A witch, a baby and a grown-up tale for kids

Author Kelly Barnhill and reader Bea Tortorello
Kelly Barnhill, author of "The Girl who Drank the Moon," and reader Bea Tortorello at the MPR studios.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

It's standard to ask authors what their books are about, but when it comes to "The Girl Who Drank the Moon," Minneapolis author Kelly Barnhill is a little overwhelmed.

At first, she just laughed.

"Yeah, that's hard," she eventually said. "It's hard! It's hard for me to describe it to people."

But let's try. Barnhill, who writes very grown-up stories for middle schoolers, has concocted the tale of Luna, a girl who lives an idyllic life by a bog with a witch called Xan. There's also a poetry-writing swamp monster called Glerk, who has a tiny dragon friend called Fyrian.

The Girl who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill
The cover of "The Girl who Drank the Moon," by Minneapolis author Kelly Barnhill.
Courtesy of Algonquin Books

Less than idyllic is the community just down the road, which has problems that spill into Luna's life. It's called the Protectorate.

"I could tell you that this is a story about power. I could tell you this is a story about adolescence and change and growing up," said Barnhill. Then she added, "This is a story about stories going terribly, terribly wrong."

The story in question is one told in the Protectorate about a malevolent witch who will destroy the town unless, every year, the youngest person in the community is given as a sacrifice. In the first chapter a parent tells her child, who is no longer the youngest, that it's just something that has to be done to keep the community safe:

"Sacrifice one or sacrifice all. That is the way of the world. We couldn't change it if we tried.

"Enough questions. Off with you. Fool child."

But it's just a story, made up by the elders to terrify, sadden and control the community. They just leave the child to perish in the woods. They don't know that there is a witch — Xan.

"And that the witch of course was not a bad witch at all, and was completely astonished that someone left a baby, a baby, right here in the woods," said Barnhill.

Barnhill aims for middle-grade readers, 10- to 12-year-olds. So it just seemed right to ask Bea Tortorello to join the conversation. She's going into fifth grade at Capitol Hill School in St. Paul, and loved "The Girl Who Drank the Moon." She wanted to know about a character in the story who draws nourishment from the people's unhappiness.

"I was wondering where you got the idea for a 'Sorrow Eater,'" she asked.

Author Kelly Barnhill
Author Kelly Barnhill, who has written four novels, admits her latest book, "The Girl Who Drank the Moon," is very complex, but she believes it's her best so far.
Bruce Silcox | Algonquin Books

Barnhill said it was based on her own time in grade school.

"I was a bullied kid when I was little, and so school was a super not-happy place for me and was ... not a very safe place for me," she said. "And it was so confusing to me, because I didn't understand, like, why people could be so awful to each other sometimes."

Her mom explained it's just how some people make themselves feel bigger in the world.

"When we make people happy there is a power to that, and when we make people sad there is a power to that. You know what I mean?" Barnhill asked.

"Yeah, that makes sense," Tortorello agreed.

Barnhill said she likes writing for kids this age because they create such good stories themselves. She told Bea that, as the author of this book, she is just launching the tale.

"The story that I wrote is totally separate from the story that you are building as a reader," Barnhill said. "In the end the story that I wrote doesn't even matter anymore, because what interests me is how you take all of those parts and it becomes something brand-new."

And that's not all, Barnhill said.

"You are writing the book that the kid reads," she said. "You are also writing the book that the adult that that kid imagines that they will be some day — that that person is reading."

"So is that why your story has so many feelings and so many characters?" asked Tortorello.

"Maybe," Barnhill said, laughing. "But also, I am a complicated person and I think of complicated stories!"

Barnhill will launch "The Girl Who Drank the Moon" at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Red Balloon Bookstore in St. Paul. Her last book, "The Witch's Boy," drew comparisons to the work of Neil Gaiman, but she's really proud of this new novel.

"This is the best book I have ever written. This one. For sure. For sure," she said.

And when she says that, Kelly Barnhill isn't telling a story.

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