Last year’s middle grade novel The Girl Who Drank the Moon recently won the Newbery Medal, but according to author Kelly Barnhill, she almost didn’t write the book.
“I have to think about all of my books for a long time before I can really start writing them,” Barnhill tells EW. “So I’d been thinking about this book for a long time, and I was actually going to wait another year before I started, but then I made the mistake of mentioning it in another interview after Witch’s Boy came out and my editor called me and said, ‘Actually that’s the [book] I want next.’ So it’s the fastest book I’ve ever written actually.”
The Girl Who Drank the Moon tells the story of Luna, the latest in a line of babies that the people of the Protectorate sacrifice to the witch of the forest in a bid to keep their town safe. Only as readers quickly discover, Xan the witch is a gentle woman who rescues babies and helps them get adopted.
However, when Xan accidentally feeds Luna moonlight instead of starlight, the young girl becomes “enmagicked,” causing Xan to decide to raise her herself—with some help from Glerk, a wizened old swamp monster, and Fyrian, a Perfectly Tiny Dragon. Together, this ragtag adopted family deals with not only with Luna’s growing magical abilities but also the people of the Protectorate, one of whom who has decided to kill the witch to save his village.
With so much in play in the sprawling fairytale—and one of EW’s Best Middle Grade Novels of 2016—we caught up with newly minted Newberry Medal winner Barnhill to discuss her inspirations, the importance of stories, and the power of remembering.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was your inspiration for The Girl Who Drank the Moon?
KELLY BARNHILL: I’m not a visual thinker at all, but every once in a while I’ll get an image in my head that is crisp and in the forefront of my brain. I was out for a run, and I had this image appear in my head, unbidden, that was so shocking to me that I had to stop in my tracks. It was of this four-armed swamp monster which a huge tail, and an extremely wide-spaced eyes that were independently moving and these big, damp jaws and it was holding a daisy in one hand, and was reciting a poem, which is actually the same poem that appears at the very end at the book, “The Heart Is Built of Starlight and Time.” I ran home and wrote out the poem and it’s basically verbatim as it appears in the book now.
The book also manages to touch upon several themes while also telling this longer fairytale. Did you know what you wanted to tackle before you set out to write?
I knew from the get-go that I wanted to tackle the issue of false narratives, and how stories can be used to manipulate and alter our sense of the truth. I did not realize that it would be as relevant today. [Laughs] I have a lot of friends who are journalists and I was thinking about the fallout after Hurricane Katrina when journalism had to really, really do some hard looking at itself to confront issues of internalized bias in reporting, how there were all kinds of things we thought that were true in those early days that turned out to be completely false. There were little aspects of it that were true, but the way that we knew that story was wrong. I can see some people coming out of a broken up store with stuff and if I described them as “scavengers” or “looters” depends a lot on my own internal biases.
That was really interesting to me because human beings are all storytellers. We are all built as stories. Our brains are built to tell stories, so we remember and dream and plan for the future in stories. We teach and learn and take in new information all in narrative and stories. One of the things I like to tell kids when I’m presenting in classes is that the earliest human writing that we have is not tax receipts or a business expense. It’s the story of Gilgamesh. So storytelling is really important for who we are as human beings. But then that’s problematic because it’s also how we can process and create and distort the truth, as we’ve seen a lot lately.
Another big part of the book is forgetting, with some characters choosing to forget certain events, while others can’t seem to remember. How did you approach that aspect of the book?
Our memories are not reliable or stable, even though we’d like to believe that they are. And our memories are not always accessible to us even though we’d like to believe that they are. So I really did want to play with that because we tell ourselves all kinds of lies about ourselves. And I wanted to play with that too. Because all these characters are not only lying to other people, they’re lying to themselves. I love that line from Harriet the Spy. “You can lie to other people, I’ll give you permission, but you are absolutely not allowed to lie to yourself.” And so the more that they lie to themselves, the more they get in trouble because it alters their perception and their interaction with the world.
One of the most interesting scenes is when we see the mothers of the Protectorate begin to remember the children they sacrificed to the witch, because you realize that the people making the decisions in the Protectorate are mostly men.
This has been remarked on before in my books, and the phrase that people will use is “casual feminism” [because] I’ll like to, in an off-hand way, subvert gender norms and storylines. When we can present things as simple things that are true, and do so without comment, we are actually making a very big comment. [Laughs] And that is really important particularly in fantasy because you’re rewriting the rules of the world. It’s one of the fun things about writing fantasy. You’re literally like rewriting creation, which is fun.
But also when you’re writing for children the whole world is wondrous and strange to them and they really do rely on the stories they take in, be it from books or television or movies or even from the stories that they tell one another. They are in the process of rewriting the world, and the universe. So the more that we can give them stories that don’t fall into predictive patterns and provide for them a picture of the world and themselves and societies that are larger than what they see right in front of them, that that gives kids a really important gift. And I do take that responsibility very seriously.
The Girl Who Drank the Moon is currently available for purchase.