Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Storm in the Barn
The Storm in the Barn
By Matt Phelan
Candlewick Press, 203 pages
$24.99, ages 10 and up

Graphic novels have been around for a long time – since the 1930s. But for a long time we called them comic books. Though they were designed to be read and passed on to the next kid, quality comics have always offered good story, good art and good escape, a particular refuge for the reluctant or struggling reader. The pictures were as important as the words in driving the story.

These days the traditional floppy comic book is still around, but what the book industry has dubbed the graphic novel has turned into an astounding phenomenon.  There are graphic novels for children and adults, hardbacks and softcovers, black and white and full color. Major kids book prizes have gone to graphic novels, most recently, the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award (beginning readers) announced this month for Benny and Penny in The Big No-No! by Geoffrey Hayes.

The Storm in the Barn, by Matt Phelan, also won a big prize this year, the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction. Phelan's powerful book is the story of Jack Clark as he and his family struggle to survive in the Dust Bowl. Jack's got more worries than any 11-year-old should have to deal with: His big sister has dust pneumonia; his dad sees him as a disappointment; local bullies target him, his little sister is a mischief maker - and there seems to be a sinister figure in the neighbor's barn with a face that looks like rain.

Phelan blends history with mystery and tall tale with thrilling, moving results. Many frames are wordless. His colors are evocative, mostly browns and pales blues, except when his mother recalls pre-drought days, then frames are richly colored. Small warning: There is also a bright red (but not graphic) section about a "rabbit drive."

Phelan writes that he was inspired by the Dust Bowl photography of Dorothea Lange and Arthur Rothstein. The inspiration shows in his artwork. A lovely touch: The older sister reads "Ozma of Oz" out loud to the two younger siblings from her sickbed.

For more on graphic novels, here's a Graphic Novels 101: FAQ from the Horn Book, my favorite publication on children's literature, and a graphic novel Reading Lesson, also from Horn Book.

And check out these other terrific books (for a variety of age ranges): Into the Volcano, by Don Wood, To Dance: A Ballerina's Graphic Novel , by Siena Cherson Siegel, The Bone books, by Jeff Smith, The Arrival, by Shaun Tan, the Babymouse books, by Jennifer Holm, The Plain Janes, by Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg, and American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang.

-Rebecca Young

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