"review" · comics/graphic novels · fiction · Illustrator · juvenile lit · recommend · Tales

the storm in the barn

The Storm in the Barn by Matt Phelan

Candlewick Press, 2009.

Hardback, full color, 208 pages.

When I saw Illustrator Matt Phelan had a graphic novel out, I had to have a look. Found this copy at the Library.

In Kansas in the year 1937, eleven-year-old Jack Clark faces his share of ordinary challenges: local bullies, his father’s failed expectations, a little sister with an eye for trouble. But he also has to deal with the effects of the Dust Bowl, including rising tensions in his small town and the spread of a shadowy illness. Certainly a case of dust dementia would explain who (or what) Jack has glimpsed in the Talbot’s abandoned barn — a sinister figure with a face like rain. In a land where it never rains, it’s hard to trust what you see with your own eyes — and harder still to take heart and be a hero when the time comes. With phenomenal pacing, sensitivity, and a sure command of suspense, Matt Phelan ushers us into a world where desperation is transformed by unexpected courage. ~publisher’s comments.


My first encounter with Matt Phelan was with Susan Patron’s Higher Power of Lucky. I knew what how much he could capture with a few whisps of line and color. Matt Phelan, like Jeff Lamire (of Tales of Essex County) before him, proves only the details that matter are the ones to use. Spare can be more. Matt Phelan has an original and creative voice in this graphic novel for children (10 & up)*.

The palette is a muted one, washed as if the dust formed a cloud before the Reader’s eye as well. The shift between warm color and cold is subtle, a seamless movement of the atmospheric. The soft off-white color of the page, the soft-penciled hand-drawn lines of the frames, give a dream-like and home-spun charm to the read. My only complaint is how the text comes across as cold and hard whenever it appears. No doubt the typed-font lettering was a necessity, nevertheless it was so staid amidst the constant sense of movement Phelan portrays. In a largely textless novel, Matt Phelan leaves nothing to chance, his images have a way of saying everything for him.


“I wanted to bring in elements of American folklore, like the Jack tales that were still being told and the Oz books that had been enthralling kids for thirty-odd years at that point.” Matt Phelan (“Author’s Note”)

That a figure with a face like rain, looming, sinister, is even a character in this Historical Fiction set during the Dust Bowl doesn’t come out of no where. Ernie at the general store likes to tell Jack stories of another Jack. And Oz is very much alive, very relevantly applied to The Storm in the Barn. But even the idea of that one of the children had never really experienced the rain seems incredible to the Reader. Indeed, what has kept the rain from falling? What might explain its fantastic absence?

Matt Phelan doesn’t leave out other explanations as to how the residents of this small town in Kansas happened into their plight. With a story told by Jack’s mother, we see a verdant landscape (rich and warmly painted) “an ocean of grass” (69). “The Indians had it first. Acres of pastureland.” accompanies an image of a singular Indian on a horse with the grass still green and wild. Below it on the page with four equal rectangular frames, “Then the white folks moved them out and started ranching.” There is a house (where the Indian stood), the ground is brown with tufts of grass, a fence with cattle behind it.” The last frame shows a land empty but for miles of  soil to farm and hope. Things went well for their mother as she grew up and started a family of her own. “And then…” (71) the dust comes to scrub out the image for “We were so happy.” The devastation becomes all the more stark. And yet there is a small nugget of hope proffered and Jack clings to it.

Jack is evidently different from the boys his age (who find this a reason to bully him no doubt), but that he doesn’t meet his father’s expectation is telling, too. He is seen as inept and sensitive.  However, because he is different, he provides us will some hope for change even if it does provoke real anxiety. Will Jack be able to confront and defeat that dark and sinister being who’s taken up residence in Talbot’s barn? Is he really as demented as the doctor’s say? His sister is certainly as ill as they’d diagnosed. But who else could bring back the rain? Certainly not the boys who join their fathers and the other grown men in the “Rabbit drive”–which is AWFUL, by the way.

