The Storm in the Barn

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by Matt Phelan. Graphic Novel. 208 pages. Grades 3-10.
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Review

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Where the children's literature tradition of wordless books meets the comic book tradition through today's graphic novels comes The Storm in the Barn. Many pages are wordless and most are broken into four to eight cells.

This winner of the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction is an outstanding example of a graphic novel which excels at illustrating a historical phenomenon. Set in the American Heartland during the Dust Bowl of the 1930's this is the story of one eleven year old boy's incredible experiences of the times as it ventures into the realm of fairy tales and tall tales. Best used after students have already had some exposure to information on the Dust Bowl.

The book explores the experience of an individual family through the eyes of an eleven year old boy as he tries to make sense of the dust storms and the lack of rain four years into the drought.

Jack's sister, Dorothy, is laid up with dust pneumonia. Each day, while Jack spends time by Dorothy's bed, she recounts to him episodes from L. Frank Baum's Oz stories that she has been reading -- following Dorothy of the story's attempts to cross the desert that stands between her and the Land of OZ.

Jack is unable to take up the expected role of helping his father on the farm due to the failure of their crops and feels quite useless. He catches a glimpse of some kind of storm phantom in a neighbor's deserted barn and people become concerned that he must have a kind of dementia that some people have been coming down with from living in the surreal conditions of watching their farms dry up and then become buried under several feet of dust. Still, Jack is drawn back to the barn and to the mysterious creature who clearly has something to do with the witholding of the rain.

A fantasy based in a realistic setting this is a great book for bringing home the haunting experience of those who lived through the disaster. It's also a good introduction to graphic novels for students unaccustomed to the genre.

It's interesting that both Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse and this sparcely texted graphic novel are written in unusual formats. The Dust Bowl itself was so surreal that it seems to demand alternative methods of telling the story. The book includes an author's note about coming across photographs of the faces of people during the Dust Bowl.

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Things to Talk About and Notice

  • Notice how Phelan uses color to distinguish fantasy from reality with the blues for the barn and with browns for everything else -- rain vs. dust.

  • Also talk about how his choice of the number of cells per page reflects the pace of the story at various points.
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Activities

  • When asked about what was different when reading a graphic novel Matt Phelan said, in a Horn Book interview, "The author presents the images and words in a carefully laid out order designed to create a reading experience. But it's still up to the reader to connect all the dots, blend the pictures with the words, and find the rhythm and tone that the author has indicated." Look for signs in The Storm in the Barn of Phelan trying to create a specific experience of rhythm and tone.

  • Research the causes of the Dust Bowl and what is being done to prevent another one.

  • Read first person accounts of the Dust Bowl.

  • Choose one of the photos taken of a person during the Dust Bowl and write a fictional account of their experience.
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Related Books

  • cover art Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse. (1997, Scholastic. ISBN 0590360809. Order Info.) Novel. 227 pages. Gr 5-9.
    It's 1934 in Oklahoma and life is already tough, it's about to get worse. Billie Jo, her mother and father are struggling on through hard financial times on the farm during the Dust Bowl. Out of the Dust is written in free verse and intended for kids in about fifth grade and up. This format gives a sparity to the text, which makes it a fairly quick read, but the novel has great depth and a strong sense of time and place.

  • cover artDon't forget Grapes of Wrath (Order Info) both as a film and as a book for kids in middle school grades. It's not hard to read and nobody said it better than Steinbeck.

  • Ann Turner's Dust for Dinner illustrated by Robert Barrett (HarperCollins, 1995 ISBN 0060233761. Order Info.) is an easy-to-read book in which we watch a family fall victim to the Dust Bowl. Set your less capable readers in that direction.

  • David Booth's The Dust Bowl with illustrations by Karen Reczuch (Kids Can Press, 1997 ISBN 1550742957. Order Info.) is a picture book with a father so discouraged by current bad times on the farm that he wants to walk away but grandpa remembers the Dust Bowl. He stuck it out through that and his memories remind them all that hard times do end, eventually.
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