Elizabeth Hall (right) and I (left) awarded Matt Phelan (center) the 2010 Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction during the ALA convention in Washington last month. Matt’s publisher Candlewick hosted an elegant little party for the occasion, and I wanted to share with you Elizabeth’s remarks about Matt’s book, The Storm in the Barn, when she presented him with the prize:
The Storm in the Barn plunges us into those discouraging days of the Dust Bowl. It’s set in 1937, when choking dust obscured the sun most of time. It was the year of 134 dust storms, and most of the farmers had abandoned their farms—and their states. Two years earlier more than a quarter of the population had already deserted the plains—following the loss of 850 million tons of topsoil. Only the toughest were left.
In this devastated land Matt Phelan introduces us to Jack Clark, an 11-year-old farm kid who’s never farmed. Since my grandchildren grew up on a farm, I can tell you that eleven-year-old farm kids are skilled at farm chores: weeding, caring for livestock, helping bale hay, harvesting field crops—even driving tractors. But Jack’s never learned any of those jobs. Ever since he was seven, his state of Kansas had been part of the dust bowl.
What Jack does know is dust–great clouds of it, blowing across the land, blotting out buildings, smothering seedlings, sifting through cracks, seeping into houses. His only task seems to be caring for his younger sister while watching his older sister’s case of dust pneumonia slowly grow worse. Bullied by other boys, blundering and inept when he tries to help his father with mechanical tasks, Jack feels more incompetent every day. Only Ernie, the general storekeeper, who fills Jack with traditional Jack tales of derring-do, provides him with any social support.
Like Jack’s parents, these Kansas farmers are nearly defeated. In their desperation, they’re willing to cast spells with dead snakes. Losing their sparse gardens to the voracious appetites of jackrabbits, they feel forced to round up and destroy their small competitors. Here Matt gives us a look at human nature, as some of the club wielders tap into a blood lust that fades into a square of solid red before it changes to sorrow and shame.
When Jack’s neighbors migrate west, a strange presence moves into their abandoned barn. Nightly thunder and lightning shake the building with The Storm in the Barn. Is its source really The Rain, who has withdrawn from the land in the hopes that folks will worship him? Or is Jack suffering from a case of dust dementia? Why is Jack’s little sister singing the rain away? And where did she find those umbrellas? There’ve been no wet skies since she was born. Is she under the spell of The Rain?
The children’s bleak lives are brightened by Jack’s older sister Dorothy’s beloved Oz books. They promise a lovely country just over the deadly desert—one as fertile as the farmland Jack’s mother describes as existing there before the drought. Perhaps it’s a belief that the glowing colors of that beautiful waiting land could heal his own sister that gives Jack courage. He challenges and bests the giant Rain in combat, ripping apart the satchel that holds the rain and initiating a powerful thunderstorm.
In this graphic novel, Matt Phelan uses a limited palette to capture exactly the time and the place of the Dust Bowl. Only the blue of The Rain’s cape and the redness of rabbits’ blood intrude on the tans and grays. His sure pencil line lets us know exactly what each of his characters is feeling. We see the smug, the frightened, the depressed, the discouraged, the shamefaced—and the loving and compassionate.
Today’s children must find it hard to believe the kind of life people like Jack and his family endured. Not in this country! The Storm in the Barn is a valuable book, in part because it lets us see its discomforts, its dangers and its desperation through the eyes of those whose lives it disrupted. That achievement goes to the heart of the Scott O’Dell Award. Scott believed firmly in Santayana’s proposal that those who don’t remember the past are doomed to repeat it. And he hoped that his award would keep future generations from forgetting the lessons of our past.
I am a bit daunted but pleased to be taking over as chair of the O’Dell Award committee, as Hazel Rochman has decided to make her retirement more worthy of that name. The other committee member, Ann Carlson, and I are happy to welcome new member Laura Tillotson, Editorial Director of Books for Youth at Booklist magazine. You can see pics from the party at the Scott O’Dell Facebook page, and more information about the award can be found on the O’Dell site.