Monday 1 April 2019

#CBR11 Book 11: "The Girl Who Drank the Moon" by Kelly Barnhill

Page count: 400 pages
Ratin: 4.5 stars

Because tradition dicatates it, each year on a certain day, the council of elders in the Protectorate take an infant and leave it in the woods as a sacrifice to the witch. Bad things will happen to the settlement if they don't (although no one is really clear what dire consequences there will be, because there has never been a time when they didn't place a child in the woods). Normally, the grieving family whose child has been selected meekly go along with the council's edict, but one year, the infant's mother rages, screams and tries to fight back (can't say I blame her). She's locked away in a tower, run by sinister nuns. Antain is a young apprentice elder, and he is deeply discomfited by the whole thing. Eventually, he quits the council and becomes a carpenter instead.

Xan, the witch in the woods, travels to the same spot in the woods each year, to pick up the poor, abandoned child left there. She feeds the babies starlight and finds them good homes in the cities on the other side of the forest, far away from the Protectorate. These star children are always deeply cherished and go on to lead especially successful lives. This one year, she's a bit late, and flustered, she feeds the baby moonlight instead of starlight. Moonlight gives the recipient magical power, and before Xan has a chance to rectify it, little Luna (as she names the girl) is clearly brimming with magical potential. Because of the accident, Xan can't give Luna up to another family and takes it upon herself to raise the girl herself. Aided by Glerk, a pessimistic, yet very poetic bog monster and Fyrian, a tiny, hyperactive dragon, she does her best to teach Luna, while hoping that she can prepare her properly for her magical gifts, that are likely to come bursting forth around puberty.

As Luna happily grows older in Xan's care, her mother sits locked up in a tower in the Protectorate, making elaborate birds from paper she seems to conjure out of nothing, longing for her lost child. Antain, horribly scarred after a meeting with the madwoman, becomes a very successful carpenter, marries and gets his own child. However, the Protectorate tradition has marked his unborn baby the next to be left in the woods. Antain decides he has to track down the witch and stop her once and for all.

This book has already been reviewed a bunch of times by other Cannonballers, and as far as I can tell, they all really loved it. That's because this is an absolutely wonderful middle grade book, which I would have adored if it had been available to me growing up. It's a different kind of fairy tale, and subverts the reader's expectations several times throughout the story. I loved the way magic seems to work in the story, and the way the story slowly unfolded, giving little glimpses of important backstory portioned out along the way, so it took quite some time to understand the whole picture.

I loved the found family of Xan, who end up raising Luna, despite being really rather unprepared for the task of bringing up a very magically gifted child. I felt immense sympathy for poor Luna's mother and think I may also have been driven utterly mad had someone stolen my child away from me. I was very glad when they were eventually reunited, even as I ached for all the years they had lost.

I saw a Goodreads review that complained that while there are a number of interesting and powerful women in this story, all the male characters are utter buffoons. I'm not entirely sure what book that person has read, because that is not my experience here at all. Yes, there are some male characters that are stupid, but others who are very heroic and capable, if misinformed for parts of the story.

This book won the Newberry Medal in 2017, as well as several others, plus it was nominated for a bunch it didn't win. It's a lovely story, which while sad at times, has a proper and satisfying resolution. I can't wait for my son to be old enough to read it for himself.

Judging a book by its cover: Such a sweet book, such a lovely cover. I love everything about it, from the glowing paper birds, to the tiny dragon, to the giant moon with the dynamic little girl in front of it. If I recall correctly, the cover is one of the reasons I wanted to pick up this book in the first place.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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