Hardcover, 388 pages
Published August 9th 2016 by Algonquin Young Readers
As an aspiring author, I have often wondered what happens when you have two ideas containing similar elements with a similar setup. How you do know which one to choose and which idea to discard? What happens if both ideas are equally compelling to you? Is there some sort of taboo against writing two books that have a somewhat similar premise?
As it turns out, if you are Kelly Barnhill and you have two ideas that are similar to each other, you write two books that are totally different from each other despite having a somewhat similar premise–not identical, mind, just similar. In 2014, I reviewed The Witch’s Boy which contained a witch, her boy, a girl and her father, a dangerous (and somewhat unnavigable) forest, an isolated village ruled by tyrants on one side of the forest, and free villages/towns on the other side of the forest.
In The Girl Who Drank the Moon, there is a witch, a girl, a dangerous (and somewhat unnavigable forest), an isolated village ruled by tyrants one side of the forest, and free villages/towns on the other side of the forest. But that’s about as far as the similarities go.
While The Witch’s Boy is skewed towards older middle-graders and young adults, The Girl Who Drank the Moon is meant for younger middle-graders and will even work as a story told in installments at bedtime.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me tell you what the story is about.
Xan is a witch who lives in a forest that grows upon a not-so-dormant volcano. She lives with her partner, a swamp monster called Glerk, and a tiny dragon, Fyrian, who thinks he is an enormous dragon who lives among giants. For reasons she doesn’t understand, once a year the people who live in a village on one side of her forest, abandon a baby in a glade, entirely to the mercy of the elements and the wild animals that prey there. Xan cannot allow innocent babies to come to harm so every year she takes the baby she thinks has been abandoned to the other side of the forest where the villages/cities are full of happier people and she finds among them a family who will love and raise the abandoned babe as their own.
One year she finds a baby who has a “calm, probing, unsettling gaze.”
It was the sort of gaze that reached into the tight strings of the soul and plucked, like the strings of a harp.
The witch is enchanted by the baby whom she names Luna and in a moment of fascination with the way whole galaxies burn in the child’s eyes, feeds her moonlight and turns her magic. And everyone knows “moonlight is magic.” (Xan ran out of goat’s milk and she thought she was feeding the child starlight instead.)
Anyway, since Xan has created a little witchling she takes responsibility and takes Luna back to her home. With the help of Glerk and the tiny dragon Fyrian, she raises her magical child.
Xan doesn’t know that Luna’s mother is locked in a tower in the isolated village, driven mad by the loss of her daughter who was taken by the village elders as something of a tribute to the witch of the forest. (The witch in question has no idea that these babies are tributes to her.) The village elders have no idea that there is a witch in the forest; their reasons for relieving a family of their child each year is a lot more sinister and at the same time prosaic. They know that a population crippled by grief will be more compliant to the demands of their ‘betters.’ Think The Hunger Games and President Snow’s reasons for taking the children of each district.
But even the village elders don’t know that they are but puppets of a witch who lives not in the forest but somewhere far closer to what they call home.
Xan is such a wonderful character. Actually, I liked all the characters in the book (except for the villains). I was surprised by the fact that apart from Luna and Fyrian (if a 500 year old dragon can be considered an adolescent), there are no other child characters in the novel. Xan and Glerk are somewhat eccentric grandparents, the mad mother in the tower who is quite possibly one of the most interesting iterations of the maternal figure in a children’s novel. Antain was but a boy when Luna was taken from her parents by the Elders but he cannot stifle the guilt he still feels about witnessing the taking without doing anything to stop it. Now that his child is in danger of being taken from him, he has decided to conquer his fear of the forest and go hunting for the witch.
The stakes are always high in the novel but it is written very gently. That is, the story will thrill younger readers without overwhelming them. Younger readers will relate to Luna who is living an extraordinary life without being aware of how very extraordinary it is. I was charmed by her rambunctiousness. The writing is quirky and the narrative doesn’t flow so much as hop and skip its way to the ending. Reading the book felt like observing a brook gurgle over stones and hollows. I appreciated how magic is shown to be both passive and beautiful, and sinister and dangerous. It all depends on who is using it to do what.
The Girl Who Drank the Moon is, at the heart of it, about a girl and her (adopted) grandmother; it is a story about a person’s relationship to the land they live on and to the lives they lead. It is about responsibilities and the roles people accept and demand as their own. The Girl Who Drank the Moon will enchant you and make you wish you could sip moonlight too.