Barnhill, Kelly

Getting to Know Kelly Barnhill

What would you do if you were a teacher and your very favorite thing about teaching was reading books with your students, finding the perfect books for your students, and getting into intense book discussions with your students? If you were Kelly Barnhill, you would take a crack at writing your own books that could be shared with students just like those that have passed through your seventh-grade classroom! And why did she leave teaching? As she says, “I left because of the testing regime. And the soullessness of reducing books to lexile scales and AR numbers. Of constantly assessing kids and reducing them to their ‘level’, their ‘score’, their ‘number’.”

The transition seems to have worked pretty well. Starting in 2007 she wrote quite a few nonfiction children’s books, numerous fantasy/science fiction stories in magazines, then adult fantasy and science fiction books. Her children’s fantasy books began to be published in 2011 with The Mostly True Story of Jack. After two more children’s fantasy novels, Iron Hearted Violet and The Witch’s Boy, she reached the pinnacle of children’s fiction with the 2017 Newbery Award for The Girl Who Drank the Moon.

One thing that helped her develop as a writer was the fact that she lived in Minnesota. As Kelly jokingly puts it, “What else can one do when it is twenty below and the winds are howling at the windows?” But in reality the government and people of Minnesota really support the arts and that is why a whole community of writers and publishing has developed in the area of Minneapolis. This means she has a local writers group to inspire her and give her feedback on her work. Kelly certainly has deep roots in Minnesota: her children are now going to the exact same high school she attended as a teen!

Kelly sees the fantasy and science fiction that she and others write for young readers as a much-needed antidote to the tests and textbooks that make up so much of education today. As she says, “We need textbooks because they teach us how to categorize and analyze that which is known. We need imaginative art because it teaches us to extrapolate from the known to the unknown: it teaches us to search for hidden truths, big ideas, and the innovations and creations that have yet to come.”

Despite the demands that come from winning the Newbery Award, progress is being made on Kelly’s next children’s novel, The Sugar House. She describes it as “a retelling of the Hansel and Gretel story”. A young boy makes a few mistakes and gets labeled a troublemaker at his school. So then, when something really evil starts stalking the school, no one believes his warnings and he can’t act without getting even deeper into trouble. Hopefully, this book will be published in 2018. But we can rest assured, somewhere on a canoe out on a lake in Minnesota, a new fantasy world is taking shape for us!

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