What did you read during the Snownami/Snowpalooza/Snowmageddon? Judging by the armloads of books people were checking out from the library before each of the storms, the most popular items were picture books, mysteries, best sellers, historical fiction, biographies… in fact, people were, as usual, reading everything!
Among those armloads were plenty of graphic novels for young readers. Defined as novels with complex storylines told in the form of a comic book, these books are finding increasing recognition in the form of awards.
A graphic novel won the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction for the first time ever this year. Matt Phelan’s “The Storm in the Barn” is an intriguing blend of historical fiction, folklore, and horror.
The setting is the Dust Bowl in 1937. Eleven-year-old Jack can barely remember the last time it rained, four years ago. His days now consist of dodging the local bullies, reading the Oz books with his sister Dorothy, a victim of “dust pneumonia,” and hanging out at the local store where the friendly owner tells him stories about a boy named Jack who battled the King of the Winds and slew the two-headed giant.
Phelan sets an ominous mood. It’s not just Jack’s rocky relationship with his severe father, or the local doctor’s diagnosis of a new condition he calls “dust dementia.” It’s also the strange phenomena Jack witnesses in an abandoned barn: a puddle of water on the floor, unexplained bright lights, and a haunting creature that seems to be made out of rainwater.
In shades of brown, gold and gray, Phelan evokes the dry, dusty landscape of Jack’s farm and the small town nearby, punctuated with the slate-blue shades of the rain creature and washes of blood-red. Cartoon strips alternate with full-page illustrations to create a well-paced narrative that builds to a dramatic climax.
Much of the book is wordless, but that doesn’t make it “easy reading.” Despite the accessible format, the subject matter makes this more appropriate for readers ten and up. Kids will need to look closely to pick up the clues and follow the storyline to its hopeful, triumphant ending.
Readers who like scary stories like Phelan’s are sure to appreciate P. Craig Russell’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s “Coraline.” First published as a novel, and then made into a successful animated film, Gaiman’s story is now available in a compelling graphic novel format.
Like Phelan’s novel, this has a strong undercurrent of horror. After her family moves into an old house, Coraline finds a door that opens onto a brick wall – until one day when, bored and alone in the house, Coraline opens the door and finds something eerie. The flat beyond the door has the same furniture and pictures as her own. It even has the same people – except that the mother in this flat has long, dark red fingernails, “curled and sharp,” and her eyes are big black buttons.
Coraline’s “other mother” and “other father” are odd enough, but the rats who live upstairs are downright creepy. Coraline’s adventure gets even scarier before it comes to a well-earned resolution.
Readers of the book and watchers of the film will find the graphic novel edition of “Coraline” to be equally artful and disturbing. Try this with readers ten and up who like to be scared.
First published in the Free Lance-Star on February 16, 2010.