Phelan discovered a “brutal jackrabbit drive” from documentary footage. “This last event still haunted survivors of the time who, now in their old age, were interviewed for the documentary” (“Author’s Note”). The sequence in The Storm in the Barn punctuates the ubiquitous sense of violence and desperation and anger–and most hauntingly, regret. The regret makes the hard landscape of the people (in particular the men) even more human than their fear does.

It is little wonder how Jack might come to see the sinister storm-faced figure as one who refuses to “serve. And in doing so, the Rain became powerful” (154). Selfish and domineering the self-proclaimed king put the thunder and lightning in a piece of luggage. Which, when released, frees everyone from all manner of repressed emotion–in particular Jack’s father. Being able to find connection between the realized form of Rain and the Father (who look notably similar if not the same) and the culture helps facilitate the most plausible change in the Father at the end–his hugging his son, his sudden acceptance of Jack. Otherwise, as when I read this novel the first time, it feels false and overly optimistic. But then, who doesn’t want a happy ending. Jack is such a likable character, you really desire his success and happiness.

The Storm in the Barn is not for the impatient. The sequences of stills progressing in emotion require more than a fleeting glance to enjoy the full sense of dread, despair, and an ultimately hard-won victory. The informative aspects of this Historical Fiction are caught up in the story of  Jack and his own heroic adventure. The Storm in the Barn is an easy sell to classrooms, will attract any level of reader of either gender. The cinematic start tantalizes the Reader with the idea there might be a few scares, you know, in case the cover hadn’t already lured them in with that kind of promise. And there are some scares. Tall tale or no, muted, yet vividly dark,  The Storm in the Barn would weave a compelling story.


*could go slightly younger, but the jackrabbits scene would be too much for sensitive readers. also, good comprehension of nuance, etc. should be considered.

Good and insightful as ever, but especially for the educators : The Graphic Classroom’s review.

"review" · fiction · juvenile lit · recommend · series

still lucky

lucky breaks by Susan Patron

Illustrations by Matt Phelan

Ginee Seo Books/Atheneum, 2009.

179 pages, hardback.

Susan Patron’s Lucky Breaks is a sequel to the 2007 Newbery Award-winning novel the higher power of lucky (Atheneum, 2006). Brigitte has opened her Café, Miles has been evaluated a genius, and Lincoln’s knots are progressing winningly. Lucky is acclimating to having Brigitte as a second mother (and vice versa). Lucky is also turning 11 and has created some expectations for herself.

And now Lucky was almost there, about to turn eleven, a dazzling change. Not the thud of ten, but flouncy e-lev-en, with its sophisticated three syllables. Write it as numerals and you have a pair of ones, sided by side; a fearless two-part beginning, the door to becoming a teenager. She pictured 11 as a swinging double door, a saloon door in an old Western; you push the sides open, bam, with both hands and stride through before they flap shut again, your childhood behind you. And her secret 11: the two straps of Lucky’s brand-new bra, her first. (1-2)

A hopeful and energetic beginning to 11 and Lucky Breaks. Only a reader of the first book could feel any sense of dread leaving the first pages or first chapter.

In lucky breaks, community continues to be a charming force. Hard Pan’s quirks are highlighted and the worth of the residents reinforced. Still, it is remote, leaving Lucky with Lincoln and Miles, boys for friends. As Lucky tells Brigitte, “[Lincoln’s] my friend, but he’s a boy. You can’t be best friends with a boy” (31). Thank goodness for the arrival of Paloma. This is where lucky breaks continues the series in its negotiating relationships; less the parental ones (though those are still present) and more about friendship-connections. “Lucky wasn’t sure how it worked to be friends with girls. Did you have to tell every secret? Where you supposed to show you were cool by using swear words?” (31); “Miles was too young, the adults were too old, and Lincoln was too serious” (63), she needed Paloma to relate. Ah, the concerns of the 11 year old girl.

