My Scott O’Dell Challenge: The Storm in the Barn by Matt Phelan

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award

This month’s book for my Scott O’Dell Award Challenge is the 2010 winner, The Storm in the Barn by Matt Phelan (Candlewick Press, 2009).

The Storm in the Barn is set in 1937 Dust Bowl Kansas where 11-year-old Jack feels weak and useless. He’s picked on by bullies. He disappoints his father because he’s too young to help much on the farm. And he is totally powerless to cure his sister’s dust pneumonia. However, in an abandoned barn, Jack finds something strange, wet, and menacing that could bring back the rain.

History lessons:

1. Wizard of Oz books. One of the cool things about this book is that Phelan uses the Wizard of Oz books to connect to Jack’s story. The famous movie with Judy Garland as Dorothy hit the theaters in 1939, but the series of books by L. Frank Baum had been out for decades. The children of the 1930s would have known these stories. I love the connections Phelan made. For instance, Jack’s sick sister, Dorothy, is reading Ozma of Oz (1907) where the character Dorothy finds a desert, a familiar landscape to a Dust Bowl child.

2. Jack Tales. Phelan also used another literary, albeit oral, tradition in The Storm in the Barn. The fairy tales, Jack and the Beanstalk and Jack the Giant Killer/Slayer, are two examples of a Jack Tale. These folktales came from Europe to America, especially Appalachia and the Ozarks. Jack Tales follow a distinct pattern where Jack represents the ordinary boy who uses pluck, trickery, and often magic, to defeat his foes, often giants or wind kings.

3. Dust Bowl jack rabbit drives. Growing plants was extremely hard during the Dust Bowl because of the lack of rain. Then the jack rabbits would eat the plants, competing with people for food. So people would organize a drive where they would corral and kill the rabbits. Necessary, but brutal.I first learned about the jack rabbit drives only a year or so ago and, until now, have never seen them included in a children’s book. I was impressed at how Phelan handled the topic and showed how it impacted the people involved, including Jack.

Writing lessons:

The Storm in the Barn made two firsts as a Scott O’Dell Award winner.

1. It is the first graphic novel to win the award.

2. It is the first not-strictly historical fiction book to win this historical fiction award. The Storm in the Barn is also part fairy/folk/tall tale. But, it’s faithful to the spirit of America’s folklore.

It’s another example of an author/illustrator using an unusual way to successfully tell a touching and powerful story.

For more information:

The Folklore Tradition of Jack Tales

Matt Phelan and The Storm in the Barn

My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge

Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction


Next month’s selection will be the 1997 Scott O’Dell Award winner, Jip, His Story by Katherine Paterson.

Have you read The Storm in the Barn? What other Jack Tales do you know? What is your favorite Dust Bowl-era children’s book? What other historical fiction graphic novels have you read?


  1. Pingback: My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: OUT OF THE DUST by Karen Hesse | Deb Watley

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