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Battle of the Books

Round 1 Match 7: The Storm in the Barn vs Sweethearts of Rhythm

The Storm in the Barn
by Matt Phelan
Candlewick Press
Sweethearts of Rhythm
by Marilyn Nelson
Dial Books

Judged by Anita Silvey

Choosing between the two books in this bracket—The Storm in the Barn by Matt Phelan and Sweethearts of Rhythm by Marilyn Nelson—at first seemed like deciding between an apple and an artichoke. But as I reread them, I realized that both are attempting, by use of fantasy and fact, to convey American history to young readers, certainly one of the most difficult tasks that any writer for the young undertakes. In poetry Marilyn Nelson, with the help of illustrator Jerry Pinkney, brings to life the first traveling all-girl swing band (part black and part white) from the World War II era. In a graphic novel Matt Phelan explores the Kansas dust storms of 1937.

Now I am actually not the ideal judge for either of these books; I have very strong biases about presenting history to young readers. Unless a work is obviously historical fiction, I prefer for writers to focus on what we believe to be fact—rather than to blend fact and fiction. Because I grew up in a family than never allowed the truth to get in the way of a good story, I myself from age three on wanted to know what was true and what was invented—both in my books and in life. I think many young readers, particularly the picture book set, have the same need. But since both books combine fantasy and history, I had to put aside my prejudice to select a winner.

In terms of seasoned talent, the team of Nelson/Pinkney would clearly have the edge in this contest. Winner of a Newbery Honor, Marilyn Nelson, poet extraordinaire, has been developing unusual books since Carver. Thanks to the inspired 2010 Caldecott committee, we can finally say “Caldecott Medal Winner” Jerry Pinkney has been at work for over four decades, providing breathtaking and exciting art for more than 100 picture books.

Nelson chose to tell her story from the point of view of the instruments played by the girls; these have all ended up together in a New Orleans pawn shop, shortly before Katrina arrives. As Pauline Braddy’s drums say: “Man, the house would bounce when her licks were hot!/ We gave those people what they were dancing for.” To accompany the observations of the instruments, Jerry Pinkey created multilayered collages that provide both broad panoramas of the band and close-ups of the women and their weapons of choice.

Yet with all their expertise, I felt these veterans made some serious missteps in Sweethearts of Rhythm. To understand what is happening, any reader will have to consult first the author’s note, the illustrators note, and timeline found at the end of the book. They will also have to comprehend Nelson’s references to Jim Crow laws, Satchmo, T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, Dr. Spock, and Japanese Internment Camps, to mention only a few of Nelson’s cultural and historical references. Also, the fantasy element makes it difficult, if not virtually impossible, to tease out the real history of the band. After being thoroughly entertained by these two brilliant book creators, and thinking them original and clever in the extreme, I still felt as if I really needed to read a good book about the first traveling All-Girl Swing Band!

Following in the footsteps of Spiegelman in Maus, Satrapi in Persepolis and Tan in The Arrival, Matt Phelan, in his first attempt at the genre, uses the popular format to convey history. Blue and brown predominate in the art, but we see Kansas in Technicolor when the settlers remember the good early days and panels tinged with red when they massacre a thousand jack rabbits. Phelan weaves a story around dust, rain, and a boy’s desire to be useful; in super-hero style the young boy challenges the rain monster and finally brings liquid to the parched Kansas earth. Phelan does weave this fantasy element in seamlessly, making it possible for young viewers to experience what it felt like to be in the midst of the Kansas dust storm. He brings events to a child’s eye view.

If in the future we are going to have books as physical objects, rather than just on Kindle or its replacement, book design and production will be even more important than they have been in the past. Nelson’s poetry, which demands a culturally sophisticated reader, has been encased in a standard-size picture book format. Squeezed might be a better word; Jerry Pinkney’s art seems corseted, with no room to breathe. The book features end papers that fight in color with the paper casing in deep blue. The type face makes this challenging text even more difficult to read. I longed for harmony in the book design of Sweethearts of Rhythm—but found a lot of cacophony.

Even more than the content, what makes The Storm in the Barn special is the attention to bookmaking and design. The book has been printed on ivory paper, with generous margins and a pleasing text block; the italic typeface (Agenda Light Italic) is inspired because it complements but does not overwhelm the soft pencil and watercolor art. Everything has been carefully crafted to make this offering a beautiful physical object; the design invites us in and makes reading a pleasure.

So I’m not sending the veterans on to the next round. My vote goes to Matt Phelan—mainly because he and his team (editor/art director/production manager) worked together to provide a very satisfying reading experience that allows young readers to comprehend a small slice of history.

