Recently, two US authors have each been rocketing up my list of favourite contemporary writers for children. In both cases, their most recent books have secured them a place amongst the very best of the best. The two write books with very different style and approach, but each in their own way, excels in originality, invention and pure quality of writing. One of these authors is Kate Milford (see my previous post). The other is Kelly Barnhill.
She has developed strongly since her first children's book, and even that was a very fine one. I greatly admired her last book, The Witch's Boy (see my post from Jan '16) but this newest is finer still.
Essentially Keely Barnhill is now writing Fairytales . Of course, many other writers have taken traditional stories and written their own versions, sometimes updated or explored from an unusual perspective. Still others have taken contemporary kids and plunged them into Fairytale worlds. There are wonderful examples of writers using such journeys into Fairytale as a metaphor for the route by which their young protagonists work through very real issues. However Kelly Barnhill does none of these. She takes characters and tropes from the world of these traditional tales, but uses them as the basis for completely new and wonderful stories of her own. Here are a witch, a dragon, a castle, a monster, the woods - and magic. But all of them are transformed, reimagined, and made fresh in quite unexpected ways; ways that range from the shocking to the laugh-aloud funny, from the charming to the spine-tingling.
For The Girl Who Drank the Moon Kelly Barnhill starts with the very old premise of innocents being sacrificed annually to appease a monster. This disturbing idea has been around ever since ancient stories like Theseus and the Minotaur. It has persisted right through the age of Saint George's Dragon and found its way into almost countless modern borrowings and interpretations. However, because it becomes apparent very early in the book, I don't think it is too much of a spoiler to say that Kelly Barnhill immediately turns this concept on its head. In her story the villainy really belonging to those who perpetuate the sacrifice, whilst the sacrificed babies are actually saved by the witch who allegedly eats them. And from this beginning the writer weaves a detailed and intriguing story of her own.
There are big differences, too, between Kelly Barnhill's book and traditional tales, which go far beyond the originality of her storylines. Traditional Fairytales are generally rather distanced, impersonal; their characters are representations rather than individual people, their narratives essentially linear and event-driven. Not so Kelly Barnhill's. Her characters are richly human, her story multi-layered and deeply involving. Although retaining just a little of the feel of the traditional tale her language and her imagery are lyrical and often stunningly beautiful, enigmatic enough to intrigue, yet sufficiently potent to move and delight. Her story is always gripping, often amusing, sometimes terrifying. She is a master of using language to engender responses of all kinds in her readers and keep them always on the edge of their seats.
Her ending here could have been sentimental; instead is deeply touching. Bravo once again to writing skill matched with real human sensitivity.
Along with many others, I have recently much admired Maria Turtschaninoff's YA fantasy Maresi [post June '16]. This passionate tale centres around the feminist principle as expressed in the ancient 'triple goddess'. The Girl Who Drank the Moon, although for younger readers, also majors on female characters and, in a rather subtler way, echos the same resonance. Here too it is a collaboration of girl, woman and crone which saves the day. However Kelly Barnhill's book, whilst quite rightly flying a flag for strong females, balances this with at least some minor, roles for admirable males and also a female 'villain of the piece'. Hers is a more generous feminism and I hope this book will not become just a 'girls' read'. It deserves a wide audience of both genders. Indeed I think that many boys who feel uncomfortable with being continually pressured to 'man up' will benefit from this enriching experience of feminine magic. Those generally entertained by 'macho' action also need the balance of this book's more lyrical enthralment. At this moment in time, perhaps more than ever, we desperately need commitment to a tolerant and diverse society; not simply valuing 'not us' as much as 'us', but expanding our concept of 'us' to become 'us all'.
Despite the oft justified exhortation not to judge a book by its cover, it is a delight to find one whose wonderful, sensuously entrancing jacket is fully reflective of its content. This indigo-dominated design is richly velvet to both eye and hand. Its image seems to surge forward, taking wondrous flight. So do both the enclosed story and its writing.
Here is a magic far deeper, more potent, more meaningful than the hocus-pocus conjuring of any Harry Potter. This magic is no less fantastical, but infinitely more real. It taps the potency of age-old stories and at the same time resonates with deep truths of contemporary humanity. Perhaps both are the same. In a sense Kelly Barnhill's book is the flip of 'magical realism' , it is truthful fantasy. It is an unspeakably beautiful book. It would indubitably have made my 2016 books of the year, had I read it in time.
Surely a book of this quality deserves UK (and international) publication? As many children as possible should have the opportunity to grow up with it and through it - a staple on every bedroom bookshelf.