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THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON by Kelly Barnhill…2017 Newbery Medal

The Girl Who Drank the Moon had been on my To-Read List for almost a year when I heard early this spring that it had won the 2017 Newbery Medal.  I was thrilled to see a local (MN) author again take the prize and I nudged it farther up my list.

It took me longer than I expected to really engage with the story.  At first I found it somewhat confusing to follow.  I had trouble organizing the characters and the story as the viewpoint shifted not just between characters but in time as well.  (Truthfully, I don’t know that this was due to the construction of the novel as much as my own distractability.)

When I finally DID start to understand the storyline and the characters The Girl Who Drank the Moon pulled me inside its richly woven story.  It is, in the end, a story of love and compassion–with a little magic skillfully intertwined.

The Protectorate is a dark and sad community–and we quickly discover why:  a witch lives in the Wood and she demands a precious sacrifice from the people of the Protectorate to maintain their safety.  She demands the youngest of the new babies for her own.  Wrapped in their own individual (and collective) grief over the sacrifice, the townspeople continue to make it without resistance.

The reader learns almost immediately that the sacrifice is not what it seems.  We are witness to a woman who does NOT willingly give up her daughter to the Elders and the Witch, herself.  There IS a witch, but she requires no payment from the Protectorate for their safety.  Quite the opposite: she finds these abandoned infants in the Wood and is absolutely confused as to why the townspeople continue to do so.  Her kind heart and gentle nature does not allow her to simply leave the children at the mercy of the Wood. She has taken all the infants and carried them to families in the free city on the other side of the Wood where they are adopted into loving families.

The woman who resists the abduction and abandonment of her child is locked in a tower and referred to as the Madwoman.  The Witch rescues the Madwoman’s daughter, as she has done with so many others, but this time is different.  This time she feeds the hungry child moonlight instead of starlight on the journey through the Wood.  The Moon is magic and this magic fills the child.  The Witch (Xan) keeps the child, names her Luna and raises her as her granddaughter, now that she is filled with powerful magic.

As Luna grows up in the loving arms of a grandmother, a kindly Bog-monster and a tiny, yet still “simply enormous” dragon, the young boy who witnessed the Madwoman’s grief at losing her only child has grown up haunted by those moments of grief and the feeling that the sacrifice is wrong.  He is now grown with a wife and a new baby–a baby who will be chosen for sacrifice this year unless he puts an end to the Witch.

Add into these two parallel stories the evil machinations of the Elders of the Protectorate and a history of magic that has twisted their lives and Xan’s from the time she was a young girl herself and you have a heart-stopping conclusion worthy of the best thrills of today’s big-budget fantasy epics.  The mistaken identity twists and complications are almost Shakespearean in their complexity and the deftness of the way they have been plotted in both development and in the revealing moments of the story’s climax.

If you, as a reader–or a listener–can hang on through some slight confusion in the very beginning as you sort out who’s who The Girl Who Drank the Moon is a spectacular read.  Its themes are universal.  Love and compassion usually craft for us the right decisions to make and the “right” choice is seldom the easy one.  These characters embody the struggle and the triumph inherent in these choices.  This could be a riveting read-aloud at bedtime or in a classroom–one that will have listeners begging for “just one more page!”


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