The Storm in the Barn
This graphic novel, aimed at ages 10 and up, uses a dash of fantasy to make the 1930s come alive for young readers. Jack Clark’s worries include more than his father’s brusque rejections of his clumsy help around their farm, or dodging town boys intent on bullying him. Living in Dust Bowl-era Kansas means that a sudden dust storm could make a mere walk to town life-threatening. Older sister Dorothy is bedridden with “dust pneumonia,” and Jack’s father wonders whether his son suffers from “dust dementia” when Jack claims to see strange lights, a shadowy figure, and a carpet bag emitting odd rumbling noises in a neighbor’s abandoned barn. After hearing a traveling rainmaker say, “Where there is thunder, the rain must surely follow,” Jack wonders whether opening the carpet bag to release the thunder might bring on the badly-needed rain. Despite his father’s warning to stay away, Jack returns to the barn, determined to help his sister get well and make a difference for his family.
Phelan was inspired to create the story after seeing WPA photographs of dust storms in his father’s books as a child, and later, viewing a television documentary on the Dust Bowl. The text is minimal, with many wordless panels, letting Phelan’s drawings masterfully convey characters’ emotions with just a few changes of line. The soft edges are suited to the dusty setting and evoke a real sense of place. Children will love the theme of empowerment, when small, weak Jack finds a way to solve a problem that the adults can’t. Parents or teachers should be warned, however, that the story includes an incident involving killing animals that, while not drawn explicitly, might shock sensitive children.