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Students chat with Newbery award-winning author

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TOWER- Kelly Barnhill was surprised to learn this January that she had been awarded the 2017 Newbery Medal for the “most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.”

Students in Mary McGrane’s literature class at Vermilion Country School were just as surprised when an emailed question to the author from VCS student Jules Schmidt led to the opportunity to video-chat with the author, getting their questions about her book, “The Girl Who Drank the Moon,” as well as the writing process, answered firsthand.

McGrane said she has been working with her students this year to create literature circles, to have them work through more reflective type discussions on the books they are reading.

“Some students want me to give them the answers,” McGrane said. “I told them my job is to be a facilitator. The joy is for them to have a discourse and justify their opinions and thoughts, as there is no right answer.”

When one student told McGrane she wished she knew what the author intended, McGrane suggested she write to the author.

One week later, the students were face-to-face, at least electronically, with someone who could help them find more answers.

Barnhill told the VCS students, Tuesday, that she truly enjoyed chatting with her readers.

Tyler Lawrence asked what enticed her to write the book.

Barnhill described her writing process, which often involved working on several book ideas at once.

“I think things out a long time,” she said. “I throw things into a box, pictures, snatches of text, and other ideas.”

The idea for “The Girl Who Drank the Moon” came to her one day when she was out for a run. Suddenly, she said, she had the image of a four-armed monster, holding a flower in one hand, and reciting a poem. She ran home quickly, and wrote down the poem, which did find a spot in the final chapter of the book. This monster, who was named Glerk, was only the first step in the process.

In this case, it took another two years, with frequent prodding from her book editor, who loved the idea of the book, to start writing the book. Once she got started, she said, it went very quickly, with a rough draft finished in about five months, and the editing process taking another five months or so. This was much faster than her first novel, which she wrote over the course of two years.

Another huge step in the process was figuring out where to set her fable.

While on vacation in Costa Rica with her husband, the couple visited an out-of-the-way national park that was sited on an active volcano. The couple, who had both worked as park rangers when they were younger, wanted to hike to the top of the volcano, but were told that area was off limits because of the noxious gasses being emitted. While hiking around the base and mid-section of the volcano, she fell in love with the landscape, which included bubbling mud, boiling waters, and rivers that disappeared into caves– a landscape that her book readers will recognize.

“This landscape was waiting for me the whole time,” she told the students.

Tyler Wood asked how she created her characters.

“My characters just sort of arrive,” she said. “I encounter them. I do not make them. I really enjoy getting to know them.”

Eli Anderson asked about the frequent imagery of birds in the book, including destructive flocks of paper birds created by a madwoman who is locked in a tower.

“I just thought they were cool,” she said. “It’s a fallacy that a writer intentionally knows what they mean. Sometimes you don’t know, and leave it up to the reader.”

She added that the idea of paper birds (birds that are created from bits of folded paper) interested her on several levels.

“The birds were menacing,” she said, “almost murderous.”

Paper seems so benign, she said, but it can cut, and things written on paper can tell the truth, or can tell lies.

She talked about the power of stories, and how true facts can be used to spin a story that isn’t true at all.

“Stories can divide us,” she said, noting that fascism is built upon such stories. In her novel, stories, and the truth, have many layers that eventually are unfolded as the story reaches its conclusion.

Students also asked about how to create a good storyline.

Barnhill said a story must keep the writer engaged.

“If you are bored with what you are writing, that’s not good,” she said.

“Writers are really selfish. We write to entertain ourselves, everyday. Our primary audience is ourselves.”

Barnhill told the students she got her start in writing, after a bumpy start as a teacher in the Minneapolis school system, at a time when layoffs and teacher transfers were a fact of life. Eventually she got a job writing high-interest, non-fiction books aimed at young readers.

“That was very good training for my first novel.”

“The Girl Who Drank the Moon” is her fourth novel for young readers. She also writes novellas, poetry, short stories, and non-fiction. She has received writing fellowships from the Jerome Foundation and the Minnesota State Arts Board, and was a 2015 McKnight Writing Fellow in Children’s Literature.

The Newbery Medal was named for eighteenth-century British bookseller John Newbery. It is awarded annually by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.

“The Girl Who Drank the Moon,” written by Kelly Barnhill, was published by Algonquin Young Readers, an imprint of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, a division of Workman Publishing.

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