Kelly Barnhill's Monday morning kicked off at 5 a.m. with the "Wonder Woman" theme blaring from her cell phone, rocketing her out of sleep. Her kids had changed her ringtone — and the American Library Association was calling.
"It's a very surreal experience to have your phone ring, when you're dead asleep at this hour, and have a roomful of incredibly cheerful librarians saying 'Congratulations'," Barnhill explained.
They were calling to let Barnhill know that her book, "The Girl Who Drank the Moon," had just won the John Newbery Medal, one of the most prestigious prizes in children's literature.
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It puts Barnhill's book in the company of "From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler," "The Westing Game," "The Giver," "Holes" and last year's winner, "Last Stop on Market Street."
"I told my children, of course, right away, and my oldest said: 'How do librarians even know your phone number?'" Barnhill laughed.
Every year, a committee of librarians, teachers and reviewers selects a Newbery winner from a wide group of nominations. Standard practice is to notify the winning author before the announcement is made — hence the 5 a.m. "Wonder Woman" wake-up.
Barnhill was shocked to get the call.
"I wrote this book, and put it together, and I loved this book. I loved the characters. I loved everything about it," she said. "However, I thought nobody else would like it at all. In fact, I was so convinced, I felt I should apologize to my publisher."
"The Girl Who Drank the Moon" is a middle-grade novel that isn't afraid to delve into the dark and the complicated. It's set near a town where the people believe they must leave a baby in the woods each year, as a sacrifice to a witch. That witch, however, is puzzled by all the abandoned babies. She watches over them, and ferries them to families on the other side of the woods. Her tradition is upturned, however, when one of the babies accidentally feeds on the moonlight, filling it with a powerful magic.
“I always tell kids that the writer doesn't make the story, the reader makes the story.”Kelly Barnhill
"The world is dark and beautiful and strange and complicated," Barnhill said. "I think that when a children's book can live in that place of complication, and live in that place of huge question marks, but also recognize that that sometimes things are dark and scary and sad, and we persist, we move on ... I think that's important for kids to see."
Barnhill, a former teacher, has toured dozens of schools with "The Girl Who Drank the Moon" and her other books, and she's always fascinated by what students take away from her stories.
"I always tell kids that the writer doesn't make the story, the reader makes the story," she said. When she stands in front of groups of kids who have read her book, "I can tell that each one of them has built an entirely different story that is completely endemic and authentic to them."
Barnhill may soon get the chance to see what someone else makes of her story — on the big screen. News broke this fall that Fox Animation had acquired the rights to the novel. According to Deadline Hollywood, Marc Haimes, who wrote the script for "Kubo and the Two Strings," is attached to the project.
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"The cool thing about the movie is that I get to see someone else's interpretation," Barnhill said. She is not involved with the adaptation, she said: "Film is a language I don't speak."
Barnhill's next project is another novel, called "The Sugar House."
"This one takes place in a neighborhood in Minneapolis, and it's a retelling of the 'Hansel and Gretel' story, where a very beautiful house suddenly emerges and children start going missing," Barnhill said.
"The Sugar House" will likely hit shelves in 2018.