Children’s novelist Kelly Barnhill had been thinking about her fourth novel for months but wasn’t sure where to set her story. That’s also when, after 15 years of marriage and three children, she and her husband decided it was finally time to take their honeymoon. A trip to Costa Rica solved both issues.
There, the two former park rangers spent a thrilling day hiking in the volcanic Rincón de la Vieja National Park, where they had to carefully avoid poisonous fumes, sinkholes and steam vents spewing boiling mud. “I’d never been in a landscape like that before,” Barnhill says, speaking by phone from her home in Minneapolis. “Rivers would just sort of erupt out of the side of the mountain and then go into a hole and disappear.”
The next morning Barnhill woke early, grabbed some coffee and her purple notebook and began to write. “Suddenly I realized my characters were on a volcano, and I wasn’t expecting them to be there,” she recalls. “And once I began, it was like it was always meant to be. I couldn’t imagine that story being in any other landscape.”
“That story” turned into The Girl Who Drank the Moon, an adventure-filled fantasy featuring a town whose leaders order that a baby be sacrificed each year to a supposedly evil witch named Xan. But instead of harming these babies, Xan actually delivers them to families on the other side of the forest.
“Xan was doing what she truly thought was the right thing,” Barnhill says, “placing these babies with families, but she was unwittingly allowing this terrible injustice to persist.”
One day, Xan accidentally feeds one of these babies moonlight, imbuing her with magic powers. Xan decides to raise the child, whom she names Luna, with the help of a swamp monster named Glerk and a “Perfectly Tiny Dragon” called Fyrian. In the lovingly chronicled years that follow the baby-snatching, Xan desperately tries to shield Luna from the magical powers that will erupt when she turns 13, thus leading to an inevitable clash of forces in the novel’s cataclysmic conclusion, bringing together a large cast of characters followed through 48 chapters.
“It’s an odd little thing,” Barnhill says of her latest book, which follows 2014’s The Witch’s Boy. “I’m kind of surprised that people are enjoying it. I really thought I would be the only one.”
For a novel so clearly based in fantasy, a variety of its central elements arose from Barnhill’s real-life social concerns. Xan, Luna, Glerk and Fyrian form what Barnhill calls “that odd little family at the edge of the crater,” and when creating them, the author drew from observations she made while teaching homeless youth in Minneapolis years ago. “When you work in those contexts,” she notes, “you see the different ways in which families organize themselves. This notion of family is much more flexible and fluid than we tend to think.”
The author describes a sad reality behind one of the novel’s most arresting scenes, when the town rulers, known as the Protectorate, arrive to pry baby Luna from the arms of her mother, who tries to escape by climbing high into the rafters of her home. Barnhill acknowledges that this heartbreaking confrontation was difficult to write, and that the desperate mother reminds her of a mom she once encountered while working at a battered woman’s shelter whose child was seriously ill and being denied medical treatment. “It was like she filled up the entire room,” Barnhill recalls. “I was 16 at the time, and I felt like her shoulders were touching the ceiling.”
Barnhill’s own childhood changed in seventh grade when her mother helped rescue her from a school bullying situation. “Gosh, I was a lonely kid,” she recalls. “I was socially awkward. I just never felt OK in my own body. I was easily targetable.”
When her mother got wind of her daughter’s distress, she transferred her to a small, all-girls Catholic school, where she was taught by nuns who were “go-getters,” and the principal had walked arm in arm with Martin Luther King Jr. “It was a magical year for me,” Barnhill remembers. “It was the first time I had seen that kind of activism that was part of everybody’s story.”
“Everything will alter when you follow this trail of breadcrumbs into the forest. And we tell these stories to remind ourselves that it’s OK. You do make it to the other side, and you are OK, even if you are altered.”
Just as Luna’s magic reveals itself at age 13, Barnhill’s own special gift was ignited about this time, thanks to a nun named Sister Geron at her new school, who required her students to write a short story each week. “I had this inexhaustible well of story ideas inside me,” Barnhill says. “I could just sit down and write a new one and then write another one. Just the practice of writing woke up something in me.”
Despite her love of writing, Barnhill was a delayed reader, not reading at all until the end of third grade, nor on her own until fifth grade. However, she loved listening, and her father read often to his five children, especially from a mammoth volume of fairy tales that became so tattered that he rebound it using an old checkerboard and duct tape, which his children then dubbed “the Checkered Book.”
Barnhill notes parallels between the “metamorphosis narratives” of fantasy and fairy tales and adolescence, pointing out that such similarities are one reason why these stories are so appealing to kids. That’s certainly the case in The Girl Who Drank the Moon, in which Luna’s magic so vividly erupts as she turns 13.
“The deep dark woods [are] dangerous, and it’s scary, but you have to go in there and you are going to be irrevocably changed,” Barnhill says. “Everything will alter when you follow this trail of breadcrumbs into the forest. And we tell these stories to remind ourselves that it’s OK. You do make it to the other side, and you are OK, even if you are altered.”
This article was originally published in the August 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.