I read The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill after it won the Newberry though it languished in my TBR pile for far too long (thanks, library-holds-all-coming-available-at-once!). But while reading, all I could think was, “DUH it won.” It is breath-taking, heart-wrenching, and swoon-worthy.
Several things in particular fascinated me about this book (beyond Barnhill’s ability to transform words into pure magic):
1 // omniscient narrator
We see inside nine different characters’ heads over the course of this story: Xan, the lovable witch; Luna, the enmagicked child; Fyrian, the ADD dragon; Glerk, the poetical Bog-monster; Gherland, the crotchety leader; Antain, the earnest boy; Adara, the nameless one; Sister Ignatia, the prowling tiger; and Ethyne, the girl-I’m-still-not-sure-about.
I feel like I never see omniscient narrators, so when I do it’s all fireworks and sunshine and gosh-I-love-this-so-much (or in this case, swarms of paper birds soaring on moonlight). Each scene from that character’s perspective is so closely written through their eyes that you forget for a moment the other narrators exist. Consider these snippets from Gherland and Fyrian:
Gherland checked his mirror again, touching up his rouge. He rather enjoyed teaching the occasional lesson to the citizens of the Protectorate. It clarified things. He tapped the sagging folds under his chin and frowned. ‘Well, Nephew,” he said with an artful swish of his robes, one that had taken him over a decade to perfect. “Let us be off. That baby isn’t going to sacrifice itself, after all.” And he flowed into the street with Antain stumbling at his heels. (6)
[Fyrian’s] dream had left an ache in his heart. His mother had been a beautiful dragon. Impossibly beautiful. Her eyelids were lined with tiny jewels, each a different color. Her belly was the exact color of a freshly laid egg. When Fyrian closed his eyes he felt as though he could touch each buttery-smooth scale on her hide, each razor-sharp spike. He felt as though he could smell the sweet sulfur on her breath. (171)
My favorite aspect of this kind of storytelling is that you can see all the different puzzle pieces moving at once. With classic Hitchcockian suspense-building, you know what the villain is doing before the protagonists. Several times toward the end, I caught myself (internally) yelling, “DON’T GO INTO THE WOODS, FOOL.”
2 // adult characters
Of the nine characters listed above, the titular character (Luna) is the only child. We watch Antain grow up quickly in the first Act, and Fyrian acts like a child, but really there’s only one kid in this MG book.
I think this works because the grownups exhibit childlike qualities. Xan doesn’t take herself too seriously, Antain is tender and earnest, Glerk is tender and protective, and Adara keeps you never-quite-sure-what-she’s-going-to-do-or-say-next. Gherland & Ignatia are the perfect balance of just enough caricature of evil to make them engaging (and not too scary) and yet also really despicable (a la Dolores Umbridge).
These aren’t the warbling, monotone adults of a Peanuts cartoon––they are interesting, empathetic, and written from a child’s view of the world.
3 // unconventional narrative
The first chapter, and occasionally throughout the rest of the book, you encounter a mini-chapter in italics written in first person. Frankly, I had no idea what to make of these at first, though they amused me; but the further I read (and then flipped back to re-read these bits), I appreciated how they informed, or mislead, the rest of the narrative. Most are written from the perspective of an unknown character telling a child a bedtime story about the Witch, showing how the world outside of the story’s bubble views those whom we know more intimately. But by the end, Barnhill has made her point.
There’s always more than one side to a story.