Tuesday, September 1, 2015

2010 Scott O'Dell Award

The Storm in the Barn, a graphic novel written and illustrated by Matt Phelan, won the 2010 Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction written for children or young adults.  It was also a Texas Bluebonnet Award nominee in 2011-2012.

It's set in Dust Bowl Kansas in 1937, and it hasn't rained in four years, since now-11-year-old Jack would have been old enough to help around on the family farm.  Since there's no farming possible, Jack's father seems to perceive Jack as being useless.  Being picked on by the town bullies doesn't help.  The general store owner tells him stories of Jacks of folklore to bolster him.  His sister Dorothy suffers from dust pneumonia, and it seems the only bright spot is when she reads aloud from some of Frank Baum's Oz books. Like Oz, the only illustrations in the book that are not monochrome occur when Jack's mother reminisces about the past.

Otherwise, Phelan's pencil, ink, and watercolor drawings use muted tones, browns and beiges in the daytime, and blues and grays at night, inside the barn, and during the rain that finally comes.  In an author's note at the end, Phelan says some of his inspiration was the black-and-white images of Works Progress Administration photographers of the era such as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans.  He wrote,  "I began to imagine what the experience of living in the Dust Bowl must have been like through the eyes of a kid. Without the complicated explanation of the history of over-planting, soil erosion, and other factors, a young boy or girl would only know ... The rain had gone away. But where?"

While graphic novels are often good for struggling readers, the sparseness of the text in this story might be difficult for some.  It was difficult to interpret what was going on in a few of the textless panel sequences.  For this reason - and because of a (thankfully not-too-graphic) section about killing off jackrabbits that were overwhelming the area - this book would be best for somewhat older readers, age 11 and up.  The fantasy element in the book (the "storm in the barn" pictured on the cover), might make it more appealing for children.

© Amanda Pape - 2015

[The Storm in the Barn is available on the lower level of the Dick Smith Library in the Curriculum Collection, call number EDUC PZ7.7 .P485 ST 2009.]

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