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Round 2 Match 4: The Storm in the Barn vs Tales from Outer Suburbia
|The Storm in the Barn
by Matt Phelan
|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!
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
About Battle Commander
The Battle Commander is the nom de guerre for children’s literature enthusiasts Monica Edinger and Roxanne Hsu Feldman, fourth grade teacher and middle school librarian at the Dalton School in New York City and Jonathan Hunt, the County Schools Librarian at the San Diego County Office of Education. All three have served on the Newbery Committee as well as other book selection and award committees. They are also published authors of books, articles, and reviews in publications such as the New York Times, School Library Journal, and the Horn Book Magazine. You can find Monica at educating alice and on twitter as @medinger. Roxanne is at Fairrosa Cyber Library and on twitter as @fairrosa. Jonathan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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