To those who follow children’s literature, the fact that The Girl Who Drank the Moon (Grades 5-9) won the Newbery Award for best children’s fiction didn’t come as a complete surprise. This children’s fantasy novel racked up seven starred reviews and was on numerous ‘best of’ lists before the ALA announced their Youth Media winners this January.
The Girl Who Drank the Moon: The Story
The Girl Who Drank the Moon tells the story of the Protectorate: a small town beset by sadness. It’s nicknamed the City of Sorrows, and is isolated from other communities. Once a year, they have a Day of Sacrifice, and the youngest baby in the Protectorate is taken by the village Elders to the surrounding forest and left to die. The Protectorate assures the townspeople that this sacrifice is necessary, made to appease the forest witch who will leave them alone for another year. For the most part, the villagers don’t care what happens to the babies left in the forest; they assume the witch eats them, but mostly they’re just relieved to be safe until the next Day of Sacrifice.
Xan is the forest witch, and contrary to the image projected by the Protectorate, she is a loving and good woman, who doesn’t understand why babies appear in the woods every year. But she does the right thing by rescuing the children and taking them to neighboring cities to gift them to lucky families. She nourishes them with starlight during their journeys, which keeps them happy and content, and infuses them with a glowing charm. But on one such journey, Xan is distracted by the beautiful child she carries, and doesn’t quite pay enough attention to what she’s doing…
“There is magic in starlight, of course. This is well known. But because the light travels such a long distance, the magic in it is fragile and diffused, stretched into the most delicate of threads. There is enough magic in starlight to content a baby and fill its belly, and in large enough quantities, starlight can awaken the best in that baby’s heart and soul and mind. It is enough to bless, but not to enmagic.
Moonlight, however. That is a different story.
Moonlight is magic. Ask anyone you like…
…The child had become enmagicked. There was no doubt about it. And now things were more complicated than they had been before.”
Xan has accidently fed the child moonlight instead of starlight, and the baby has become full of magic. The use of magic takes a great deal of control, and the child could possibly become unstable as she grows up. Xan decides to keep the child, and christens her Luna. Xan has help raising Luna from Fyrian, the Perfectly Tiny Dragon who believes he is a regularly sized enormous dragon living in a land of giants, and Glerk, an old and wise swamp monster with a penchant for poetry. While Fyrian is delighted and enchanted with their new edition, Glerk is more resistant to Luna’s charms. But he quickly comes around, and the three work together to raise and teach Luna, hoping to give her the tools she needs to control her growing magic.
“’Each sleeping tree
dreams green dreams;
the barren mountain
wakes in blossom.’”
–Glerk. Swamp Monster. Poet.
Point of view shifts throughout the book between Xan and Luna and their home in the forest, and the Protectorate, where we are introduced to Antain. On the Day of Sacrifice in which Luna is taken, Antain is a young man, an Elder-in-training who will inherit his uncle’s position when he reaches adulthood. Antain does not want to be a village Elder; he’s a sensitive boy who likes to make things with his hands, and is especially accomplished at woodworking. But family pressures dictate his future.
One of his first duties is to accompany the Elders as they collect this year’s sacrifice. But while most families hand over their child without protest, mourning quietly and in private, this year is different. Luna’s mother vehemently defends her child, and will not relinquish her to the Elders. The Elders are astounded; no one has fought for their child before, but Luna’s mother will not hand her over. She physically fights them, and they quickly name her mad. They call in the Sisters, a special unit of armed guards trained at the Tower, where they spend their years in quiet contemplation, studying, and learning combat training. They quickly overpower Luna’s mother, give Luna to the Elders, and take her mother to the Tower, where she will be imprisoned for the rest of her life.
Antain is distraught, unable to forget the mother’s face as she had her baby forcibly removed from her. For the next several years, Antain finds reasons to skip the Day of Sacrifice proceedings, much to the consternation of his uncle and the other Elders. Antain even goes so far as to visit Luna’s mother in the Tower, where he had served an apprenticeship years before. He wants to assure himself that she is alright, that she has a chance for recovery.
But what he sees does not console him: the mother’s cell is filled with maps, written on paper and written on walls, all marked with the phrase “she is here.” It is also filled with paper birds: origami doves, hummingbirds, swallows and more. Before he is able to leave, Antain is attacked, not by the mother, but by the birds: thousands of paper birds attack him, cutting his face and leaving scars that will never fully heal. The elders were so discomfited by Antain’s face, they dismiss him from the Council, allowing him to finally live a life of peace.
“And in this way, the years passed: a lonely workshop; solid, beautiful things; customers who praised his work but winced at the sight of his face. It wasn’t a bad life, actually.”
Some of the Best Fantasy I’ve Ever Read
The Girl Who Drank the Moon is a special book. As a child, I loved to read fantasy, and as an adult I still do. I love discovering new places and people and creatures that don’t exist in this world. Kelly Barnhill’s novel is amongst the best fantasy, children or adult, that I’ve ever read. While it contains some of the tropes and motifs of traditional fantasy and fairy tales, there are also many nontraditional elements that make it perfect for a modern audience. Luna is a strong and self-sufficient heroine: she’s not waiting around for anyone to rescue her. Instead she’s gathering her friends and family do to some rescuing of her own. Antain isn’t a perfect prince charming; he’s a fully realized character with a good heart, who nonetheless makes faulty assumptions.
Barnhill’s writing is beautiful and lyrical, and all of her characters are nuanced and realistic: they grow and change, make mistakes, love and laugh, are selfish and generous in turns. Themes of love and family run throughout the book; although Luna and Antain both find happy homes and loving families, both are overshadowed by what happened on the Day of Sacrifice in which Luna was taken from her mother. The secrets of the Protectorate, perpetrated by the Elders and enforced by the Sisters of the Tower, and their leader, Sister Ignatius, threaten to overpower and consume the happy lives Luna and Antain have built for themselves. Can they overcome these difficulties and keep their families intact?
The Girl Who Drank the Moon is a beautiful book, filled with adventure, suspense and mystery. It feels familiar and brand new all at the same time, and is filled with characters you won’t soon forget. It came as no surprised, to this reader at least, that it won the Newbery Award.
“The heart is built of starlight
A pinprick of longing lost in the dark.
An unbroken chord linking the Infinite to the Infinite.
My heart wishes upon your heart and the wish is granted.
Meanwhile the world spins.
Meanwhile the universe expands.
Meanwhile the mystery of love reveals itself,
again and again, in the mystery of you…”
More Titles From The Girl Who Drank the Moon’s Kelly Barnhill:
|The Witch’s Boy (Grades 4-8, Level Z, Lexile HL630)||The Mostly True Story of Jack (Grades 4-7, Lexile 740)||Iron-Hearted Violet (Grades 3-7)|
Booksource is giving away 10 SIGNED copies of Kelly Barnhill’s 2017 Newbery Medal Winner The Girl Who Drank the Moon! Entries are limited to the United States. Only one entry per person. Contest ends at 11:59 p.m. CST on April 2, 2017. Winners will be randomly selected. Good luck!
(Please note: we are only able to ship books to a school address.)