MMGM and #IMWAYR (11/30/2020): The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill
I hope everyone enjoyed their Thanksgiving and was able to make the best of celebrating in this pandemic! Today I am reviewing yet another absolutely, stunningly gorgeous book, The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill.
I seriously do not know how I have managed to read so many stunning books this year! I bought a copy of The Girl Who Drank the Moon before it won the Newbery a few years ago. Reading it now, I thought, "This really should have won the Newbery!" Then I looked, and it did win. And thank goodness for that, because I have rarely seen a book that so clearly deserves medals and praise to be heaped upon it. I was going to write a synopsis of this book modeled after the style of one chapter where each sentence begins with "Once upon a time...," but I do not have enough energy to make that sound beautiful and not pretentious, so I'll stick to what I know. The Girl Who Drank the Moon is several different, beautiful stories set in the same world. In the Protectorate, a family gives up their newborn child every year on the Day of Sacrifice to the Witch in the forest to stave off her wrath. The Witch, Xan, has no wrath to speak of, and she cannot discern why a baby gets left alone in the forest every year. But she always takes them to a loving family in the Free Cities, leaving behind the Protectorate as fast as she can—it is practically coated in sorrow, and after all, sorrow is dangerous (though if you asked Xan why, she wouldn't quite remember). One year, on her trek back with the baby (a baby with a moon-shaped birthmark who she starts to take a liking to), Xan accidentally fills the baby with the magic of moonlight—magic that, in the hands of a young child, can only result in chaos and damage. So Xan decides to raise this baby, who she names Luna, by herself (with the help of her companions, wise swamp monster Glerk and childish tiny dragon Fyrian). Meanwhile, within the walls of the Protectorate, a boy named Antain, after maintaining a sensitive heart despite an apprenticeship to the corrupt Elders of the Protectorate, grows up into a young man and decides to kill the Witch to save his newborn child. And, within the Protectorate's Tower, where the Sisters of the Star reside, we see what happened to a woman (also with a moon-shaped birthmark) who went mad after giving up her child. As evil runs rampant and a volcano rumbles below, the stories of Xan, Luna, Glerk, Fyrian, Antain, and the madwoman collide, and we see that the key to saving the Protectorate might not be magic. It might be our own hearts.
So please don't mind author Kelly Barnhill as she nonchalantly dissects the nature of human existence and provides her stunning insights in some of the most gorgeous prose I've ever seen. The Girl Who Drank the Moon has an incredible understanding of humanity, love, emotion, death, and everything, and both MG readers and grown adults will be struck by the wisdom of this book. One of the themes of this book is how never dealing with your own pain and choosing to deny reality can only lead to more strife, and can I just say (oh, yes, I can—it's my blog) that watching people I care about suppress their own emotions and fall further into pain (their own and that which they have inflicted on others) has basically been one of the main themes of the last five years of my entire life. Secrets and denial hurt Xan, Luna, and the entire Protectorate, and as painful as it is sometimes to watch (though never so bad that you will feel depressed after reading), I have to say a big thank you to Kelly Barnhill for tackling this topic and showing kids and adults that it pays to deal with your own pain. Also, I just finished this book today, and I have to say that Glerk, the wise swamp monster, and the original poems he loves have some of the wisest ideas about reality and existence I have ever seen. Seriously, I thought Wendy Mass did an amazing job tackling the meaning of life in Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life, and then Barnhill writes up this stunning creation myth about how the world created people and animals so that the beauty of the world could actually be seen and appreciated and not just go unnoticed. I don't usually go into MG books expecting to understand why I am here on this Earth, and yet here we are.
