Some time ago, one of Kelly Barnhill’s children changed the ringtone on her cell phone to play the theme song from a 1970s TV show. She was “dead to the world” when that phone rang very early Monday morning, January 23.
“So that’s what woke me up at 5:15 a.m. (CST) – the theme song from Wonder Woman, only the greatest TV show theme song of all time,” said Barnhill, who lives in Minneapolis with her husband and three school-age children. She is not sure who, specifically, was on the other end of the line with the astounding news that her fourth novel, The Girl Who Drank the Moon (Algonquin), had won the 2017 Newbery Medal. “I have no idea! Do you need to know? I can probably find out. I mean, they all told me their names, but I was absolutely dead asleep when they called. I had no idea I was even on their radar. It was the furthest thing from my mind. I’m completely gobsmacked.”
Friends who called to congratulate her and said they knew she would win were met with what Barnhill characterized as “derision and disdain.”
“If you would have asked me yesterday I would have told you very honestly I had zero percent chance of winning,” she said.
The signs were there, however. The novel, a fantasy about an “enmagicked” girl raised by a witch, a swamp monster, and a Perfectly Tiny Dragon, received six starred reviews and was named to numerous end-of-the-year best books lists. The film rights have already been sold to Fox Animation.
“The thing that is so neat is not that [the committee] picked my book but hearing how excited they were to be delivering this news so early in the morning,” Barnhill said. “Knowing how much work they put into this decision, and how seriously they take literature for children, that is just so awesome to me, not only as a writer, but as a former teacher and a former kid.”
Barnhill said the idea for the novel began with an image that came to her of one of the novel’s main characters, which was unusual because she typically does not think visually. “I think about my books for a long time before I start writing and I collect things – a little knot of text, a few sentences that fit together in a way that pleases my ear. It often happens while I’m running,” she said. “But this book started with the image of a poetry-quoting swamp monster with four arms and a big tail, holding a baby.”
Still, the story idea took a long time to percolate. Barnhill knew she wanted to set it in “a village under the thumb of fear, whose residents participate in a terrible yearly crime, as a sort of antidote to this fear,” and that she wanted to play with the notion of “narrative manipulation,” how facts can be spun different ways to arrive at very different conclusions. “I have a lot of friends who are journalists and I had been thinking about how during Hurricane Katrina, you could look at the same facts and see either people scavenging for necessities or looters taking advantage, depending on how those fact were presented,” she said. “I didn’t mean to write a story that would be so relevant. I was not thinking about fake news or false narratives at the time but, as it turns out, it’s really important for kids to think how facts can be constructed to construe very different things.”
Still, it took two more things to get her to start writing in earnest. The first was a nudge from her editor, Elise Howard. “She’s a genius,” Barnhill said, “and she challenged me. She had heard me talk about [The Girl Who Drank the Moon] and she said, ‘Why don’t you just write it right now?’”
Around the same time, Barnhill and her husband finally got a chance to take a honeymoon, after 15 years of marriage. A hike through Costa Rica’s Rincón de la Vieja Volcanic National Park provided the last piece of inspiration she needed. “The geology was just amazing – boiling mud pits and steam vents, the land literally moving under your feet,” she said. “I had no idea before that hike that my story would incorporate a volcanic landscape but I woke up the next morning and started writing longhand.”
Howard, who in addition to editing the book serves as publisher of Algonquin Young Readers, praised the novel’s “rich, layered storytelling and complex language,” and said the plot about a young person “daring to question an authoritarian version of the truth... makes it a perfect book for our time.”
Algonquin’s Young Readers division was founded in 2013. The award for Barnhill is not only the imprint’s first Newbery, it is the first of their books to receive any ALA Youth Media Award.
Barnhill is working – slowly – on a new novel, tentatively titled The Sugar House. “The deadline was last year,” she admits. She must now think about The Speech, which she’ll deliver when she accepts her medal at the ALA Annual conference in Chicago this June. “I’m already stressed out about it.”
Her daughters, Ella and Cordelia, both high school students, are “very proud and pleased,” but she thinks the award meant the most to her youngest, Leo, who in past years had watched the YMA webcast online with his mother. “We love reading books aloud and one year we were both super hoping that Anne Ursu’s The Real Boy would win,” Barnhill recalled. “It was one of those books where when we got to the second-to-last chapter, Leo said, ‘Mom, don’t read the last chapter yet. Go back to the beginning.’ ”
Alas, The Real Boy didn't win that year, but today Barnhill woke her son by saying, “ ‘Leo, you’re not going to believe this. I won the Newbery Award,’ and he said, ‘The real one?’ and I said, ‘Yes. The real one.’ ”