The beauty of Patron’s Lucky books thus far, is while connections and meaning can be found in the stories, they are still really character-driven and encapsulated ideas are held in balance. Lucky is eleven and this is what is going on in her world. Character-driven plots are ever dangerous, of course, because if the reader finds none of the characters or their struggles endearing… Yet, many have responded to these novels, feel invested in one or more of the characters. Patron has written some marvelous/interesting characters. What interests me is how the least adorable character is the central one.

Brigitte, Lucky’s Guardian, says to Lucky, “You are smart, ma fille, but not always sensible” (157); that about sums up Lucky pretty well. Lucky is smart, she knows big words, makes brilliant observations, comprehends… She also does plenty of non-sensible things. It wouldn’t be fair to attribute the words irrational or childish to Lucky’s unreasonableness. She just does stupid things. Okay, maybe irrational might be a word to use. She doesn’t think some things through, and ignores argument or warning (e.g. Paloma and the well). In many ways this means our main character Lucky can be quite annoying.

When Lucky almost becomes unbearable, Lucky and the third person omniscient narrator seem to realize it, empathizing with (and perhaps guilt-tripping) the Reader.

Lucky shrugged. She already knew Lincoln liked her. She knew that she would never like someone like her. She would hate someone like her. She would really, really hate someone who acted like her, and she’d get as far away as she could. But how, Lucky thought, do you get away from someone you can’t stand if that person is you? (149)

What is refreshing about the character Lucky’s non-sensible-ness is how ridiculous she is—and how relatable. And if one doesn’t relate, they might feel superior to the character and that might be refreshing as well.

On the verge of turning 11 years old, Lucky makes a goal for herself: to become intrepid. Who can’t have this goal if one is an avid reader of middle-grade or young adult fiction? Or, in Lucky’s case, a fan of Charles Darwin. (yes, another mg-novel regarding Darwin.) Lucky is neither graceful nor plucky. She does not negotiate wrong turns (sometimes caused by her) with ease or courage or determination. Nor does she seem capable of going it alone and rescuing herself. She is not reflexively good or selfless. She is often careless. Lucky has a vulnerability that I have always appreciated in Megan McDonald’s Judy Moody or Lauren Child’s Clarice Bean. Lucky is utterly readable and refreshingly flawed.

The appearance of Lucky’s father as a character continues, however invisibly. Lucky thinks of him often and sometimes the appearance of those thoughts feel awkward. Near the beginning (page 4), the story reminds the reader that Lucky has feelings of abandonment attributed to her absent, uncaring father. “Abandoned or condemned,” Lucky repeated softly, thinking how sad those words sounded, how lonely. They could be words about wells, and they could also be words about people” (4). Lucky draws ever closer to Brigitte by the end of lucky breaks, but there is still no father. Then, the Lucky stories do not offer easy resolutions or even resolution at all. The awkwardness of Lucky’s thinking about her father when there seems no place in the story for him (the absence/abandonment not coming across as explanatory towards Lucky’s behavior) seems untidy, however necessary.

Lucky breaks is not as stand alone as the higher power of lucky, as it comes across as a potential for further exploration of parental dynamics which could bring us a third Lucky (thinking of Miles as well). Just the same, thematically, the presence of the absent father and its unresolved angst works. Because Life is messy does not mean it isn’t Beautiful. Because a Person isn’t perfect it doesn’t mean they are not worthwhile.

Susan Patron has an enjoyable style. (I am sure you caught the appeal of her voice in the first quote above and quotes since.) Like the first book, each chapter feels like a breath, a bead along a string that isn’t completely singular. Or are they chapters? There are numbers and then a word or two or four. Some “chapters” segue into the next smoothly while others do not (19 to 20 being the most difficult). I would have to reread to sense each chapter as a completely singular little capsule where cinematically I would throw up a dark screen with a number and words to signal an exhale and the next thought in a continuing arch.

