For our fantastic three-way review of this year's Newbery winner, The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill, we came up with a few burning questions each, and then asked and answered them in an online chat session, so you could bear witness our witty repartee. Without further ado...
First, let's try to summarize the book in thirty words!
Rachael: Babies are left in the woods to be claimed by an evil witch. The baby-claiming witch is not actually evil, but there is evil afoot. Also dragons and swamp monsters.
Sam: Plutocrats, propagandists, and sadists are defeated by an Indigo Child, a failed bureaucrat, an ex-ninja nun, a witch, a swamp god, and a motley host of other characters.
Tess: Creepy town ruled by totalitarian regime requires yearly infant sacrifices. One of these babies is secretly adopted by a witch, grows powerfully magical, and learns to conquer fear with love.
What did you think of Barnhill's world building?
Sam: I appreciated Barnhill's ability to mention things in passing, to give the impression that the world extends beyond the boundaries of the book covers. Her world's "creation story" is a good example of this - we get a sort of poetic form of it, but we never really get into the details of it.
Rachael: I'm not sure if that's a bug or a feature, but I agree that we only get a fuzzy idea of the parameters of this world. What I did like was the way she reveals it in sort of slow, concentric circles - first just the Protectorate, then Xan and the other towns, and then some sense of the history and origins.
Tess: For some reason, I thought the book was going to be set in east Asia, or some east Asian inspired fantasy locale. I think because the cover, which is really lovely, has paper cranes on it, and reminded me of the covers of some of Grace Lin's books. Also because the first character we meet in earnest is named Xan. And the walled city of the Protectorate reminded me of walled palaces I have visited in China and Korea. When I realized that the setting is not meant to be Asian, or Asian inspired, that the fantasy world of the novel isn't meant to be comparable to anywhere specific in our real world, I had trouble adjusting. So I guess you could say that's evidence that Barnhill's world building didn't really work for me. I found the poetic fuzziness a little distracting. Instead of just accepting Glerk is a world-creating bog monster with multiple appendages, I kept really wishing there was a more detailed description or even an illustration of him. That's just me though! I could see how it would totally work for another reader.
What did you think of the political undertones of the story?
Sam: I'm gonna be honest here and say that I thought the politics of the book gave it some of its weakest moments. I'm thinking specifically here of the Elders of the Protectorate, whose contempt for the populace and unabashed love of luxury goods and status symbols don't provide for much in the way of nuance or depth. It would be a more interesting book, I think, if its villains had more complexity.
Tess: Reading this book within the context of our current political climate, I found the political undertones of the story very intriguing. The idea of a government controlling its citizens through fear fueled by misinformation and isolationism really resonated with me. And the message that that can be combated and corrected with hope, love, and acceptance is one I think is important for readers, particularly young readers, to be exposed to.
Rachael: I found that it hit close to home as well, given our current political climate. That makes me wonder how it will age, though.
What did you think of the pacing?
Tess: The pacing, honestly, wasn't my favorite part of the novel, but historically books where the focus shifts chapter by chapter, especially when the chapters are short, are hard for me. I felt like there were several distinct storylines going on, and not necessarily simultaneously, and the shifts in perspective from one character to another weren't seamless for me, so the pacing felt very stop-and-go, and made me feel generally impatient.
Rachael: I had the same kinds of feelings. It reminded me a little bit of Keeper [by Kathi Appelt, 2012] in that there was a constant sense of urgency, but after it didn't lead anywhere for a couple of hundred pages, I lost interest. Too much of a sense of "building to something big" without enough momentum to carry it along.
Tess: I think the "hurry up and slow down" pacing worked a little better in Keeper because the sea is a constant motif in that book, and the pacing felt a bit like the rising and falling of tides. The pacing in that book felt more purposeful than the pacing in this book.
Sam: I felt like it would have been a lot better of a book if the first 200 pages or so had been condensed down to 50. When the plot finally gets rolling, it's consistently interesting, but that doesn't really happen until everyone finally leaves the farm. I remember when I was taking poetry writing classes, I'd consistently be asked to chop off the first two stanzas of whatever it was I'd written, since that was just whatever I had to get out in order to write my way into the meat of the thing. I'm not sure we need all that backstory. The various visits to the tower and all the details of Stargirl's childhood? It's all beautifully written; I'm unconvinced it actually NEEDS to be there.
