In The Ogress and the Orphans, Kelly Barnhill’s first middle grade title since The Girl Who Drank the Moon, which won the 2017 Newbery Medal, the author writes a standalone fantasy that centers a once-lovely town and its residents, including a group of clever orphans, a kindly ogress, and a much-admired mayor. We corresponded with Barnhill about fairy tales, scrap-paper scrawls, and her connection with the natural world.

The acknowledgments page in The Ogress and the Orphans references an early draft, “when I thought I was writing a picture book.” How did this story evolve into a 400-page novel?

I’m not really sure how that happened. I really had no intention of writing another novel. Not at first, anyway. This story began as part of a creative practice that I had been doing for some time, to soothe my worried mind and soul: every day, first thing in the morning, I wrote fairy tales. I didn’t really look at the stories again after I scrawled each one on scrap paper, fast and loose and uncontained, and then put them in a box to be recycled. They weren’t for anyone or anything—it was just a project for me to stay connected to my “fairy tale brain.” This practice helped me to set my head right, during otherwise troubling times.

But one day, I started a story that felt... different. It’s hard to say how, or why. But even the noise that my pen made on the paper felt different. I read it out loud, and the sound of it resonated, deep in my chest. So I opened up a brand-new notebook and made a new copy, revising as I went. This version felt deeper, more stable. It was still short, this version—a bit longer than a picture book, but certainly not a novel. I wasn’t sure what it was. I sent it to my writing group and asked if it was a picture book. They said, “Maybe? A weird one? Or something else. In any case, it’s something. Show it to Steve.” So I sent it to Steven Malk, my agent, who sent it to Elise Howard, my editor, who said, “You didn’t realize it, but you wrote a novel. You just haven’t seen all of it yet. Go back in, and spend time with those children—they’ll show you what you need to do.”

How did it feel to return to writing middle grade after the success of The Girl Who Drank the Moon?

Honestly? It was absolutely terrifying—an experience characterized by crushing self-doubt, anxiety, varying manifestations of imposter syndrome, bad dreams, a scorching re-emergence of a life-long inferiority complex and also, weirdly, back pain. Thanks for asking! I mean, I’m kidding. I think.

Look, there are many reasons why I thought I would likely never write again. One reason was because we had a major illness in my family, which took up almost all of my time—I basically lived in clinic waiting rooms for what seemed like forever. I was barely able to focus on the rollout of The Girl Who Drank the Moon, much less think about anything that could possibly come after. My family was the only thing that mattered, and still is. In the months that followed, I, along with everyone else, bore witness to people who were supposed to be public servants puffing themselves up by saying reprehensible things; they turned cruelty and nastiness into its own social currency and used their public trust to enrich themselves. I didn’t know how to write in this kind of world. I also wasn’t entirely convinced that my voice or my art really mattered anymore. Or no, I wasn’t certain that it was needed anymore. It became necessary for me to look inward, to seek quietness, and to find spaces where I could listen to the world and the people in it and find other ways that I could do a bit of good.

When I started work in earnest on The Ogress and the Orphans, I did my best to keep my imagination and thinking contained in the same headspace where the story began, and to convince myself that the work was just for me—that no one would ever have to see it. Even as I traded revisions with my editor, I still held onto this notion, like a lifeboat. I tried to keep my characters as close to me as I could, to retain that sense of intimacy and tenderness. I couldn’t think about the reader. I couldn’t think about the world. Only the characters mattered. So everything I did was in honor of them.

Portions of this book read as clear-cut allegory based on recent events and political figures, while other segments feel more reminiscent of fantasy and folk tellings. How did you go about twining the two parts in order to craft a balanced world?

You’re not the first person to see the connection between the blowhards in my novel and the blowhards of today, currently causing havoc around the world, but if I’m being honest, I wasn’t really writing about them. Here’s the thing: none of these recent actions and misdeeds and horrifying political figures are all that unique in the scope of history.

