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Battle of the Books

Round 2 Match 4: The Storm in the Barn vs Tales from Outer Suburbia

The Storm in the Barn
by Matt Phelan
Candlewick Press
Tales from Outer Suburbia
by Shaun Tan
Arthur A. Levine Books

Judged by Shannon Hale

First up: Matt Phelan’s graphic novel Storm in the Barn. I loved the feel of this book. It’s 200 pages, and they flow effortlessly. The washed out blues, grays, and browns evoke the famine-striken land, a town in Kansas waiting years for rain in 1937. His style is so accessible, and he communicates action and emotion with simple lines and shading and minimal color. A flashback section and a story-within- the-story apply richer color, bringing the context of the setting into sharp definition.

The story itself is highly readable. Jack is one casualty of the drought. At age 10 or 11, he should be a farm hand, but there’s no farm to work unless rain returns. Other stories intertwine with Jack’s — Dorothy in Oz, Jack of fairy tale fame — adding meaning and texture.

The boy’s story bends from historical fiction to fairy tale when he sees flashes in an abandoned barn and believes a rain monster is hiding inside. Text is minimal, and the illustrations tell what needs to be told. A wonderful medium for this story, and a wonderful story. Well done, Matt Phelan!

The second contender is Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan. He wowed me with The Arrival, and I was excited to lay my hands on this lavishly illustrated collection of short stories. What a treasure.

All of Tan’s stories can be read for what they are–speculative fiction set in a real world. Or perhaps realistic fiction in a world of magical realism. Or somewhere in between. But of course the beauty of this genre is that readers can create their own metaphors for these tales. “Stick Figures” echoed for me colonized Australia, and the lingering guilt and sadness that the land once belong to others who were driven away. Silent ghosts, voiceless reminders. The same could be read for American Indians or other slaughtered and displaced peoples. Or it could be the land itself protesting–the trees that have been cut away springing back up.

Or dozens of other metaphors.

The last line of “Undertow” gave me chills each time I read it. Such unexpected hope! Such grace! Here, Tan reminds me of Raymond Carver at his best. His stories also evoke other great writers of short speculative fiction, like Kelly Link and Gabriel Garcia Marquez–what a dazzling feat for an illustrator! But after reading this, I have to consider Shaun Tan, master of the great wordless graphic novel, as a terrific writer as well. I’m not sure what the effect of these stories would be without the illustrations, but it doesn’t matter. The stories are vivid, the illustrations gorgeous, and the whole package is delectable.

My one quibble is with the cover. I don’t think this is the best illustration to define the collection. Let me just throw that out there in case others agree and the publisher rethinks that for paperback. But I love the bumpiness and raised font! I love tactile covers. And in all ways, the book is packaged beautifully.

Between the two, my heart goes to Tales from Outer Suburbia. They’re both obviously terrific books, but that one just stuck to me longer. I’m sure another judge could easily rule the other way. They aren’t written for the same audience. I’d say Storm in the Barn is for 8-12, while Outer Suburbia is 12-adult, but I wasn’t asked to consider age range or anything else. My job is simply to read two books and pick one.

And so I get an intimate glance into the capriciousness of judging books for awards! Nevertheless, I’m proud to send this book along to Walter Dean Myers. Well done, Shaun Tan!

Shannon Hale

The Winner of Round 2 Match 4 Is…

Okay, Shannon, but just beware of dark, shadowy figures in your garage, in your closet, under your bed!  Tobin picked the tightly plotted CHARLES AND EMMA over the more episodic CALPURNIA TATE, and Helen did somewhat likewise with THE LOST CONSPIRACY over LIPS TOUCH, while Julius and Shannon have chosen the short stories of TALES FROM OUTER SUBURBIA over the larger stories of WHEN YOU REACH ME and THE STORM IN THE BARN, respectively.  Most people probably tend to gravitate toward novels over short stories, and it probably takes an exceptional short story collection to successfully compete with excellent novels—but TALES FROM OUTER SUBURBIA fits the bill.  Shannon (and others) may actually prefer the Australian cover of the book which features a dog sitting on a television.  Has anyone noticed that the four remaining books—CHARLES AND EMMA, THE LOST CONSPIRACY, MARCHING FOR FREEDOM, and TALES FROM OUTER SUBURBIA—are all finalists for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize?  Interesting!