Lucky Breaks comes across as less message-driven/explorative-of-a singular-idea than the first; at least not as thematically evident or tight; unless “make new friends and keep the old” is the message. Ah well, than I guess it is not unlike the first. Still, lucky breaks is more relaxed and comfortable.

I don’t really know what audience reads the higher power of lucky or lucky breaks, other than award committees and people protesting the use of the word scrotum in a children’s novel—wait, did the protesters actually read the book?

I would recommend anyone the attempt. The novels are not long. The writing is accessible, clean, and the illustrations are lovely*. The first novel had a rough start for me, but through persistence and reflection, I enjoyed it—found it worthwhile. I have since enjoyed both novels and I think Lucky Breaks is an excellent sequel and an excellent bridge to another Lucky (this is me hoping).

According to Powell’s Books, they have the audience aged 8-12. And I would guess a girl’s interest over a boy’s. For those interested in stories of friendship, books populated with quirky characters, and like to feel dread, humor, and the gripping need for a happy ending.


* I said this about Matt Phelan’s work in my “review” of the higher power of lucky and it still holds true for lucky breaks: “it is lovely and satisfying. Quiet, unpretentious, expressive–just right.”

aside: I read the book with the dark cover, as depicted above, and was surprised to find the brightly lit sunshiny cover on Powell’s site (shown left). Was the change to lure people in? To coordinate with the first book? To not confuse it with YA covers?… the darker cover is more fitting to the read.


my “review” (reading) of the higher power of lucky.

"review" · fiction · juvenile lit · recommend · series


62151the higher power of lucky by Susan Patron

Illustrations by Matt Phelan

Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2006.

(hardback) 134 pages.

What are the different ways we come to decide on reading a book? Of the many, I have been considering shopping Atheneum Books’ catalog. I have had good experiences with many of their books. A known and awarded illustrator contributor? Then there are the award-winner lists. What about the interest catching furors? The higher power of lucky by Susan Patron hits each of the weigh-ins. Matt Phelan is 2010 Scott O’Dell winner. The novel is an Atheneum Book, the 2007 Newbery Award Winner, and the controversy-unworthy user of the word “scrotum.”

Noting my distraction of late (a slump (and whine)), I felt good about picking up a read I have meant to read for some time now, and one that is 134 pages.

Natalya had retrieved it from the book crate we’d taken with us on vacation and returned it shortly thereafter. She said it was boring. My almost 10 daughter hardly started to read it before deciding not to. After reading James Patterson’s Maximum Ride (the first and second) most reads would start off dull, I supposed. I was undaunted.

And when I did start off bored I was determined to read anyhow. Sometimes books turn round or reading circumstances change.

I began the higher power of lucky on a lazy Sunday afternoon and finished it on an equally lazy Tuesday following. [Monday was a day’s drive home.] Besides being a short 134 pages with illustrations at intervals along the way, the reading is not difficult. It took me twice as long as I figured it would—and not because profound thought had me skittering off somewhere to contemplate deep and thought-provoking text. I would just get bored.

I love quirky, interesting girl protagonists. Lucky is sure to be one of these. Add an unusual landscape and community [of Hard Pan (pop. 43)] with an endearing populace and I should be sold on this read. Why wasn’t I?

Reading the book came with ideas for recommendations of the “if you liked this, than” sort; And for varying reasons; And with the qualifier that you will most like these others better; which made me feel awful. The list:

Pictures of Hollis Woods by Patricia R. Giff; Becoming Naomi Leon by Pam Munoz Ryan; Belle Teal by Ann M. Martin; How to Steal a Dog by Barbara O’Connor; feathers by Jacqueline Woodson; Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo.

