Some books grab you from the first moment you see their gorgeous cover. Such was the case the first time I saw Kelly Barnhill’s beautiful middle-grade fantasy, The Girl Who Drank the Moon.
Anticipation grew even more when Barnhill and her publisher released two prequels to the story last month on Entertainment Weekly (read Part 1 and Part 2 for a taste of Barnhill’s storytelling). So I was delighted to have the opportunity to chat with Kelly and to help her celebrate the release of The Girl Who Drank the Moon.
Hello Kelly, welcome to From the Mixed-Up Files! Which middle-grade books did you love when you were younger?
A: I wasn’t much of a reader before fifth grade. Like at all. I knew that one should read, and I was very good at pretending to read, but the ability to sink into a page just wasn’t there for me. What I did love was listening. My parents read to us all the time, and I can remember listening to Grimm’s fairy tales, and later C.S. Lewis, and later Tolkien, and later Dickens. I also —thanks to a garage sale purchase of a Fisher Price orange plastic record player — loved checking out books on records from the library. Because, once upon a time, that was a thing. I listened to Treasure Island and Kidnapped and Just So Stories and both Jungle Books. Later, when I started seeking books out on my own, I loved weird things. L. Frank Baum, particularly. And Roald Dahl. And Daniel Pinkwater. And Diana Wynne Jones. And Ursula K. LeGuin. And Andre Norton. You don’t have to scratch my skin very deeply to find the undercurrent of those writers, pulsing in my veins.
Q: Which came first, the story itself or the prequel?
A: Oh, the story. For sure. But one thing that I didn’t realize when I started writing the story was how much Xan’s unremembered history would come to play in the way the action unfolded. There is much that I couldn’t include in the story itself, simply because Xan had chosen not to remember it — because memory is dangerous, as is sorrow. Or so Xan thinks. Anyway, the idea of her as a child in the company of a bunch of irascible magicians and scholars — many of whom do not have her best interests at heart — intrigued me. And so some of the cut pages and a bunch of the notes started swirling around until a story emerged.
Q: Last year, you wrote a novella for adults called The Unlicensed Magician. Can you talk a little bit about the differences between writing for adults and for children? Which do you prefer? Should we expect more adult stories from you in the future?
Writing a novella, I feel, is a bit like the Spanish Inquisition — no one expects it. I have written and published quite a few short stories for grown-ups that have appeared in a variety of journals. I like writing short stories; I like the muscle of it and the precision needed. It’s an entirely different skill set from what is required for a novel. And while I’ve written a few short stories for kids, the vast majority of them have been for adults. I’m not entirely sure why this is. Maybe my “adult fiction voice” is just more narrow than my “children’s fiction voice.” Or something.
When I started “The Unlicensed Magician,” I assumed I was writing a short story. And then 30,000 words poured out over the course of a couple days — just like that. This was a muscle that I didn’t know I had, and when I finished, I was tired and sore and had no idea what to do with the thing. I’m glad it’s found an audience, and that people seem to like it. As far as the intended audience goes — man. I don’t know. I will think and think and think about a story — just the story — and have no idea if it is a kid’s story or an adult’s story or just a weird story that only I would like. I don’t really know that until I’m done. Really, all I think about is the story itself — what the experience is, what the language feels like, what the big ideas are underpinning the whole thing. I don’t think about audience until the very end.
Q: Like you, I attended my first nErDcamp this year. Can you talk a little bit about the experience and what it meant to you as a writer and former teacher?
A: nErDcamp is magic, plain and simple. I have been fighting for so long — first as a teacher and then as a parent — for reading instruction in schools that is humane and empathetic and inspiring and challenging and ultimately joyful. Reading instruction and encouragement that helps young minds to be more than they are through the power of radical empathy in books. And I have found myself thwarted and frustrated at every turn. Coming to nErDcamp felt like coming home. So many joyful teachers! So many joyful book pushers! So many joyful writers and readers and kids! It was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life.
Q: You teach writing to adults and children and you mentioned on your web site that a big part of that involves “un-teach(ing) what they have already learned.” Can you elaborate on that?
A: When we learn to write, we learn there are rules, and when we actually write, we throw those rules away. So often, my students come to me already stuck in particular boxes of what they think “good” writing is, and is not, and what kind of writer they think they are, and are not. And primarily, I think a lot of kids and adults have learned over the years that their ideas just aren’t good enough. That they don’t have a story to tell. That an idea for a story is something that happens to other people — special people. This is balderdash. All of us are built out of stories. I have to un-teach them the lie in order to teach them the truth.
Q: What books are on your nightstand right now?
A: A DARKER SHADE OF MAGIC, by V E Schwab. And after that, I have some marvelous Murakami waiting for me. There is something about summer that simply begs for Murakami. After that, I plan to read MR. FOX, by Helen Oyeyemi and a few Diana Wynne Jones books that are due for a re-read.
Oh, how I loved A Darker Shade of Magic and so did both of my children (readers, please note that it is technically adult, although I let my 10 & 11 year old read it!). Thanks so much for your time, Kelly, and best of luck with your new book.
THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON releases today from Algonquin Young Readers.