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The Storm in the Barn

Page history last edited by Aaliyah Rowe 8 years, 4 months ago

 The Storm in the Barn, written and illustrated by Matt Phelan, is a story about an eleven-year-old boy named Jack Clark who lives in Kansas in 1937.


Jack's family struggles with the dust storms of the that have transformed the Midwest from beautiful grassland to barren fields. Jack’s sister Dorothy is sick, and the family is faced with numerous problems: no farming land, continual dust storms, lack of rain and lack of income. Jack is bullied and often mistreated from bullies to his own father, who cannot connect with his son since the dust storms weigh heavily on his mind.  Jack has a strong desire to grow closer with his father and help the family through this tough time. Jack is determined to change his life on the plains and help his family, and his journey leads him a neighboring abandoned Talbot barn where nightly blasts of light awaken him on a regular basis. At night, streams of light lead him to the barn where he discovers a sinister figure has taken refuge in the barn to deprive the locals of the much-needed rain. The town needs this rain to cultivate crops and return life to normal for Jack, his family, and his friends in Kansas. Jack is determined to help the town and solve the mystery of the storm in the barn. Eventually, Jack receives a hug, and finally, wins his father’s approval.


Matt Phelan is a renowned illustrator of children’s literature. Phelan illustrated Susan Patron’s Lucky Breaks and Jacqui Robbins’s Two of a Kind in 2009. Nonetheless, Phelan created The Storm in the Barn in 2009, and to date, Phelan has received the 2010 Scott O’Dell Award, Booklist’s Top of the List for Youth Fiction, Horn Book Fanfare, Kirkus Reviews’ Best Children’s Books, and School Library Journal’s Best of Comics for Kids. Phelan creates simple, yet realistic illustrations, and many of Phelan’s hand-drawn pictures focus on innocent features among his characters, especially the young children in his tales. Phelan capitalizes on his strong illustration talents to tell a wonderful story.


The Storm in the Barn is historical fiction, (i.e. protagonist has universal human traits, but is a product of the time and place). Phelan introduces Jack Clark, an 11-year-old who lives in Kansas, 1937, during a period of our history known as the Dust Bowl. Jack is small in stature, faces bullies on a daily basis, and tries to appease his father who feels Jack is only out to cause mistakes. Jack yearns to help his father ready the family vehicle to travel away from the dust storms, but his father continually tells him he does not need his help (Phelan 39-41). Finally, his father says, “Look, just … just go find your baby sister. Keep an eye on her (Phelan 40-41).”  The illustrated novel is also regional realism, (i.e. conflict often related to the region, whether topography, livelihood, or mores of the area). In the opening panels of the tale, Mr. Talbot is preparing the family vehicle to leave Kansas and his homestead. He sees the wind kicking up and moving dust through the air. He says, “The dust can have it (Phelan 13)!” Finally, I also sense a bit of folktale within this text, (i.e. bad and good characters easily identified). Jack confronts the menacing body in the Talbot barn, and eventually, he fights the sinister figure for control of the satchel that contains the much-needed rain for the land (Phelan 147-187). Jack triumphantly tears the bag open from the figure and unleashes the rain and thunder on the countryside.


The main character in The Storm in the Barn is Jack Clark. The sinister figure in the Talbot barn, Clark’s nemesis, is also a major character in the graphic novel. Phelan creates secondary characters such as Jack’s sisters Dorothy and Mabel, and his father and mother. Ernie, the local proprietor, runs the general store and entertains Jack with tall tales. He, along with Dorothy seem to be the only characters throughout the book who believe that Jack will amount to anything in the future. Minor characters within the story are the four local bullies who torment Jack and Phelan never reveals any of the names of the hooligans. There are also several adult men showcased in the book who meet in the general store (Phelan 47-49) and gather to beat the jackrabbits to death, yet remain nameless (Phelan 121-136). Abe, the doctor who treats Dorothy early in the story, is also a minor character. The author-illustrator creates a solid story with strong illustrations that combine the characters well and brings them to life as the reading audience interprets Phelan’s tale.