Patron’s story was all right. Lucky, age 10, is the kind of character that interests the reader. And interest usually leads to caring, or at least investment, doesn’t it? Lucky is so interest/investment-worthy that I feel a bit guilty for not caring about her or her plight. Her plight, I think, is that she has yet to figure out her “higher power,” nor discover how to find “the higher power.” Also, she is concerned her guardian is going to abandon her and go back to France. Perhaps, as an adult reader, my perspective is not meant as an audience for this story. I was not worried for her, and I hadn’t even peeked at the last of the book. And it isn’t that Patron doesn’t set up a plausible explanation for the guardian’s return to France. I think that a 10 year old who hasn’t just read an action-packed thrill-suspense will be drawn into Lucky’s concerns.

As for “the higher power,” my almost 10 daughter did ask what this meant. I told her that “the higher power” often referenced God; it was at least something metaphysical, or super-human—you know, a power higher than what you see or feel is available to you. I told her to read the book to see how the author explores or answers her question of “what is ‘the higher power’.” I am curious if my almost 10 would be able to find an answer.

Lucky is ever revisiting the ideas of “the higher power” and “rock-bottom.” She is influenced by her eavesdropping on Anonymous meetings. There are the recovering Alcoholics, Smokers, Eaters… She feels that their situations in some ways mirror her own. She is helpless (being a kid and orphaned) and desires some control—and hope. This “higher power” intrigues her, as it surely is an answer to her abandonment issues, and her vulnerable status as kid and orphan.

But she still had doubts and anxious questions in all the crevices of her brain, especially about how to find her Higher Power.

If she could only find it, Lucky was pretty sure she’d be able to figure out the difference between the things she could change and the things she couldn’t, like in the little prayer of the anonymous people. Because sometimes Lucky wanted to change everything, all the bad things that had happened, and sometimes she wanted everything to stay the same forever. (8)

Lucky is certain there will come an event (or perhaps hopes for it) that will place her at “rock bottom” where the discovery/finding of this higher power will propel her into a more positive direction.

I may have to re-read the higher power of lucky but I am fairly sure the answer to the higher power question is not the “expected” one. The answer I read was: the Higher Power is adaptation, adaptability. Human/nature’s malleability.

Hard Pan is a hardscrabble existence, and yet many of the occupants appear content enough, if not perfect for the landscape. They find and experiment with way s of making Hard Pan survivable, if not plain livable: Short Sammy’s water tower home (55), making commodity foods edible (56-7), post office community center (44).

There is the pragmatic, even when deals are made (if the dog lives…pg3) and signs are read (chapters 14, 15). Parts are scientifically labeled, “scrotum,” “brain crevice,” “brain secretions,” “meanness gland.” Human functions are not left mysterious but are addressed with practical sense, “after about 20 minutes [in the desert] Lucky needed to pee” (107). Lucky lists “good and bad traits for mothers” (14), keeps her “survival kit backpack” stocked and with her at all times (16, 98). As practical as she is, she has a hard time figuring out those things that do not fit, and the story follows her reasoning, or her attempts to reason out the world around her.

Lucky would be a world-famous scientist, a naturalist in the way of a hero of hers, Charles Darwin (43). She would observe and take inspiration from the environment around her. It is in her surroundings that she would find her Higher Power, and within herself, her make-up, “She, Lucky, was perfectly adapted to her environment, the Northern Mojave Desert, and she knew that the sameness of her coloring was exactly right” (93).

In Hard Pan, and in Lucky’s more intimate world, there is just Life—and the necessary adaptation of one to their environment. Bad things happen, things out of our control; sometimes perceived and other times hard fact. Running away only makes matters worse; or sometimes it doesn’t even work properly—as Lucky finds out. Avoidance only seems to prolong the inevitable or the Event. The things that feed into Lucky’s life (and thus the novel) that would come to head, do; from there we get the happy ending at the ending of the novel.

Patron’s characters were excellent, as was her placement of the reader in the setting. I found Lincoln and Miles wonderful, and Short Sammy is one of a kind (and yet not). The buildings and desert landscape are imagined and set into the story with ease. There are amusing and apt similes. This is my favorite:

Lucky had the same jolting feeling as when you’re in a big hurry to pee and you pull down your pants fast and back up to the toilet without looking—but some man or boy before you has forgotten to put the seat down. So your bottom, which is expecting the usual nicely shaped plastic toilet seat, instead lands shocked on the thin rim of the toilet bowl, which is quite a lot colder and lower. Your bottom gets a panic of bad surprise. That was the same thump-on-the-heart shock Lucky got finding out… (73).