— Anita Silvey

The Winner for Round 1 Match 7 Is…

This first round has drawn out some interesting matches, pitting similar genre books against each other (e.g. CHARLES AND EMMA vs. CLAUDETTE COLVIN and LIPS TOUCH vs. THE LOST CONSPIRACY).  Now these books are different genres—poetry vs. graphic novel—but they are arguably the most visually-oriented books on the list. I adore virtually everything Marilyn Nelson writes, but her latest offering does not attain the brilliance of either CARVER or A WREATH FOR EMMETT TILL, and I would say the same for Jerry Pinkney.  And, yes, the type face did drive me batty!  And yet, I found it compelling nevertheless.  Matt Phelan, on the other hand, has turned in his best work yet (albeit in a relatively short career), and my students are crazy in love with this book.  So, I find myself agreeing with virtually everything Anita has written here.  Great minds think alike! 

— Commentator Jonathan Hunt


  1. I failed again! I’m Depressed…
    I liked them both, but I liked the idea behind Sweethearts of Rhythm slightly better. Oh well, there’s always next time.

  2. Hooray! I FINALLY predicted one correctly! I predicted on the strength of THE STORM IN THE BARN, but just last night I read SWEETHEARTS OF RHYTHM, and Anita Silvey well put into words what I thought about it.

    I’m pleased — If I had been wrong about all the first 7 matches, then I’d be sure WHEN YOU REACH ME is doomed, too. (Though I have to admit that I am a big fan of TALES FROM OUTER SUBURBIA.)

  3. Genevieve says:

    Yay – a win for my bracket after the last two losses! (My son’s doing much better than me — if only he’d changed his mind about Charles & Emma before we submitted his bracket instead of after, he’d only have one loss.) Having read The Storm in The Barn last night, I firmly think that it deserves her accolades. It’s atmospheric and tells its tale so well with a perfect integration of picture and story.

    I love how Silvey places Storm in the Barn in the line of books that includes Maus, Persepolis, and The Arrival. It was excellent that she explained her bias — her general dislike of fantasy mixed with history — and I liked that she put it in the interesting context of her family. I was a little surprised that she didn’t mention that the mix of fantasy and history became a little controversial when it won The Scott O’Dell Award for historical fiction.

  4. Listening to a proficient appraiser work in her field gives me the same thrill as reading a poet’s perfectly turned phrase, or a lyricist meld seamlessly with her score. What a joy to hear Anita’s scalpel sharp summation. And my book won. Bonus!

  5. finally a judge has agreed with the majority of the respondents in the bracket contest. Storm in the Barn received 75% of the picks and Judge Silvey agreed! Hopefully Judge Lester will follow Ms. Silvey’s lead and choose WYRM, which has the same 75% edge. Final first round leader board to come tomorrow evening. Not surprisingly no contestant has correctly picked all the matches (two are 6 for 7). Some folks are still sitting at zero points.

  6. pdavislibrarian says:

    Hat’s off to SLJ for your choice of judges. No offense to those of you who are reviewers for SLJ, but I would love to see these eloquent judges be reviewers for SLJ all the time! This is my first year reading the “Battle” results, and these are the best written reviews I have ever read. So thoughtful and balanced. I can’t wait to read Julius Lester’s reviews tomorrow!

  7. Yay! I was awed by Phelan’s Storm in the Barn. I hadn’t read it before this contest and was simply amazed and quiet and quiet and reverential when I was done. Such an inspiration for students, so simple and beautiful. Great book! So glad she advanced this one!

  8. to pdavislibrarian
    if you have to say “no offense” understand that offense is actually meant. Also, I’ve enjoyed these author’s immensely but they are not really “reviewing” the books. This is quite different, and rightly so for a contest instead of a purchasing decision, IMHO.

  9. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I’d like to apologize for the comment about the Newbery article in my commentary. I’d intended it to be a playful swipe (in the same cheeky spirit as previous swipes), but I never meant for it to evolve into a discussion that might detract from the books that we want to highlight here. Thus, I have deleted the commentary, edited DaNae’s reponse to that point, and my subsequent response to DaNae.

  10. Oh, I laughed at the apples to artichokes comparison, it reminded me of the apples to elephants comparison of last year! (although I’m ashamed to say I can’t remember who said it, for what matchup. Though I’m fairly sure it was Hunger Games against someone!)

    Not having read Sweethearts of Rhythm, I can’t really say much on the points of comparison, but I will say that I loved The Storm in the Barn a lot more than I expected to, as I don’t normally enjoy “graphic novels” or books with pictures in general.

  11. pdavislibrarian says:

    to Brain Lair:
    I truly meant no offense. I am neither a reviewer nor an author. As a humble small town YS librarian, I am a big fan of the contenders, the judges, and the commentators. My hat is off to you all.


  1. […] match, The Storm in the Barn by Matt Phelan vs. Sweethearts of Rhythm.  I read the second book, a collaboration between the poet Marilyn Nelson and the illustrator […]

  2. […] Match Seven Judge: Anita Silvey Books: The Storm in the Barn by Matt Phelan VS Sweethearts of Rhythm by Marilyn Nelson Winner: The Storm in the Barn […]

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