I always love a big cast of lovable characters, and Barnhill totally and utterly delivers that with this book. I already mentioned how awesome Glerk is, and I need to throw in a plug for Fyrian (who I maintain is red as per my imagination despite him being green on the cover), who acts as a wonderful reminder that children, even if they do not always understand the gravity of a situation, love harder and stronger than anyone else in this world. As for Xan, I literally need to just jump into the book and give her a giant hug, because despite all of the pain and hardship she has endured through her 500 years of existence, she still lets herself love other people, enjoy the world, and face the prospect of death without fear. And Luna. Oh my goodness, Luna. Watching Luna grow up from a little adorable baby to a young ever-delighted girl to an older girl ready to face whatever is thrown at her in order to protect the people she loves is just wonderful; I feel like I was a parent watching my own child grow up. And then Antain is just awesome; living in a world where people are put down at every turn is no doubt hard to do, yet Antain survives the pain he carries inside him to do what he loves, start a family, and save them at all costs. The madwoman is the living embodiment of how a mother's love for her presumably-dead child will both drive her to the brink and allow her to come back with more strength than ever. (Is everyone sounding the same in these descriptions? I swear they all come across as incredibly different characters.) I also have to give a special shout-out to a woman named Ethyne, who is basically the wisdom of Glerk plus the bravery of Princess Leia. I loved every one of these characters so much!
And now for the random-blithering part of the review in T-minus 5, 4, 3, 2, 1... OK. Kelly Barnhill's writing is so absolutely gorgeous as to be shocking; practically every sentence is a masterpiece in and of itself. (The chapters where an unnamed woman tells her child the stories of the Protectorate are particularly well-written.) Those gorgeous sentences encompass a well-written plot that, though it may seem a teensy bit slow at the beginning, does a marvelous job at giving itself the time to create a story you will remember while also moving quickly through calm moments and terrifying ones alike. I cannot say too much, because I really don't want to spoil anything, but I want you to know that this book is just a joy to read. Next thing: The Protectorate is a fascinatingly horrible place. The Elders keep the people of the Protectorate depressed and hopeless so that they can reap the rewards of holding power with no opposition (doesn't that sound like a certain person sitting in the Oval Office...). The Tower in the Protectorate, where the Sisters of the Star (basically an elite group of female scholars/martial artists—super-cool and super-terrifying) are located, is appropriately full of mystery and strangeness (the Head Sister, Sister Ignatia, is a particularly fascinating character). There are quite a few revelations in this story, and the discoveries of what exactly is going on are always fulfilling; one that I particularly loved was where Luna and Fyrian essentially undergo a deeply unnerving dream-journey and then wake up to find Fyrian still sleeping in Luna's pocket just as planned. (Heartwarming and heart-rate-increasing!) The depiction of Luna's growing up is, as I mentioned before, truly excellent; this book does a wonderful job depicting what it is like to face the realities of how awful the world is while still a naïve child and eventually preserve the best parts of understanding the world like an adult and loving it like a child. (Hey, that sounds like something us MMGMers and #IMWAYRers are particularly good at!)
Also, last thing: magical paper birds. Magical. Paper. Birds. Oh, wait, not the last thing at all, because now I remembered the other things I wanted to talk about. There are two aspects of this book that I wanted to mention. One of them is that the magical paper birds end up attacking a certain character and causing them awful scars all over their face, which does make for some interesting points about dealing with the stares and fear of strangers when you have a disability. I must mention that, in one scene, the character allows a child to touch their scars, and I both appreciate this act of showing the child that there is nothing to fear and wonder if that is not something a person with scars would do in a million years and would in fact find highly offensive. The other thing is that Luna grapples with loving Xan (who she thinks of as her grandmother) while also wondering about the mother she never knew, which I thought was an interesting allegory for adoption, to some extent. Again, I wonder how the story will resonate with adopted people, but I think the ultimate message of being able to hold more than one person in your heart is spot-on.
If you haven't read The Girl Who Drank the Moon, I forgive you for being as much of a mess as I have been! But now the time has come. I had no idea how absolutely gorgeous I would find this book until I read it, and I truly cannot think of a person who would not enjoy it. Young kids will enjoy this book's fairy-tale-ness, and older kids and adults will learn so much from the gorgeously written messages. If there is any book that you could give as a gift to anyone, this is it; it truly is something anyone could find themselves engrossed in and could find touching. Please read this book, and consider buying copies for those you love; it is truly one of the most insightful MG books I have ever had the privilege to read.
Update on Sunday: I have introduced a new rating system for my reviews on this blog! This way, my true feelings about each book can be separated out from my general excitable demeanor within reviews. ;) Click this link to read more about the rating system.
My rating for this book is: Stunning!