clark and his family eke out a miserable existence. In town, Jack is constantly bullied by the local kids. At home, his father treats him as if he has nothing to offer. Jack’s older sister, Dorothy—her lungs ravaged by the dust clouds—reads him stories about the land of Oz, while Jack keeps an eye on their younger sister, Mabel.

Meanwhile, Jack witnesses some strange goings-on in a nearby barn. Gazing out across the dusty plains late at night, he sees bursts of light coming from inside the building. When he goes to investigate, he finds a puddle of water, with no visible source. How is this possible, in the midst of a drought that is ruining lives and destroying families?

Matt Phelan makes something of a double-debut here. While he has illustrated numerous books for other authors, this is the first book he has written. It’s also his first graphic novel. It has the feel of an American tall tale or myth, which is clearly intentional; by referencing L. Frank Baum’s Oz stories and the Jack tales of folklore, Phelan pretty much is wearing his influences on his sleeves.

He tells his story the way an artist would, with the visuals doing as much—or even more—of the work than the words. He’s not afraid of long stretches of silence, with no words at all. He uses a limited palate of browns and yellows to depict the Dust Bowl-ravaged town, with things becoming more blue and gray as the story approaches its stormy climax. Characters are drawn in black and white, deliberately intended to resemble historical photographs. Like the Wizard of Oz movie, he uses full color when stories are being told. The artistic effects are all subtle, but very effective.

This is a story set during the Dust Bowl, but it isn’t a story about it. It’s hard to imagine the story being set in any other place, or at any other period, but this isn’t a textbook. The trappings—the dry, dusty weather, the poverty, even an upsetting scene showing the mass slaughter of jackrabbits—all serve to further the story. Matt Phelan has added something new to American mythology. While this book was produced and published for young readers, it’s a story that adults will find enjoyable as well.

Highly recommended.

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