The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

If you look at my reading list over time, you will likely notice one thing: I read in a lot of different genres.  I do seem to always come back to three specific genres more than others: middle grade, young adult, and classic literature.  There are reasons for this, and I have been thinking about this a lot as I read my most recent book: The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill.

Those who write for children – particularly those who write middle grade and young adult books – have a much more difficult job than any other writer.  Much of what is written for adults is formulaic and predictable (although there are exceptions to this).  You cannot do the same thing and be a successful author of children’s and young adult literature.  It just won’t work.  The greats know this.

This is why I really do believe that some of the best literature written is written for children and young adults.  Are there great “adult” novels: yes.  But the challenge is so much bigger when writing for kids/young adults.  Let me elaborate on this a bit more.

I am thinking about these challenges more and more as I have found another adult reader of middle grade and young adult fiction to talk to about what I am reading and why I am enjoying it (or not enjoying it).  I cannot take full credit for all of my ideas as I am about to express them as many of them originate in conversations I have had with this friend.

Chapter books and middle grade novels are so important in determining whether someone will become a reader for life.  In reality, I believe this starts with the books read to us as small children – board books and picture books.  But the individual reading habit is really formed as a result of what we read in the middle grades.  At least this was the case for me.

This means that those who write middle grade fiction have an enormous burden and responsibility.  They are responsible for developing, cultivating, and hooking the lifelong reader that will later become consumers of young adult and adult books.  This means that they have to be very well written, solid works of art.

Then, as readers advance into the young adult years, the writing has an even harder challenge.  With each year that passes, kids and young adults face more and more distractions that can pull them away from a love of reading.  I have watched this somewhat with my own children as they have become young adults and moved into adulthood.  The draw of television, movies, video games, internet, phones, and other devices compete with books for their attention.

This is particularly problematic for the book world as writers have to find ways to compete with devices that offer immediate gratification.  Books are a slow reveal.  The rewards build slowly, but last longer.  The feeling of satisfaction upon finishing a good book can last for days (or even weeks).  The best books stay with you for months or even years.  You return to them and they continue to work their magic years later.  To get there, however, you have to get hooked into reading in a world of immediate gratification and distraction.  That is the challenge for authors, publishers, and booksellers today.

The other day, I was speaking with a parent who was lamenting the fact that their child just could not get interested in books.  They talked of the challenges with notes from the teachers at school voicing concern over the child’s disinterest in reading and lack of progress in their education as a result.  In our standardized test-oriented world, the focus is on short-term goals even in education.  Teachers should not be stressing over a test that will not matter in the grand scheme.  They should be concerned with cultivating a love of reading, learning, and exploration that lasts a lifetime.  Reading also helps cultivate kindness and empathy.  In other words, it makes us better human beings.

I responded to the parent by asking a simple question.  “How much do you and your husband read at home?” I asked.  The parent looked shocked.  They responded that they don’t really read at home.  They don’t have time.  The litany of excuses started at this point.  No time.  Other things to do.  So busy at work.  So busy with the kids’ schedules.  Excuse after excuse after excuse.

Kids mimic the behaviors that their parents model for them.  If a parent wants their kid to be a good reader and learner, the parent should model those behaviors and habits for the child.  My parents consume books like most people consume foods.  It should be no surprise that all of their children are the same way.  We learned to love reading from a young age.  There were things I would ask for as a child that I would be told “no” and not allowed to get – toys, movies, etc.  The one thing my parents never said no to was buying more books.  I grew up surrounded by books and reading and love.  We were not rich – like some of the kids I went to school with – but we were happy.  I watch my parents today, and realize it took me much too long to learn the greatest lesson that they had to teach me.  Life is about love, kindness, and learning.  Much of that can be found between the pages of a book.  In fact, all of life’s problems can be addressed by immersing yourself in a book.

How do we – as a society – foster this love of books in kids that do not have this behavior modeled at home?  Model it in other places in their lives!  Instead of spending less money on libraries and librarians; instead of having one librarian circulate between schools reallocate funds to have a librarian in every school.  Indeed, instead of spending more and more library funds on things other than books, find a way to put books in every person’s hand.  Society needs this more than ever.  Imagine the savings in health and wellness visits (to doctors, therapists, etc.), prescriptions for depression and anxiety, the money we pour into our electronics addictions…  If only we could get people to remember that books are the great healers.  Books have so much power.

I keep toying with the idea of getting a teaching license or a library sciences degree.  Why?  I want to find a way to share my love of learning and books with the next generation.  I have done what I could for my own children, but I still have so much love and passion to share with the world.  How do I do that?  How do I give others the precious gift that my parents gave me?

Those are the thoughts that I am left with as I finish this powerful book and as a wonderful new friendship is developing.  Now I find myself wondering what it was about this book that has me thinking about all of this.  Let’s dig into the book itself.

The Girl Who Drank the Moon is a wonderful story about a girl named Luna, a witch named Xan, a Swamp Monster, a Perfectly Tiny Dragon, a village called the Protectorate that is filled with sorrow, and the free cities.  Every year, the last child born in the Protectorate is sacrificed by the city and carried out to a circle of trees and left for the witch of the forest.  One year, a girl is left, and the witch accidentally feeds her moonlight instead of starlight.  This leads to a wonderful magical tale of love, family, and learning about the importance of the range of emotions to the human experience.

This is what I mean about books having the power to help us heal.  We learn to cope through empathy with the characters in our favorite books.  We learn the lessons of their experiences.  We also learn love and kindness, and the harms of hatred and anger.  There are many world leaders who would do well to read a bit more today.

Although the pacing of the book slows down towards the middle, if you push through it quickly picks back up and becomes a page turner again.  The character development is lovely, and I really enjoyed the different subplots that emerged.  In the end it all ties together into one wonderful theme – the importance of love, family, and kindness in our lives.

I am off to pick out one more book to read on my day off.  Then I will try to write for a bit.  I am chasing the ability to craft the perfect middle grade novel, and the only way to get there is with tons of practice.  The more I write, the easier it gets.  Not sure if it is getting any better yet.  I hope so.  Until next time, Happy Reading!

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