Friday, January 28, 2022

Fumbling Through Fantasy: The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill (2016)

The Girl Who Drank the Moon
is a middle grade fantasy novel set in a world where people believe there is a witch lurking in the woods who must be appeased each year by bringing her the youngest resident of the village for her to kill. The villagers don't know that their government has invented this story, and in fact their babies are rescued each year by Xan, who is a witch, but who is not evil, and who, not understanding the reason the children are abandoned, helps the babies find adoptive families on the other side of the forest. One year, a baby is left who accidentally becomes enmagicked. Xan decides to raise her as her own grandchild, and names her Luna. Over the years, Xan keeps Luna's magical abilities a secret from the child, but as Luna approaches her thirteenth birthday, it begins to emerge anyway, and suddenly everything begins to change. 

I've had essentially the same complaints about every Newbery winner since 2016. The books chosen in 2016, 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021 seem like obvious political choices, selected for their diversity and agendas rather than because of distinctive writing or storytelling. In some cases, these books subtly attack boys, or mothers, or white people; in others, they are just middling stories elevated only because they check a series of woke boxes. 

This book, which received the award in 2017, is an exception to this trend. This is a story told for its own sake, to entertain children and to emphasize light, hope, and love over darkness, hatred, and sorrow. The characters are diverse in their species, perhaps, but there is no overt effort to teach any Very Special Lessons about race or any other politically charged topic. It is in every way appropriate for its audience, and it upholds rather than subverts the importance of family ties, protecting the vulnerable, combating evil, and maintaining hope. It is so tempting, given how different The Girl Who Drank the Moon is from these other books, to shout its praises from the rooftops. And I really wish I could, but it's just not in the cards. 

I will admit that part of the problem is my inherent dislike of fantasy. I struggle with any book not set in the real world, and I don't adapt well to stories where characters have strange names and magical powers. For me to enjoy fantasy, the book has to really be special. Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, The Dark is Rising - these are books I have loved despite their genre, because the writing and world-building have been done so spectacularly well.  The Girl Who Drank the Moon, though, just struck me as okay. It was a fine story. I was vaguely interested in what was going to happen. I was not, however, blown away by the writing, or by the characterization, and rather than feeling satisfied by the ending, I felt like I'd seen it coming all along. It makes more sense for The Inquisitor's Tale, which I excoriated for its moral relativism, to be an honor book than it does for this one to be the medal winner. I also do not understand how Wolf Hollow was given only an honor when this book was its main competition. 

Kids who like fantasy will enjoy this book, and it will not introduce them to anything inappropriate or  damaging. There are many other titles I would prioritize before this one, but I don't recommend against reading it. I just wanted it to be more than it is. 

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