About Me

Here at the Watauga County Public Library we like to read books (weird, right?). As it turns out, we also like to talk about books. And you, O internet wanderer, are our lucky audience! Here's the deal: We read books. We write up what we thought about them. You read the review. You comment. If it looks good (it probably will, our judgment is impeccable), you read the book yourself, and let us know what you thought!

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Storm in the Barn by Matt Phelan

OK, so the cover for this book is not so attractive. It has a number of things working against it. The colors are very bland, mostly blues and browns, and therefore don't really catch your eye. And there's not much going on other than the fact that the boy is holding a flashlight and looking very concerned. Also the title is a little dull for attracting the interest of kids (and kid librarians, apparently). Barns are not usually the location of exciting events in the world (I think Charlotte's Web pretty much maxed out their potential). So initially, I admit, I was not really drawn to this book despite the fact that it had received a number of accolades from book reviewers and sites I trust like Graphic Novel Reporter and Good Comics for Kids.
Then one day I was putting recently returned graphic novels on the display shelf and this was in the pile. As I placed it out on the shelf I noticed, for the first time, the shadowy figure standing behind the boy and the hand poised to grab the poor, unsuspecting child. Suddenly, I was intrigued, and began flipping through the pages immediately so I could garner a little more of the story's plot. Who was that sinister figure? What malicious plan did he have in store for the boy? A while later I looked up and realized that I had been engrossed in the story for the past half hour. Not wanting to appear like too much of a slacker while at work, I returned to the desk and set the book aside for later. I finished it before the day was out.
The story itself is a kind-of Jack Tale that is set in the Kansas Dust Bowl during 1937. The people in the area are plagued by drought (some children in the story have never even seen rain) and cannot grow any food for their livelihood. They are thus forced to survive by the barest means and the town itself seems to slowly be losing its mind as people are haunted by dust storms, afflicted with diseases like 'dust pneumonia', and growing suspicious of each other- they start to accuse people of having 'dust dementia'.
The protagonist, a young boy named JackClark, is one of those people. Because of his inability to fit in, he is eyed warily by the entire town and tormented by a group of local ruffians (oh yeah, I used the word ruffians, what about it?). Even his father sees Jack as somewhat of a nuisance, a child who is unable to help out around the house or do anything that a young man should, despite Jack's constant efforts to prove that he can.
Then one day, when Jack sneaks into his neighbor's abandoned barn, he finds a way to potentially turn his life, and the lives of everyone else in town, around. But only if he's able to face down a terrifying enemy (creepy shadow dude on the cover) and do it alone, because to tell anyone else what he's seen means they'll lock him in the loony bin for good.
So, obviously, I was glad I cracked the cover on this story. I was engaged from page one, especially by Jack's plight and by the bleak, desperate, atmosphere that envelops the entire book. When Jack discovers his foe in the barn, and finds out that maybe the drought isn't just nature gone wrong, the book is impossible to put down.
The story is truly enhanced by the simplistic and beautiful art of Matt Phelan. The book is almost entirely wordless and so it is Phelan's drawings, sketch-like in nature, that compel you to turn each page. He says in the Afterword that he based the art for the story on the work of photographers like Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, Walker Evans, and others from the time period and this is apparent in the stark, worn faces of the characters and the barren landscape surrounding them.
Again, my only problem with this book is the poor cover choice. Even with the mysterious lurking figure, it still isn't really that eye-catching and probably gets passed over for flashier graphic novels. Which is a shame, because everything on the inside is worth a look (or twenty four). If you can convince people to read it, you have my word that they won't be sorry.
P.S. Storm in the Barn recently won the Scott O'Dell award for Historical Fiction. Here is the link for the book trailer, which is worth a look.