- Views & Opinions
Before winning the most prestigious prize in children’s literature, Kelly Barnhill took a little detour.
Barnhill, named this week as this year’s winner of the John Newbery Medal for her fantasy novel The Girl Who Drank the Moon, started writing children’s stories in her late 20s — after two kids and a yearslong hiatus from the craft she studied as an undergraduate.
“I was doing all the wacky stuff that early 20s people did,” Barnhill said in a telephone interview. “I worked for the National Park Service, I got trained as a volunteer firefighter, I went to Florida for a little while, I fell in love, I had my first baby when I was 25 and moved back to Minnesota, got my teaching license and was really not writing at all during that time.”
She said she wasn’t “drawn back to the page” until after she had her second baby girl and began making a dent in a stack of library books, starting with The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich.
“That book unlocked something in me and I’ve been writing ever since,” she said.
Barnhill started with short stories, which eventually turned into children’s novels, including the coming-of-age tale The Girl Who Drank the Moon and her other critically acclaimed book The Witch’s Boy. Most of her stories start with a sticky conundrum or some sort of fundamental question, she said.
The Girl Who Drank the Moon started with Barnhill examining how narratives can be manipulated and true stories can be changed into falsehoods. The book is set in a town where the villagers sacrifice a newborn baby each year to a witch because they fear her. But the witch is secretly good and brings those babies to loving families in a town on the other side of the woods.
“This notion of rumor spreading and of getting the wrong idea about a person,” she said, “that’s like real stuff for these kids, that’s what their life is like right now.”
These days, the mother of three teaches in Minneapolis for COMPAS, a statewide nonprofit arts education organization. The Newbery award comes after her book was a New York Times bestseller; movie rights were sold in the fall to Fox Animation.
Barnhill said the most rewarding part of being a children’s author is discussing the book with kids.
“It’s particularly fun when I go someplace where the kids have already read the book. It’s amazing how deep of thinkers they are,” she said.
Minnesotan author Kate DiCamillo, who won the Newbery Medal winner for her book The Tale of Despereaux, said she was delighted by Barnhill’s win.
Asked what sets apart Barnhill’s work, DiCamillo said: “It’s that heart. And the imagination. And the courage to ask big questions.”