Newbery-Winning Storyteller Kelly Barnhill Writes to Be Read Out Loud

by Naomi Krueger

“Stories are how we as human beings make sense of the world. … A story is how we think, it’s how we remember, it’s how we plan for the future, it’s how we dream, it’s how we worry, how we come together and how we come apart as well,” says Kelly Barnhill, author of the 2017 Newbery Medal-winning book The Girl Who Drank the Moon.

Kelly has written four middle grade novels and many short stories. There’s a reason her books sound like they’re being told aloud by a seasoned storyteller, perhaps by the light of a flickering fire.

“I used to tell stories all the time, to my younger siblings, to the babysitter, my cousins … I’d tell all kinds of kooky, spooky stories, about people that lived in trees, gnomes and fairies, creatures that were made out of mud,” Kelly says.

Newbery-winning author Kelly Barnhill. Photo by Bruce Silcox.

2017 Newbery Medal winner Kelly Barnhill experienced stories almost entirely out loud as a child. Two of her books began as stories she told her children. Photo by Bruce Silcox.

She once told a story about a terrible monster that lived in a local lake.

“I got in trouble for that one. I made my cousin pee in the bed. It really was a scary story.”

As a kid, she experienced stories almost entirely out loud. Her parents read to her every night and she would listen to dramatized books and radio plays on records.

“I spent my childhood with stories that were read out loud. So I write books that are out loud,” Kelly says.

And yet, Kelly herself was a delayed reader. She didn’t come into reading until the middle of fifth grade. She loved stories and she knew that one should read, but reading itself hadn’t really clicked. Instead, she was really good at pretending to read books.

“I like to tell kids this when I go into schools,” Kelly explains. “I think there’s a lot of unnatural pressure to get kids reading before they’re actually developmentally ready to do it. And so a lot of kids feel bad about themselves. It doesn’t actually work! It actually drives them away from reading for the rest of their lives, rather than letting them come to it when they’re ready.”

When Kelly was a kid, she was lonely and bullied at school. When she finally discovered a love for reading, it was through fairy tales and all of the “weird, odd books” that reflected her “weird, odd imagination.”

“Not all books are for all kids. It’s really helpful when you have the right book for that particular kid,” Kelly says. “I really appreciate the librarians that were able to notice what kind of book I would like. I’m so glad that there were lots of weird, weird books for the weird, weird kid that I was.”

And now her own books are filled with the stories from her “weird, odd, imagination” and are captivating children and adults alike.

Stories: Truth and Falsehood

The Girl Who Drank the Moon is more than just an entertaining story. Like all good stories, it’s layered with meaning and ideas to provoke thought. Kelly wrote this book intending to write a book about false narratives. It was inspired by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and how the facts were communicated—and misrepresented—in the news.

“I have a lot of friends who are journalists … they had to take a hard look at the role of bias and how these narratives and story lines can get hardened. People don’t question them. There were stories out of Hurricane Katrina that just weren’t true,” says Kelly.

And she set out to write a book about the power and danger of false narratives, long before the term “fake news” was making headlines. The book is structured with interludes where some adult is telling a story to some child about a terrible witch who lived in the woods.

“All of these stories are clearly false, but all of them have verifiable facts that are true within the context of rest of the story. I wanted kids to be able to see how you can take the fact that is true and cast it into a story that makes it untrue. Those are particularly insidious. That is how hatred and injustice and oppression and atrocities get justified. Through stories like that,” says Kelly.

Some may think this a topic too mature for middle school children, but Kelly doesn’t think so.

“They’re very much preoccupied with these ideas of justice and courage and what it means to be a good person,” Kelly says. “The questions that they ask are big, so what they require are stories that are also big.”

Middle school-aged kids are starting to realize there’s more to the truth than adults are telling them. The world adults tell them exists is not the world that actually exists, Kelly says. This frustration that kids feel is played out in The Girl Who Drank the Moon, in which the two principal characters are coming of age and realizing their worlds are not as they seem.

“Kids can either feel really wounded, like Antaine does, or all ‘edges and prickles’ the way Luna does. Both of those are really normal responses,” says Kelly.

Family Influence

Kelly has three children of her own—two girls and a boy. Two of her books actually started as stories she told her kids. They would ask their mom, “Read me a story from my imagination” and give her a few ideas to get started. One time, Kelly’s daughters wanted a story about a princess, but not a pretty princess because “pretty princesses are boring.” This story became Iron Hearted Violet.

Kelly Barnhill reads her book <i>The Girl Who Drank the Moon</i> to neighborhood kids in her back yard. Photo by Ackerman+Gruber.

Kelly Barnhill reads her Newbery Medal-winning book, The Girl Who Drank the Moon, to neighborhood kids in her back yard in Minneapolis. Photo by Ackerman+Gruber.

The Witches Boy started as a story Kelly told her son while on a hike in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.

Like she had been, her son was also a reluctant reader at first. He read at school, but he refused to read for pleasure at home.

“So we decided to read each night together. It was a really special time. There are a lot of wonderful books to read aloud,” says Kelly. “It’s a time with him that I will always treasure.”

Now her son is an avid reader and has a stack of books he’s reading on his own. Still, he always keeps one book aside to read together with his mom.

“The wonderful thing about middle grade novels is that they’re meant to be read aloud books,” says Kelly.

The Little Box on Her Shelf

Since winning the Newbery, Kelly says her life hasn’t changed that much. She still has a household to run. She still jogs around area lakes, composing new stories and coming up with new ideas. The prize money has allowed her to breathe a little easier and not feel as pressured to produce something new right away. But the creative pressure is not much different from before, she says.

Perhaps one reason winning the Newbery Medal has not changed Kelly’s life is that she can’t quite believe it happened.

“It doesn’t feel true, even though I have it,” she says. “It’s on my shelf, but it’s still in the box. I can’t actually take it out because that’s too real.

“I always worry that the next book people won’t like as much. But the thing is, I turned in this one with a letter of apology to my editor, saying they would really hate this book. So, I’m not my best judge.

“I forget that I’ve won the Newbery most days,” Kelly admits with a laugh, adding that sometimes when people say, “Congratulations,” she says “What for?”

She adds: “It’s sort of like those old eighties robots: ‘Does not compute. Does not compute.’”

Once a reluctant reader, Kelly is now a Newbery Medal-winning author. Like a character in one of her narratives, she still wonders whether to believe the truth that is hidden in that little box on her shelf.

[box]As a former reluctant reader herself, Kelly provides some tips for parents and educators who want to encourage reluctant readers to learn to love books:
• Kids need to see adults reading. If we are worried our boys aren’t reading, then we need to have more dads reading. Most Americans don’t read enough. Put the phone away. Turn off the TV. Turn off the computer. Sit on the couch and let’s all read books for a while.
• We need to hear adults talking about books, too.
• If you have a kid who is a reluctant reader, reading books out loud as a shared bonding activity is really important.
• Really honor a kid’s taste. Kids are going to pick books you wouldn’t have chosen for them, and that is right and proper. They are going to express interests different from the adults around them. And that is right and proper as well.
• We need kids to build authentic relationships with books. We can’t rely on worksheets and reading logs and all those things. Instead, rely on kids talking about the books they are reading. And getting one another excited about reading. That’s really helpful.[/box]

Kelly Barnhill
Web: KellyBarnhill.com
Twitter: @kellybarnhill
Kelly’s books via Amazon.com.

Naomi Krueger is a children’s book editor, freelance writer, and reader of books to her young son.

First published: January 2018


  1. Steve Thorson says:

    My dad told me, just now, that his dad was a great reader!

  2. So inspiring! Thank you for sharing.

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