At the San Francisco Writer’s Conference 2017, I heard this book repeatedly recommended by the agent Mary C Moore whenever discussing middle grade fantasy. After the conference, I put it on my reading list. In the past, I had the opinion that the best books are children’s books: an opinion that had faded of late. This book reaffirmed that faded opinion.
The first thing that struck me was the writing. It’s frequently said, of course, that every line must serve a purpose, drawing the reader in. Yet I can’t remember the last time I read a book that executed that theory so well as this one did. From the start, the characters and their conflicts are crystal clear; and with a baby being sacrificed to a witch that the Elders know does not exist, the stakes are high. I only felt the story slow down as the writing took time with characterization in chapter two, when we meet said non-existant witch and her magical companions.
The second thing that struck me was the diverse age range of our cast of characters. There is the elderly witch; the child that she adopts; the teen-turned-young-man that defies the culture of sorrow of the town in which he was born and raised; and the middle-aged woman who lost her daughter. Each of these characters is confronted with problems of their age. The child wants to find out who she is. The young man learns to push past his mother’s expectations to find a vocation he loves and the love of his life. The middle-aged woman has lost sight of the young woman she used to be in the face of the soul-rending grief of losing a child. The elderly witch is faced with her own mortality.
I was also struck with admiration by the time course of this book, which takes place over the course of thirteen years. Of course, there are many stories that do this: Harry Potter and In Malice, Quite Close are only a few examples of books that begin with a set up a decade or more before the meat of the story begins. However, I am accustomed to such stories dedicating only a chapter or two to the set-up before diving into the main meat of the story. This is not so in The Girl Who Drank the Moon. Here, we are nearly half way through the book before we hit the “present,” or the meat of the story. Yet the first half of the book—covering nearly 12 years in the lives of several characters—felt neither tediously lengthy nor overly rushed.
Barnhill doesn’t necessarily elaborate at length about her characters or her world. Yet she chooses her words with exceptional skill, weaving a simple world infused with depth to the reader who cares to look beneath the surface.
This, I thought as I read, is what truly makes a children’s book ageless: a story so simple that children can enjoy it, but infused with so much depth and complexity that it can be meaningful at any age.
The foremost theme from the onset of this book is Sorrow. The people of the town live their lives buried in sorrow and grief; meanwhile, the witch does not allow herself to feel sorrow. In the book, of course, there is a supernatural reason behind this. Taken at face value, one might interpret the story as a manifesto against the human tendency to sink into sorrow or grief. However, I don’t choose to see it that way. At the end of the book, sorrow has ceased to be a liability as it was in the past. The town is no longer perpetually sunken into grief, but nor is there a need to prevent oneself from feeling sorrow for the sake of self-preservation. I choose to see the theme as demonstrating the futility of either extreme: for while they do not wallow, there is still sorrow in the end, though it is presented in a form more complex than any previous form.
The world and the story, though original, had a familiar feel to them that made them highly accessible and an easy read, but nevertheless one that made me think.
I highly recommend this book.