The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill
I may be in my 50’s, but I still love reading Newberry Award winners, which are books targeting middle school aged children. The Girl Who Drank the Moon had such a captivating cover and title I thought I’d give it a try. The first time I tried reading it, I ended up putting it down after about a page. The tone and narrative style confused me.
Fortunately, I tried a second time.
Told from multiple points of view (including one which addresses the reader directly as if in an irritating conversation), the story creates a world with magic and nature intermingling in unique ways. The magic system is not one I’ve seen before, and although there are witches and dragons, they aren’t like all the others I’ve seen.
The story has many rich themes. One comes from the idea of the Sorrow Eater. This is an actual character/creature who feasts on the sadness of others. Eventually, it cultivate situations that bring about sorrow on purpose, as if planting a farm to grow the wretched depression and sense of futility. “Sorrow is dangerous,” reminds one character often. At first, I thought this might be a bad way to handle the emotion, encouraging readers to stuff their negative emotions inside, but quite the opposite is true by the end of it all. What is clear, though, is that feeding on only the bad memories in our lives is a recipe for long-term misery.
Other themes revolve around loss: loss of a loved one, loss of power, even loss of a sense of identity. These are handled in such sympathetic ways using creatures (even monsters) in less traditional relationships to demonstrate both constructive and destructive ways of handling grief and uncertainty.
Above all is the theme of love’s power to bring hope and strength in trying times. Love directs our actions, and it doesn’t diminish when we learn to spread our love further than before. It involves the risk of loss, of course, but it is always rewarded in the end.
Linguistically, there are some really juicy things going on this story, which is what sets it apart from popular fiction. The imagery, the depth of the characters, and the scope of their growth arcs all make this a meaningful and memorable tale.
One reason I love reading books written for this age range is because the stories themselves have magnificent, sweeping, imaginative plots without ever requiring me to sit through sex scenes, profanity-laden dialogue, or gory, graphic violence. Although this story features some fantasy-style violence, nothing is depicted in a way to leave lasting, terrifying images in the mind. It’s all so tastefully executed.
I recommend this book to readers about 12 and up who have rich imaginations and love magic.