–Commentator Jonathan Hunt


  1. You picked the right one, Shannon!
    You are also right about readers’ age. For younger readers, Storm in the Barn might be a better book.
    However, Tales from Outer Suburbia is a rare treasure, and I’d like to see it against Charles and Emma in the end.

  2. Yesssssssssssssssssss! Oh my heart is happy today with some mad love for Shaun Tan.

  3. When I thought about this choice from memory, I was torn. Then I picked up Tales from Outer Suburbia the other night and reread it–and realized there was no contest. This book gave me the shivers, it’s so strange and magical and dark and light all at the same time. (If you haven’t read The Arrival or The Red Tree, look for those, too. Brilliant!)

  4. Oh hooray! Another painful decision, but I love that Shannon pointed out how each reader can take something different from their reading of Tales. The book defies category and that is part of its charm. I know that many people were disappointed that Marcelo in the Real World was not a Printz winner, but for me, the real tragedy was the omission of Tales from Outer Suburbia. I’m thrilled the book is getting some good love here with BoB.

  5. I agree with Shannon’s choice and reasoning completely. I like that she acknowledges that STORM IN THE BARN is a great book, too. But TALES FROM OUTER SUBURBIA is amazing and does stick with you.

    And I predicted all the matches correctly for the second round! At least the predictions I made AFTER I knew the first round winners (only one of which I predicted). Maybe I’m getting the hang of how this works. Or maybe I’m just getting luckier.

    As Shannon points out, it’s probably a good thing for writers to see the other side of judging. To realize how completely subjective awards and such are. (For example, if I were a judge, Shannon’s books would win every award.) Also good for aspiring writers to know — If your manuscript hits an editor who doesn’t happen to like the type of story you tell well — try, try again.

  6. Oh my lands! i just reread what I wrote and I meant Raymond Carver not Raymond Chandler! I’m sure diligent readers were furrowing brows and wondering how “Undertow” held interesting conversations with the Maltese Falcon.

  7. Battle Commander says:


    Not to worry — it is corrected!

  8. No no wait…there’s more! Because Dashiell Hammett wrote Maltese Falcon! You’ve got to be kidding me!

  9. Quick note: The LA Times Book Prizes are the best in the business, in my opinion. There are often surprising nominees, making the lists from all areas (just look at this year’s adult fiction list) feel just a little fresher and more energetic than those of other prizes.

    Glad to see Tales from Outer Suburbia will make it one more round, but I don’t envy the next three judges.

  10. It was lovely to hear Shannon explain why I loved Suburbia so much, because I clearly could not do so myself. Thanks for sending my book through, you could have compared it to the writings of Raymond Burr and I would have bought it.

  11. Shannon Hale made the best and only choice. Oh so looking forward to the coming matches!

  12. Oh, happy day! I definitely agree with Judge Hale’s comment that they aren’t intended for the same age range, but either way, Tales from Outer Suburbia is the one that I want to give to everyone I know.

    I also agree with what Sondy said, that who wins completely depends on the judges.

  13. Yay! I almost forgot to check this! I’m so psyched! I picked Tales over When You Reach Me and Storm in the Barn, even though those are fantastic also. Like Shannon Hale says, this book sticks with you! I hope it sticks all the way to the end. Looking forward to Megan Whalen Turner tomorrow!

  14. jordan p says:

    i love this book its soooooo kool were doing a project on it at school yay


  1. […] to make historical fiction into a fantasy/fairytale/folklore.  That being said, it lost it’s SLJ BoB match today to Tales from Outer Suburbia and I can’t say I’m up in arms about […]

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