Thursday, August 3, 2017

"The Storm in the Barn" : A Review by Michele Hathaway

Learning about the Dust Bowl is like watching the passengers of the Titanic drown. One. By. One. When human error and nature collide, the tragedy overwhelms me.

But I'm reading down the Scott O'Dell Awards list and The Storm in the Barn by Matt Phelan was the 2010 winner. I had to read it. To my relief and delight, it is not your typical dust bowl story.

"Part tall tale rich in lore, part thriller, and part gripping historical fiction, this is an artful one-of-a-kind creation..." Jacket Flap

The Storm in the Barn is a graphic novel set in the dust bowl, but it is about much more than that. It is about a boy who feels helpless and fearful. It is about dealing with bullies, disappointing a father, and being unable to save a sick sister.

Phelan refocuses these fears on a mysterious and malevolent presence in The Barn that 11-year-old Jack Clark must overcome. By incorporating fantasy into the story, Phelan empowers Jack to save his world, the way Jack in the stories  he hears saves the day. At its core, The Storm in the Barn is a hero's journey: boy against boy, boy against nature, boy against monster, boy against himself.

The Storm in the Barn is a graphic novel for everyone, but especially for middle grade. In the hands of a visual learner or reluctant reader it is likely to unlock doors. The art features a limited color palette with grays, yellows, and, of course, dusty browns. The exceptions are brief moments of red and blue, used in profoundly symbolic strokes.

The book incorporates  a strong literary element as well. Jack's sick sister, who is slowly dying from the dust in her lungs, reads the Wizard of Oz books, and every day Jack listens to tall tales about another boy named Jack. In the author's note, Phelan writes:

Public Domain,

"I wanted to bring in elements of American folklore, like the Jack tales that were still being told and the Oz books that had been enthralling kids for thirty-odd years at that point. In the next two years, The Wizard of Oz would become a movie and Superman would leap from the pages of comic books, but in 1937 there were mostly just stories a boy in Kansas would think about as he looked at a land apparently as cursed as any in the fairy tales."

The Storm in the Barn  is a study in art, literature, and even earth and atmospheric science--and of course, history! The story has also been made into a play. You can find The Storm in the Barn at your local library under the call number J 741.5973 Phelan.

Michele Hathaway is a writer and freelance editor. She has an M. A. in Social Anthropology and has worked in libraries in California, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania. She writes stories set in culturally diverse, historical and contemporary periods.

Subscribe to get posts automatically and never miss a post. You can use the Subscribe or Follow by E-Mail buttons to the right, or add Feedly or another reader. 


  1. How interesting, Michele. That must have been one dreadful time in American history, and you have presented this book as skilfully merging fact with fiction in a way to rouse the reluctant reader - sounds like it will stay with him!

  2. "Skilfully merging fact with fiction," is a wonderful way to put it--exactly!