The story is fairly straight-forward and has all the elements that should land this novel on any young person’s shelves, on loan or no.  But one might want to borrow this first.

Though the story is not first person narrative, the third limited is in the character of Lucky; by character I mean the voice styling/personality of the 10 year old, 5th grader, protagonist. The author is obviously an adult, but she has written with the consideration of her main character. I am not an elementary school teacher and I am not exposed to a large number of 4th-5th grade narratives, I’ve only my one writerly daughter, so I don’t know of the success of voice styling of the higher power of lucky.

There is an adjustment to the musings of one thing being interrupted by the pervasive thoughts of another. For instance page 8 Lucky is responding to how “a breeze rattled the found object wind chimes at the found Object Wind Chime Museum and Visitor Center […] Just the sound of those chimes made Lucky feel cooler. But she still had doubts and anxious questions.” This paragraph follows one explaining how her dog HMS Beagle’s name came to be. I suppose the interruptive nature of her concerns projected onto the fluidity of the natural occurrences (a smoothly told segued story) is reflective of Lucky’s state of being/emotions.

There is a sequence that puzzled me a bit. I am going to interpret here, but mainly I am asking for confirmation or another perspective. Lucky has her mother’s ashes. There had been a memorial service shortly after her mother died in which Lucky was to have sent her mother’s ashes “to the four winds” (64-7). She didn’t. When she runs away she takes her mother’s remains and after she is found she decides to scatter the ashes then and there in the desert, “she had something important to do before she surrendered” (128). I was thinking that her impromptu memorial service returns the attention that Miles has taken; “Everyone was talking at once, asking questions and hugging Miles” (129). The story refocuses more tightly back onto Lucky and the novel finishes. Otherwise, the memorial feels like it comes out of nowhere. Sure, there is mention of the ashes more than a few times, and she does take them with her. The belated memorial just felt sudden and awkward. Yes, I do recall an explanation was offered, “He’d said that the decision she made would be the right one” (129). “He” is the crematory man or possibly father who’d said at the earlier memorial that Lucky needn’t scatter the ashes then, if she wasn’t ready (67). I suppose that the releasing of her mother’s ashes symbolizes a letting go; Lucky and Brigitte can now move on to solidifying their family unit. I can read meaning. However, the moment felt more than ungainly; though I suppose no more ungainly and interruptive than having one’s mother walk out into the after-storm-morning and getting electrocuted by a fallen power line.

I can reason out the ungainly nature of working through ideas or emotions, of trying to interpret the actions of environment in which I find myself (to include relationships). If the story was working to reflect that in technique, I can appreciate the move to do so. I can actually find that fantastic. Perhaps I have enough of my own ungainly concerns at the moment so I was unwilling to take on another’s; especially one possibly more mature (even at 20 years younger).

A bit about the format. The chapters could almost stand alone. I haven’t tried reading just one a pace from the previous, but I did notice the end tied neatly back into the beginning of the numbered and named contents. It doesn’t appear to me as a collection of shorts or vignettes, but it has the sense of a step away of one chapter sliding easily into the next. Also, there is a noteto the reader” on the last page, just past acknowledgements; A nice, informative addition to the book.

I think I will have to re-read the higher power of lucky again at a later time. And I think I should find a 9-11 who will read or has read it and interrog interview get their thoughts on this one…especially what they come away with on the question of the higher power.

There is a sequel to the higher power of lucky, though this does stand well alone. Lucky Breakswas published March 2009 with Matt Phelan back as Illustrator.  I should comment on Phelan’s work with: it is lovely and satisfying. Quiet, unpretentious, expressive–just right.