“It’s an odd little thing,” author Kelly Barnhill told us last summer, when we interviewed her for the release of The Girl Who Drank the Moon. “I’m kind of surprised that people are enjoying it. I really thought I would be the only one.” We assumed Barnhill would be even more surprised when her magical middle grade received the 2017 Newbery Award. We were right.
What was the first thing that went through your head when you found out you won the Newbery?
Honestly? I assumed they had the wrong number. I can’t exactly remember what I said to the committee—probably a lot of garbled nonsense, as I had been woken from a dead sleep and was just generally flabbergasted by the whole notion—but I’m pretty sure I said something along the lines of, “How is this even possible?” over and over and over again.
Who was the one person you couldn’t wait to tell about the award?
A group of someones, actually: my writing group, The Black Sheep (Steven Brezenoff, Kurtis Scaletta, Karlyn Coleman, Christopher Lincoln, Bryan Bliss and Jodi Chromy). They were there when I wrote the book, then erased the book, then wrote it again and erased it again, lost hope, found hope and so forth until I finally sent the thing to my editor.
Do you have a favorite past Newbery winner?
Well, The Tale of Despereaux will always be a touchstone book for me, as with Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH and A Wrinkle in Time. Also, from the point of view of a teacher, two of my favorite memories from my teaching days were with the books The Watsons Go to Birmingham and Holes. Both of those books are magic in a classroom.
“Kids have to be data collectors, experimenters, analysts, scientists, memorizers, cartographers and psychologists. They literally have to write the whole universe with every moment they move through the world. This is why stories are so important.”
What’s the best part of writing books for a younger audience?
I have a profound respect for the inherent dignity and courage of children as a group, and for childhood as a concept. It is not easy being a child: The world is confusing and incongruous and conflicted and sometimes scary. The rules are constantly in flux. Kids have to be data collectors, experimenters, analysts, scientists, memorizers, cartographers and psychologists. They literally have to write the whole universe with every moment they move through the world. This is why stories are so important. Stories are their memory banks, their scripts, their translators. Stories are the maps of the heart and the maps of the mind and the maps of the world. They illuminate, bridge, shelter and blur the rigid line between the I and the Thou. Stories allow children to be more than themselves. This is true for all of us, of course, but frankly, kids are more fun, and far less boring, than grownups. This is well known.
What kind of reaction have you gotten from your readers about this book?
When I visit classrooms, I get a lot of hugs from kids. I mean a lot. This book has meant more to my readers than I could have possibly imagined or guessed. This has been a gratifying experience for me, for sure, but I remain surprised by it.
Have you read or listened to past Newbery speeches? Are you excited (or worried!) about your own speech?
Oh my gosh! Don’t even ask me this question. I’ve read lots, and I don’t know how I’m going to make anything that can even stand in the same room as those speeches. I’m really worried about it. Good heavens. But I’m reading lots of fun texts on the purpose and power of the imagination and the use of fantasy and how allegory forces us to cast a clear eye on aspects of the world that we have allowed ourselves to obscure and minimize. I’m not sure what I’m going to write about, or if it ends up being useful or relevant to only me, but it’s allowing me to sit in some interesting places in the Mind, so that is pretty fun.
What’s next for you?
Do any of us really ever know? Are we not always standing on that next wild, wondrous shore? I think we are. I know I’ll be working on my next book The Sugar House for the next few months, and after that will be diving into the next project, Dispatch from the Hideous Laboratories of Dr. Otto Van Drecht. Other than that, who knows? Perhaps I’ll sail to a distant land, slay a dragon, save a city and become King. Or perhaps I’ll finally learn to knit. The world is wondrous and strange, and I am currently open to all possibilities.
Author photo credit Bruce Silcox.