Review: The Girl Who Drank the Moon

“Like you, I was brought to a family who loved me and whom I love. I cannot stop loving that family, and I don’t want to. I can only allow my love to increase.” page 377

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill.
Algonquin Young Readers, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 2016.
Middle grade fantasy, 386 pages.
Lexile:  640L  .
AR Level:  4.8 (worth 12.0 points)  .

Xan is the witch of the forest.  Every year, the isolated people of the protectorate leave a baby in the forest for no reason she can fathom.  Not one to let an infant die in the forest, she takes it on the perilous journey to the other lands, where the children are heralded as Star Children, and adopted into carefully chosen families.  On the way, she feeds them starlight.  Until one day the aging witch feeds a child moonlight instead…

Barnhill_GirlWhoDrankMoon_FINAL_PRNT.indd

I enjoyed this book, but wouldn’t recommend you buy it.

As the author herself states, she is not a visual thinker (and based on the description she writes, might even have prosopagnosia).  This is clear in the character portrayals, or rather lack thereof.  What’s most remarkable about this is that Barnhill’s able to write vividly while rarely giving us any description at all.

Honestly, if I hadn’t been reading this with the idea of reviewing it on this blog and evaluating the diversity of the novel, I doubt I’d even have noticed.  Barnhill sprinkles in just enough to spark our imaginations.  For example, she describes the scars on one character’s face evocatively enough that you might not notice she hardly tells us anything else about his appearance.

There were two aspects of disability in this novel.  One was the aforementioned character with facial scars.  I would like to read an #ownvoices reviewer’s comments on this, because I felt like that character was handed well, but don’t know for sure.

The second disability was more problematic.  One character experiences mental instability as a result of an incredibly traumatic event, is labeled a lunatic and locked in a small room where she experiences further trauma and her mental illness worsens.  Then, for most of the rest of the book, this character is referred to only as the madwoman.  (You can read the first nine chapters of the book, including chapter 2 where this character is first introduced, as a PDF at the publisher’s website.)

The Girl Who Drank the Moon p9
Excerpt from page nine of The Girl Who Drank the Moon.

I was so worried upon reading this.  Honestly if this was a library book I would probably have returned it at that point, but I’d already purchased the book, so I kept reading.  And found myself conflicted because I appreciated the ending.  Her reaction to the trauma and imprisonment was normal and rational, but the society around her was deeply broken.  However, children might take away a fear of mental health services or internalize the slurs.

Because the personification (other than the references to her using slurs, which should have been more directly called out) left me so conflicted, I would love any thoughts from reviewers who know more about mental health or wrongful incarceration.  (I miss Disability in Kidlit so much…)

There were good aspects of this book.  The plot is intricate to a level unusual for a middle grade novel, and while I haven’t the foggiest clue what most of the characters look like, I know their personalities, virtues and failings, very well.  The magic gets heavy at times, but I felt like Barnhill was playing with the tropes of fantasy in a way that made sense within the genre.

I was happy with her depiction of adoption and foster care.  While some aspects weren’t realistic (much like Lion, use caution when recommending to adoptees), Barnhill’s ultimate message was beautiful and she mostly portrayed foster/adoptive families as good people but not saints.

This book was showing up on a lot of anticipatory lists and diverse bloggers were excited for it, and then it… quietly went away.  My guess is that this is because the cover image features a dark-skinned character, but the author’s white and the book wasn’t truly diverse.  Some bloggers may have read it and been turned off by the depiction of mental illness and decided not to review, if their blogs are only positive.

There was a lot going for this book, but unfortunately I can’t recommend it.

Author: colorfulbookreviews

I work in a library by day and parent the rest of the time. I am passionate about good books representing the full spectrum of human diversity for every age group and reading level. This blog is my attempt to help parents, educators, and librarians find the best children's books authored by or featuring characters of color.

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