The setting is Kansas, 1937. Phelan utilizes the events during the Dust Bowl, and he crafts a strong illustrated graphic novel, making use of the devastating point in time when many families left states such as Kansas, Oklahoma, and Nebraska, while looking for better conditions in other states such as California. Phelan shows the effects of the dust storms as Jack outruns a storm only to open his family door to individuals wearing masks (Phelan 24). The horrific conditions were commonplace throughout the 1930s in the Midwest, and Phelan does a strong job of illustrating the scenes to show these storms.



Many common events that took place during the Dust Bowl are identified and graphically represented. Horrific events, such as jackrabbit beatings were common and necessary during the time of the Dust Bowl to ensure the jackrabbits would not eat what little vegetation the dust had not swallowed up yet (Phelan 123). During this event, boys were forced to act strong like men, and Jack sees many of the men he admires break down and cry at the sight of so much blood shed. Phelan shows that many people who lived during the time of the Dust Bowl were forced to partake in activities that they were not comfortable with in order to survive and support their family.



Phelan constructs several themes throughout The Storm in the Barn. First, man versus the elements. The drought has brought pain and suffering to the people in the Midwest, and Jack looks to change that as he battles the sinister figure for control of the weather, i.e. rain, to help the people. Second, man versus man. Jack faces numerous battles on a daily basis as he fights the local bullies who mistreat and ridicule him. He also fights his father. Jack yearns for his father’s approval, and his father constantly finds fault with Jack and does not want his help when he works on the family vehicle. Third, man versus self. As others ridicule and belittle him, Jack must overcome self-doubt to conquer his fears and help his family and friends. The battle between Jack and the evil figure from the Talbot barn shows the 11-year-old is willing to fight for himself and become a better person. Phelan does a remarkable job to show how Jack grows from the beginning of the novel to the end. A definite positive for any young child reading his graphic novel.


There are many themeline examples of power struggles identified throughout the novel. Throughout the book, there are many examples of power struggles recognized. Initially, one notices the helpless and weak state that Jack’s family and town are in due to the lack of rainfall and crop growth. The town has suffered from a dry season that has lasted for years, and all seems lost for the Dust Bowl prisoners. Jack’s father even claims that the effects of the Dust Bowl are due to a supernatural phenomenon by stating, “The problem is this land. It’s cursed” (Phelan 34). Through stating this, one can infer that the townspeople believe superior forces cause the lack of rain, leaving the town with no defense, powerless. Essentially, in this situation, it is nature who has the power over the town; through the gift of rain, crops will grow, the town will prosper and everyone will be at peace yet again. Therefore, the townspeople are powerless and at the mercy of whomever one believes to have control over the rain.


The style of The Storm in the Barn is an example of less is more. Phelan creates a well-crafted tale with his brief words and strong illustrations. During several points of the graphic novel, Phelan rarely uses words and lets the strong images carry the story such as the battle between Jack and the sinister figure from the Talbot barn. I feel Phelan’s artwork stood tall compared to his words, and I also feel Phelan went about his story with that in mind as he illustrated the novel. He provides a rich account of the dust storms of the Midwest during the 1930s with fine illustrations and uses facial expressions and scenes such as the snakes hammered to the fencepost to deliver for the reading audience Boxing Gloves. Through the use of strong illustrations, Phelan is able to first gain the reader's attention with intense images and then strike up mental processes by analyzing the meaning of the images. Phelan creates grandiose illustration that both support and supply the text throughout the book.


You can purchase The Storm in the Barn for $24.99 plus tax. The suggested age range is 10 years old and up. The suggested grade range is fifth grade and up via Candlewick Press.


Phelan, Matt. The Storm in the Barn. Somerville, Massachusetts: Candlewick Press, 2009. Print.


Welcome to Candlewick Press. Candlewick Press. Web. 17 Aug. 2010.



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