Rachael: That's the thing - the sentence-level prose is lovely. I feel like that should be mentioned.
Sam: Yeah. Any given sentence is truly wonderful. I just wanted it to meander less and just briefly hit the points that we actually need to know when we get into the meat of the plot.
What did you think about the choice to have so many adult characters in a children's novel?
Tess: Personally, as a librarian, I love books like this, where there are equally interesting adult and child characters, because I can suggest them to any age group, particularly folks looking for a "family read" that everyone in their family - little kids, big kids, parents, grandparents - could hypothetically enjoy.
Sam: I think you make really good points, Tess! I'd also add that I think part of the reason that this decision works is that Barnhill pulls the neat trick of letting us see many of the most important adult characters as children. We get scenes from Antain and Ethyne's childhood, flashbacks to Xan's, and even bits of Sister Ignatia's. I think that makes it even easier for a child reader to identify with the adult characters.
Rachael: Xan also has something of the childlike adult in her, in the tradition of Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, etc. I think that makes it work as well.
What did you think of the ending?
Rachael: I'm of a few different minds. On one hand, I love a book with lots of threads that finally come together in a satisfying way in the conclusion. On the other hand, as we discussed in the pacing question, I think Barnhill spends too much time stringing us along so that I was worn out as a reader before we got to the finish line. One thing I did appreciate though was Luna's reunion with her mother. It was nice to see a book that didn't feel the need to leave a child motherless in order for her to grow.
Sam: I agree with you on that last point especially, Rachael. I was kind of put off by the ending as a whole though, to be honest, and it had to do with the treatment of Sister Ignatia. She's spent the whole book as this implacable presence, and then we suddenly get an explanation for what's actually driving her. But... the book drops that idea almost as soon as it picks it up, and seems almost to forget about her during the coda. I don't always expect a redemption arc - the Grand Elder doesn't get one, and that seems fitting - but the treatment of Sister Ignatia at the end seemed remarkably incurious to me.
Rachael: I agree.
Tess: I also had mixed feels. As for the eruption that was coming that only Luna's extreme magic could save everyone from? Honestly? Meh. Especially since we don't even get to see what happens, we just get a flash forward to some time afterward. But I enjoyed all the stuff about the literal fog lifting from the Protectorate as its citizens get to live free from the tyranny of Sister Ignatia and her puppet Elders. And I actually loved the stuff about how even though Luna's mother is back in her life, she still loves her adoptive family, much like the star children who eventually return to the Protectorate. Their love is described as "multiplied, not divided" which I thought was really beautiful.
If you had to pair this one with another children's book or author, what would you choose?
Sam: So, this is maybe unfair of me, but as I was reading The Girl Who Drank the Moon, one of the things I felt like I was coming to understand even more was the genius of Anne Ursu. Ursu and Barnhill are both from the same group of Minnesota children's writers; heck, Ursu is actually thanked in the notes for The Girl Who Drank the Moon. They share similar concerns, such as the place in society for people who don't quite fit in, what happens when a normal-looking world is actually terrifying just below the surface, and how it's impossible to fully understand the world and everything in it. But Ursu is, IMHO, one of the most talented and meticulous of all of our American children's writers. Ursu carefully, methodically, only ever gives you shades of gray, and Barnhill can't resist the broad stroke. Barnhill may be more of a crowd-pleaser; it's probably easier to love The Girl Who Drank the Moon than it is to love Breadcrumbs for a lot of people. But the difference between the two is the difference between a good book and one of the most jaw-dropping achievements in modern children's literature.
Tess: Those are some deep thoughts Sam. I was just thinking that generally kids at my library love books about characters who discover they have magic powers and have to learn how to use them, so my instinct is to pair this book with books like the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, and the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan. But those books center on male protagonists, so I'm especially happy for this book's female representation.
Sam: You're probably thinking more like an actual children's librarian making actual recommendations to actual children than I am! And I definitely agree with you on the female representation issue.
Rachael: My mind keeps going to Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, for some reason. I think it's because I connected with this book more as a mother than as an imagined child, and there's no better portrait of motherhood in children's lit than Mrs. Frisby.
Any closing thoughts?
Sam: I think we've all learned a valuable lesson here.
Rachael: Um... I liked this book better than it sounds like I did?
Tess: There you have it folks!