I’m continuing a strong push with the Newbery Medal winners in my reading, and I recently read the most recent winner, 2017’s The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill. And we have a serious contender for favorite Newbery–at least of the ones I’ve been reading for this challenge!
The story starts in a very sad village in the Bog, where every year on a certain day, the youngest baby is left in the forest for the Witch, so that she won’t destroy everyone else. We swiftly meet the Witch, Xan, 500 years old and quite unaware that anyone thinks she wants to harm them. She rescues the babies every year, taking them through the forest to happier towns where they are adopted and cherished. She feeds them starlight on the journey and they grow favored. But one year she is especially taken by a baby, and mistakenly feeds her moonlight instead. The baby grows full of magic, and Xan decides she must adopt Luna herself, adding her to a little family including Fyrian, a Perfectly Tiny Dragon, and Glerk, a grumpy, poetical bog monster.
This is a delightful story, full of fantasy, whimsy, humor and heart-tugging moments. I knew this was going to be good as soon as Glerk and Xan appear, Xan scolding him about apologizing to Fyrian. I love fantasy that takes the tropes (swamp monster, dragon, witch) and turns them upside down in a funny, human way.
The characters are wonderful, including loving but naive Fyrian (who believes himself to be a Simply Enormous Dragon, so everyone else must be a giant) and grumpy but philosophical Glerk. I could never quite picture Glerk (multiple legs, I got that much) but that’s a small quibble. Back in the sad village, there’s another set of engaging characters, most of them with shades of gray to their morality or deeper tragedies (or both). Gherland, the head of the Elders who keep the whole system going, is a horrible, self-serving, uncaring man–except he does care deeply for his nephew Antain. And Antain sees the horrors of stealing children every year and tries to resist in a way–but it’s years before he finds the strength and courage to really oppose the Elders. And then there’s Luna’s mother, the madwoman–who goes mad after her daughter is taken, but finds clarity and magic in the process.
I like that this isn’t a book with easy answers. How many children whisk off to fairyland in old stories and the parents are quite ignored? J. M. Barrie does remark on Mr. and Mrs. Darling’s anguish, but it’s still in a fairly comical vein. This one really explores the cost to the people left behind, especially (though not exclusively) Luna’s mother.
Luna herself doesn’t emerge strongly until well into the book, as she needs time to grow up. Even then she’s a little overshadowed by the other characters circling around her, but she still emerges as a loving, determined, curious but somewhat irresponsible girl trying to find out who she is. So I liked her too.
The writing is lovely throughout, comical but sometimes surreal, full of magic and genuine heartbreak. The worldbuilding is somehow both sparse but vivid. I have no sense of clothes or even what villages look like, and yet something deeper, the way people feel as they live their lives, comes through very clearly and made me feel immersed in the world.
There’s been a number of iffy Newbery Medal winners, and to be honest, the overriding impression I’ve had is that being a winner doesn’t really make a book any better than most (at least, for my taste). But this one? This one earned it. An excellent book.
Author’s Site: https://kellybarnhill.wordpress.com/
Buy it here: The Girl Who Drank the Moon