We have seen this sort of behavior before, and unfortunately we will see it again. There will always be liars; there have always been tyrants; there will always be greedy, rapacious men seeking to sink their teeth into the world. It’s also not all that unique that sometimes people find ways to be, well, dragon-like in the way that they hoard resources and wealth at the expense of others—or worse, who insidiously siphon value in hidden and sneaky ways so that an entire community, or industry, or country, can’t even see that it has been ripped off. Long ago, people told stories about dragons sitting on their piles of hoarded riches, and maybe it wasn’t too much of a stretch to see similarities between those shining, selfish beasts and those living off the labor of others, and sucking their communities dry. Dragons, alas, will always be with us. This is why fairy tales still matter: they teach us how those dragons can be beaten.

This is why fairy tales still matter: they teach us how those dragons can be beaten.

Natural elements—for example, sheep, also crows and the ways they communicate—recur in this book, as in many of your novels. What’s your point of entry for characters rooted in the natural world, and what is the best part, for you, of writing them?

The original version of this story—the one scrawled on scratch paper that refused to leave me alone—started and ended with crows. I continued working on the story at their behest and insistence, which is typical, given their personalities and penchant for self-aggrandizement, god bless them. My work will always be tied, in some way, to the outdoors and the natural environment. It’s where my imagination lives. I often say that I can’t start a book without really understanding the ground under my feet and the plants growing on either side and the sound of the birds overhead and the smell of the breeze pressing against my skin. I don’t think in pictures, but I do think in sensations, and the sensory experience of the natural world is always tied in a profound way to story, for me.

I do love writing animal characters because animals communicate almost entirely through action and gesture, which is always a pleasure to observe and attempt to pin down to the page. It’s useful too, as human beings also communicate almost entirely through action and gesture, and often we focus on a character’s spoken dialogue to our detriment. We aren’t always honest when we speak, to ourselves or others, and worse, we are not always clear. Sometimes, a person’s words and body language can say entirely different things. By rooting our focus in the language of motion, choice, action, and gesture, we gain a greater appreciation of how the heart speaks, and what the heart knows. We aren’t so different from animals, after all.

Evocative descriptions of baked goods are a real treat throughout this read, and the book’s acknowledgments page suggests that you also bake. What did you bake most while writing this book, and how did that practice inform this writing?

By the time I really started to dig into the draft that is the most similar to the one you have now, the pandemic was in full swing, and I found myself desperately missing my neighbors. For a while my block—normally a warren of activity with our large number of kids racing around our dead-end street—was silent. It was devastating. So I, like everyone else, started baking. Cookies, mostly. But bread too (though it was hard to find yeast), and pie. I made my way through all of my grandmother’s recipes for different kinds of bars (her lemon bars recipe is phenomenal), and I can’t even tell you how many kinds of soda bread. We did this for each other. We gave treats to friends and neighbors. We did it because we couldn’t think of what else to do. What do we do when our loved ones are hurting? We feed them. We do this to heal others. We do this to heal ourselves, as well.

This novel is rich in characterizations and settings and messaging. What is one thing you hope readers will take away from it?

I hope readers understand that greed is poison, as is division and disrespect. I hope they take away the notion that positive change starts with positive action, and that Good is built on Good. I hope that they understand that the heart matters, and that the heart’s capacity is boundless. I hope that they come away with the idea that we belong to one another, which means that we must love one another. That neighborliness matters, that civic responsibility matters, and that the only way forward is together. It’s all of us, together. And that’s it.

You also have a novel for adults, When Women Were Dragons, coming out in May. After that, what’s next for you?

I do! I’m very excited about it. After that, I’m working on a novel called The Sugar House, which is a contemporary retelling of “Hansel and Gretel” (with a goodly dollop of “Mother Hulda” thrown in). I’m also working on two other middle grade novels—a story about an ex-pirate, a thwarted mathematician, and a possibly wicked alchemist called Dispatch from the Sinister Laboratories of Doctor Otto van Drecht; and another contemporary fantasy about a girl coming to terms with her older sister’s suicide attempt, and a bit of magic at the back of her grandfather’s barn, and a rather extraordinary baby goat, called The Girl at the Top of the Tower. I’m not sure which one will take root first—they are both, at present, in giant, handwritten piles with notes and maps and bits of research next to my desk.

The Ogress and the Orphans by Kelly Barnhill. Algonquin, $19.99 Mar. ISBN 978-1-64375-074-3