The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill, Reviewed by Stacey Riedmiller and Donalyn Miller
The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill honors classic fantasy archetypes while offering readers a contemporary discussion of power, love, family, and sacrifice. The recipient of four starred reviews, Barnhill’s breathtaking story reveals a writer with masterful control of her craft and unwavering devotion to her audience. She knows who she is and the story she wants to tell us.
If you are a fantasy fan, you will claim this book among your favorites. If fantasy is not your thing, The Girl Who Drank the Moon might change your mind.
Once a year, the Protectorate chooses the youngest child of the village as a sacrifice to the terrible witch who terrorizes them. This Day of Sacrifice seems to satisfy the witch, and distracts the villagers from looming threats like the volcano pulsating nearby and the totalitarian control of the Protectorate.
Xan, the witch of the woods, perplexed by the cruelty of those who would abandon their babies, rescues the sacrificed children year after year. Caring and kind, Xan delivers these children to families on the other side of the forest. During the journey, Xan feeds the children threads of starlight for nourishment. One year, during a full moon, the witch accidentally feeds her latest foundling moonlight–”enmagicking” the child with uncontrollable powers.
Recognizing that her mistake has long term consequences, Xan decides she must raise the young girl herself. She names the baby Luna and takes her home to the swamp. With the help of Glerk, an ancient monster poet, and Fyrian, a tiny dragon with a big heart, the three creatures build a loving family for their moon child. Protecting the child and others, Xan uses her powers to lock away Luna’s unformed magic until she is old enough to control and understand it.
Meanwhile, back at the village, a young carpenter decides to end The Day of Sacrifice once and for all by killing the witch of the woods.
It is impossible for mere mortals to adequately communicate the beauty of Barnhill’s language or the emotional resonance of Luna’s story, so we won’t even try. All we can share is our pale impressions of it like memories of a moonlit night in the woods.
Donalyn: As a lifelong fantasy fan (and lover of all things Kelly Barnhill), I was eager to read The Girl Who Drank the Moon. Less than twenty pages in, I was sad that the book would eventually end. I savored individual sentences–rereading entire sections multiple times. I stretched this book out for almost two weeks, and gulped down the last 100 pages in one late night reading session.
Kelly Barnhill is an artist, weaving a tightly-developed world from prose that reads like poetry. The Girl Who Drank the Moon is high fantasy at its finest and belongs on the same shelf with legendary tales like The Once and Future King, The Hobbit, Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising Sequence, and Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain.
Writing this post in my office– where a gold unicorn head, a red ceramic dragon, and a raven puppet watch my every move, I do not make such comparisons lightly.
Stacey: Having devoured The Witch’s Boy, I knew that this book was one that I could not wait to read. On my 31st birthday we received the news that Algonquin would be sending a copy to my #BookJourney friend, Scott Fillner. I fully believed that this was a birthday miracle. From the very start, Kelly’s rich language and quotable sentences pulled me in. Like Donalyn, I knew I had to savor the experience. I read The Girl Who Drank the Moon in three sittings, anticipating the next long stretch of time I could set aside to fall back into Barnhill’s world.
With characters that will pull open your heart and settle deep inside, this story is one that instantly feels classic, timeless even. The best fantasy books make you feel as though the world is completely real. A world that is slightly below the surface, perhaps down some rabbit hole under a sleepy tree.
Donalyn: During a speech years ago, Laurie Halse Anderson said, “English class is not the study of literature. English class is where you find the tools you need to survive.” While fantasy books are often marginalized as “genre fiction” or seen as lightweight escapism, The Girl Who Drank the Moon reminds us that all great stories offer readers rich explorations of what it means to be human–even when the “people” are dragons and witches.
Whether our scales and warts show on the outside or not, we are all flawed, but our choices show the world who we really are. Fantasy stories show us that good triumphs over evil, love conquers death, loyalty and integrity matter more than material wealth, and even a lowly pig boy, or a homebody hobbit, or a girl nursed on moonlight can become a hero when it matters most.
We all want to believe we have this magic inside us to call on when we need it.
Stacey: The story begins with robust sensory details that transport you into the world, and continues with enough suspense to make it impossible to leave. When you think you know what is just around the corner, another seemingly miniscule piece of the puzzle slides into place. A mother who has gone mad over the loss of her child. A kind hearted witch who is only doing what she feels is best. An ancient poet who uses words to heal. A young man on a quest to change the destiny of his village. A magical child who wants desperately to know who she is. A story that is woven with such care and attention to detail that you can’t help but feel like magic might be just beyond your reach.
One might take away deep themes about parenting, the complexity and injustices of our modern society and the devastating effects of power hungry tyrants. You can’t help but feel as though the Sorrow Eater is a metaphor for government and society. Keeping the population sad and in fear provides undeniable power over the citizens, and yet, it is still a story about determination, kindness, love and bravery.
How do we encourage ourselves and our children to keep going in this world? Hope. Stories like The Girl Who Drank the Moon give us hope, “Hope is those first tiny buds that form at the very end of winter. How dead! And how cold they are in our fingers! But not for long. They grow big, then sticky, then swollen, and then the whole world is green.”
It is our hope that The Girl Who Drank the Moon will inspire readers to turn the whole world green.
Read Kelly Barnhill’s brilliant Nerdy Book Club post, Strange Birds, on the power and importance of fantasy.
Donalyn Miller has taught fourth, fifth, and sixth grade English and Social Studies in Northeast Texas. She is the author of two books about encouraging students to read, The Book Whisperer (Jossey-Bass, 2009) and Reading in the Wild (Jossey-Bass, 2013). Donalyn co-hosts the monthly Twitter chat, #titletalk (with Nerdy Book Club co-founder, Colby Sharp) and the Best Practices Roots (#bproots) chat with Teri Lesesne. Donalyn launched the annual Twitter summer and holiday reading initiative, #bookaday. You can find her on Twitter at @donalynbooks or under a pile of books somewhere, happily reading.
Stacey Riedmiller is a fourth grade language arts teacher near Cincinnati, Ohio. She gets paid to read books and share them with elementary students. She encourages students to share their reading lives by using #kidsarereading. You can find her on Twitter at @literacybigkids where she is usually live-tweeting as she reads.