Genre: Graphic Novel (Historical)
In Kansas in 1937 there wasn’t much left of the once-hearty croplands except dry soil. The soil was so dry that it blew around in the wind, giving the area the nickname the “Dust Bowl.” People had to abandon their farmland and homes and travel west in hopes of finding work, food, and a better life. The dust was choking the life out of them and all they knew. Into this setting, author/illustrator Matt Phelan places eleven-year-old Jack Clark in the graphic novel The Storm in the Barn. One of Jack’s sisters is sick with a terrible cough the doctor calls “dust pneumonia” and believes Jack may have “dust dementia” due to his rash actions. Jack starts to believe the doctor when he sees a man-like being with a face like rain in the neighbor’s abandoned barn. Jack is scared of what he sees, but he must face his fear if he hopes to save his family and everyone else from the all-encompassing dust.
The story itself is a great mystery and a hero’s tale of a young boy who gets beaten down by bullies yet has the strength to face the unknown. But the story is not the best part of this book. Phelan’s illustrations are simply amazing. The pencil sketches are beautiful, portraying the dust in sweeping strokes and the characters’ faces in expressive simplicity. Phelan can show so much with so few marks on the page. It is because of the illustrations that this book caught my eye and kept me turning pages. The silence hits you across the drawings, across the pages, so you feel like you are in that dry wasteland with nothing but the wind swirling around you. It doesn’t matter if the reader is interested in the Great Depression or not—he or she will be engrossed by this awesome book. Readers who enjoyed Brian Selznick’s works The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck could love this book as well.