Book: Phelan, Matt. The Storm in the Barn. Somerville: Candlewick Press, 2009.
Genre: historical/fantasy Graphic Novel
Audience: This book is intended for students between the ages of 10-13.
Read-Alouds: Booking and Talking…
Summary:11 year old Jack and his family are living during the Dust Bowl era in the 1930’s. The small town has not had rain in about four years and as people grew sick, families began moving away. After his neighbors abandon their property, Jack hears rumbling and sees a bright light coming from their old barn. When he investigates, he learns that Rain (in the form of a large person), is keeping himself from the people so that they will not only appreciate him, but worship him upon his arrival and beyond. While Jack is small and has not had an opportunity to lend a hand on the ranch, the secret of the “Rain King” provides him with a coming of age task to prove himself as a young man to his grouchy father.
Themes: One of themes found in Phelan’s book, is the idea of maturity. The boys around Jack’s age pick on him due to his small stature. They do not view him as a young man that can do useful things because he was not big enough at 7 (when the last rain fell) to help with crops, therefore he really has not had a chance to prove himself. Jack’s father feels the same way and tends to ignore the boy because he is not able to view him as anything more than another child to be in the way.
Another theme explored in Phelan’s novel is illness. As the dust situation does not look to be getting any better, the physician in town goes around diagnosing everyone with diseases/infections caused by the dust. Jack’s sister has been sick for a while and the doctor claims she suffers from “dust pneumonia”, not long after, when Jack exhibits signs that he is scared or nervous about the bar, he is believed to suffer from “dust dementia”.
Traditional storytelling is also seen a lot throughout the novel. Jack’s mother is always telling him and his sisters stories, Dorothy (sister with pneumonia) is always telling stories from Oz, and the clerk at the store is always telling stories about a kid named “Jack” defeating kings. The stories seem to be a way to keep everyone in Jack’s family sane through the trying times; they also set you up for the fantastical element of Jack and the Rain King.
Connections: This story is light and easy going; it seems to be written for younger students. With that in mind, I could not pair this with anything I have read except Dinky Hocker by M.E. Kerr. Both stories feature a young protagonist trying to grow up and make their mark on the world, the major differences include the characters’ age as well as the era in which they are growing up. Aside from that, Phelan’s book could be used alone to talk about tall tales or the historic Dust Bowl.
Reactions: I really thought this story was cute. It does not use obscene language and I think it would really appeal to a younger reader. The only problem I had with the book is that a majority of the pages do not contain text at all and are solely pictures! Once again, I had to remind myself that it is not for an adult but my future students. Someone in the Curriculum Library categorized the book as being for students 10-17 and I simply find it incorrect: students in high school will more likely feel insulted if you assign this book.
Reception: Katie, from children’s literature book reviews, gave an extensive summary and break down of The Storm in the Barn. The reviewer believes the small amount of text is an example of Phelan’s style, claiming that “less is more”. She feels that the strong images the author produced were used to carry out the plot and a text driven story would have fallen flat.
In contrast to Katie, a reader by the name of Nicola believes the images were not impressive. She describes a feeling of “meh” after she has read the novel, and does no suggest it to anyone as the other critics do. Nicola also feels that the lack of text was not a good idea for Phelan, and that not much meaning came from it.