The Girl Who Drank the Moon, by Kelly Barnhill (2016)
Opening line: “Yes. There is a witch in the woods.”
I realize I’m a little late to the reviewing game on this one, seeing that big shiny gold medal in the corner of the cover, but I can’t help but talk about it. And there may still be a few readers out there like me who haven’t picked it up yet! That shiny gold medal can be a divisive one for readers… some will automatically gravitate toward award winners, because they know they have been thoroughly vetted by a group of knowledgeable people. Others, though, will particularly avoid Newbery medalists (in particular), because they have had a bit of a reputation in the past for not choosing readable books for kids. They might be literary gems, but aren’t engaging for the relevant audience of (typically) middle grade readers. That seems to have changed in the past several years though, with the likes of The Crossover, Last Stop on Market Street, and of course, One and Only Ivan (which I can literally give to any student and know it will be a positive experience). I’m not sure where this year’s winner will fall in that spectrum, but I’m sure going to try to make it be one of those that kids will devour too.
This one reads like a delicious fairy tale, one that has dark and twisty edges like “Hansel and Gretel” or “Rumpelstiltskin”, rather than “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, for instance. In the village known as the Protectorate, villagers know that every year on the Day of Sacrifice, the youngest baby in the Protectorate will be taken out into the woods to be left for the witch. Because of this annual tragedy, a cloud of sorrow hangs over the village, although the parents of the sacrificed baby have always willingly complied. Until this year, that is. This year, the youngest baby’s mother is driven mad with grief, and is locked in a tower in the center of the Protectorate to live out her days. Her baby is taken to the clearing in the woods and left for dead. Here’s the really grim part: the leaders of the Protectorate know the witch story is just made up. They know the baby is likely just eaten by wild animals or dies of starvation or thirst. The Day of Sacrifice is a tool of manipulation, one meant to keep the people in line. Yikes.
HOWEVER! There IS a witch in the woods! And she DOES come to get the babies each year! Of course, this witch is a good witch who has no idea why these infants are being left in the woods. She’s practical though, and when she sees a problem (particularly one like an innocent babe being left to fend for itself in the woods), she’s apt to solve it. So every year, she embarks on a journey through the deep and dangerous forest to retrieve the child and take it across the world to the Free Cities where she finds a loving adoptive family to raise it. On the journey, she typically feeds the baby starlight, giving them a little magical glow that stays with them for the rest of their lives. But this year, this baby, she accidentally feeds her with moonlight. And it turns out moonlight gives you more than a magical glow. It gives you MAGIC. Babies aren’t supposed to be enmagicked because they can’t control it, so the witch decides to adopt the baby herself to look after her. Add in a sweet swamp monster and a tiny dragon who thinks he’s huge, and we’ve got the beginnings of a fantastic fairytale.
The layers to this tale are complex and suspenseful, and the narrator’s language made me want to read this aloud. (I did. I did read it aloud. To my dog.) I think this would be a great classroom novel that could also be used in short chunks to discuss mood, tone, or word choice. I don’t think that every middle grade reader is going to love this one if tackling it on their own (like Crossover or Ivan), but maybe that’s another reason why it’s special. It has a special reader in mind.