February 07, 2017

Q & A with Newbery Medalist Kelly Barnhill '96

Kelly Barnhill '96 won the 2017 Newbery Medal, the highest U.S. award in children's literature. Photo courtesy of COMPAS.

Kelly Barnhill was named winner of the 2017 Newbery Medal for her book, The Girl Who Drank the Moon, which has enjoyed widespread acclaim since its release.

Barnhill describes herself as an "author, teacher, insufferable blabbermouth" who "also makes pie." Since graduating from St. Kate's in 1996 with a degree in English, Barnhill has built an award-winning career in the world of children's literature, which she loves for the "big questions that kids ask, the questions that lead them into adolescence and into adulthood."

You can learn more about Barnhill, The Girl Who Drank the Moon, and her other works on her blog and official website. In the meantime, read Barnhill in her own words below...


...on the book's incredible reception and getting "the call" at 5 a.m.

It's been kind of dumbfounding, to be honest! I thought I had written a book that really only I would like. [laughs] But it got positive reviews, and each time, I was completely gobsmacked by it.

It's really exciting. I was also shocked about the Newbery call — writers will talk about "getting the call," because that's how you find out. The committee calls you right before they announce the winners.

When I found out, I woke my 12-year-old son up and said, "I have really amazing news! I won the Newbery Medal!" And he kind of stared at me for a minute and said, "The real one?" As if they made a fake one! But that's when it became real to me, too — only for a minute, though. Every morning since then I've woken up at 5 a.m. with this question, like, "Did that actually happen?"

...on her creative process

I have to think about a book for a long time before I can start writing it — a couple years, maybe even more. I think a lot about the characters — I think about how they move through space; I think about how they speak. But I think mostly about the relationships that pull them this way or another way. None of us are simply ourselves; all of us are relationships, and every person we are tied to changes us eventually. So I think getting at the truth and substance of those relationships is really important, before I can even start writing.

When I sit down to actually write the story after living with these characters, I start to run through passages in my head. I start to get a really close sense of what I want the texture of the prose to be, how I want it to feel and hear, how I want it to feel in the body when you read it out loud.

...on themes in The Girl Who Drank the Moon and how they materialized

The love bonds that connect children and their caregivers, love as a force of hope and change, is for sure the central theology of the book. As far as the bigger themes go, for me it's the nature of narrative — how stories can either bind us together or tear us apart, how stories can be transformational in both positive and negative ways.

I wanted to write a book that dealt with false narratives and how injustice can be codified into the story we tell each other. I also wanted to play with this notion of an evil witch in the woods, and how sometimes we create these boogeymen who are somehow "other" than us. Sometimes the true horror is inside of ourselves, and we have to be aware of that: when somebody's telling us to fear someone else, there's usually another agenda.

All of the false narratives in the book have elements of the truth, and that's the power of narrative — we can take actual, true details and create a narrative arc that is either an approximation of the truth or a falsehood. But that falsehood is very sticky, because it's got those true details in it. And of course, we see that now again and again — we for sure saw it in this election: the manufacturing of false narratives that were sticky because they had elements of truth in them. So that showed up a lot in this book, too.

...on resonating with both kids and adults

Well, that's the thing about a children's book — it has to work on a bunch of different levels. What resonates with a grownup is different than what resonates with a kid. But at the same time, you're writing the book for the adult that the kid is going to be someday, and you're writing the book for the kid that that adult used to be. The book has to be in harmony with all those different readers, all at the same time, so it's very tricky!

...on her St. Kate's experience

I am super grateful that I went to St. Kate's. I think it was a really important place for me to be. I went to St. Kate's at the same time that Jonis Agee was an English teacher there, and she taught all the creative writing classes. She's an awesome, awesome writer, and she was transformational for me. I also took Sister Margery's Shakespeare class and that was amazing.

I also got my first writing award at St. Kate's, actually — the Abigail Quigley McCarthy award in 1993, my freshman year. It was for "The Confessions of Prince Charming," which was this very feminist re-interpretation of various fairytales that, much later, ended up being published in a different form.

...on advice for aspiring writers

Read a lot, be super curious all the time — and be willing to go back to the page again and again. I think what trips people up more than anything else is a failure to take things apart and put them back together again, and to do that over and over and over.

The other thing I would recommend is to have another job! Fill your life up with other things that are not your writing life, because writing can be overwhelming, and you need to have your feet on the earth — even if that's just having lots and lots of non-writer friends.

...on upcoming books

I'm working on a book that is a retelling of "Hansel and Gretel" set in South Minneapolis. I'm also working on another book that's been pretty fun because I've had to do a lot of research into the Holy Roman Empire and Habsburgs and piracy and shipbuilding and alchemy and poisons. On days when I can't bring myself to work on the book, I spend a lot of time looking up random stuff.

...on her official kids' lit recommendations

I grew up reading L. Frank Baum's Oz books, but I think my absolute favorite is Diana Wynne Jones — I love her so much, and I love that a lot of her older pieces are back in print, because she's fantastic. Everyone should read her.

One other book people should be reading is Tracey Baptiste's The Jumbies, which has a follow-up book coming out this summer. I'd like to see way more children's literature that goes beyond the Eurocentric storybase. There just aren't that many children's books that feature folklore from the Caribbean, and there are a lot of kids there. Thats my hope for children's literature in general: that we become more diverse and eclectic and intersectional in what kinds of narratives we have available for kids.

A film adaptation of The Girl Who Drank the Moon is in development at Fox Animation, who acquired the rights in October 2016.

By Michelle Mullowney '17