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Profile of 2017 Newbery Medal winner Kelly Barnhill by Karlyn Coleman

Photo: Bruce Silcox

Kelly Barnhill is magic.

Once, when she and I were walking our bounding black dogs in the woods along the Mississippi River, she began to tell a story, and I swear the giant cottonwood trees leaned in, the mighty river slowed, and the dogs trotted closer to her side so that they could hear her story, too.

Kelly is like her character Luna, from The Girl Who Drank the Moon. However, instead of being fed starlight and moonlight as a child, Kelly was nourished with poetry, myths, novels, and fairy tales of every kind. Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”

Kelly is brilliant; she has read fairy tales from all over the world. She scours libraries for them, searching for one she has not discovered yet. She understands the enchantment of fairy tales and has created folkloric characters of her own — a tiny dragon the size of a bat, a swampy giant who creates poetry, a witch who saves children from the dark woods.

When I teach at a local literary center, I often read Kelly’s novels aloud to my students: The Mostly True Story of Jack, Iron Hearted Violet, The Witch’s Boy, and now The Girl Who Drank the Moon. I can feel her magic fill the classroom. Wild, wiggly, loud students become silent and still. Their bodies lean forward and their eyes grow wide. Just one more chapter, they plead, when it is time to close the book and move on. No one wants her stories to end.

I am lucky enough to sometimes hear Kelly’s stories before they go to print. We are both members of a small writing group based in the Twin Cities. We share our writing and our writing struggles. Kelly brings her magic to every meeting. She sees what is working in a story, what is good, and pushes the writer to take more risks.

Writing is hard. Even a gifted writer like Kelly Barnhill is not able to just wave a magical pen and conjure an entire novel. She works tirelessly to breathe life into the characters she creates and searches for the right details to make fantastical worlds feel real.

Once, Kelly revealed to our writing group that she had deleted an entire novel. I couldn’t believe it.

“How could you do such a thing? All that work! Why?” I asked her, horrified.

“Because sometimes it is better to begin again,” she responded matter-of-factly.

She is a courageous writer. She looks her stories straight in the eye. She doesn’t back down when she knows something isn’t right. She fearlessly changes course when she knows that is what she must do.

Kelly Barnhill is magic, but she is also very real, too. Humble, nerdy — and she has a wonderful laugh. That day we walked in the woods — she was knocked over by one of the dogs and fell into a mud puddle. She laughed, stood up, and continued on in wet, muddy jeans. No blame. No complaints. She just kept going.

Sometimes our writing group meets at a place called Grumpy’s Bar & Grill. Sometimes we host in our homes. I love it when we meet at Kelly’s house: she feeds us all so well.

The house she lives in is tall and bright. It was designed and built by her husband, Ted. It is filled with books and the smell of soup simmering on the stove; a barking dog and sometimes a voice singing can be heard upstairs.

Three children live in this house. Often a pack of neighborhood kids will run into the Barnhill house, gather up her youngest son, and then head back outside. It is a welcoming, noisy, enchanting home.

One June night several years ago, our writing group was sitting at a table in the Barnhills’ backyard, which overlooks a winding creek. The house is in the city, but it feels like it is in the country. There are trees and woods along the creek, and just a half mile away the creek turns into a roaring waterfall. That night, the sky was beginning to turn pink, and our conversation meandered like the creek below. Someone asked Kelly what she was working on. She was quiet for a moment and then told us not what she was working on but, instead, a story she hadn’t yet written down — the story of a magical baby raised in the woods by a witch. We all leaned in as the story unfolded. We all wanted to know more. Each of us was captivated that night.

“Finish it!” we all said. “Write it down!”

And she did.

A few months later, she sent us a draft of the story. We discussed it while sitting around a kitchen table, and each of us knew this story was the one. Beautiful, powerful, heartfelt. I will never shake the image of a wild and desperate mother hanging from the rafters of her home clutching her infant to her chest and shouting, “You cannot have her!” The fierce portrayal of motherhood is so real and raw; it is a scene I will never forget. For me, it is the heart of this story.

The day the Newbery Medal went to The Girl Who Drank the Moon, the only one surprised was Kelly. The rest of our group all knew. We’d felt the magic in the story that June evening when she first told it to us. We felt the energy in the draft we read. We witnessed how hard she worked to polish every sentence, every scene, until the story glimmered and shone.

After rereading The Girl Who Drank the Moon a few months ago, I’ve come to believe that Kelly Barnhill is truly a soothsayer. Her book foretold the harm of fake news and the importance of searching for the truth. It was as if she knew what was to come and gave her readers a guide for what to do when confronted with lies: arm yourselves with knowledge, ask questions, be brave, don’t give up, speak the truth.

A soothsayer, a wizard, a witch? Actually, no. Kelly Barnhill is a writer. Her stories ignite not only her readers’ imaginations but their empathy and understanding, too. Readers often see themselves or someone they know in Kelly’s characters: a boy with a scar; a princess who is not pretty; an impulsive, magical child struggling to learn self-control; a mother refusing to give up on her child. Kelly reveals powerful truths in her tales and inspires each of us to create and tell stories of our own. Yet she is magic because she understands the power of words, the power of voice, the power of writing and rewriting until the heart of a story is revealed. How lucky for us that she has added such beautiful magic to our world. How lucky for us that after reading her books, the magic becomes a part of us.

Kelly Barnhill is the winner of the 2017 Newbery Medal for The Girl Who Drank the Moon (Algonquin). Read Kelly Barnhill’s 2017 Newbery Medal acceptance speech. From the July/August 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles click the tag ALA 2017. Read Kelly Barnhill’s Newbery Medal acceptance speech here.

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Karlyn Coleman About Karlyn Coleman

Karlyn Coleman writes fiction for children and adults. Her first picture book, Where Are All the Minnesotans?, will be published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press this fall. She also writes, as K. R. Coleman, for Lerner’s Darby Creek series books and is currently completing a young adult novel titled Air.

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