Transcript from an interview with Kelly Barnhill

Before I was a writer

So my name is Kelly Barnhill. And I write books for children. That is one of the many jobs I’ve had in my life. I also used to be a teacher. And I was a middle school teacher and I was a high school teacher and I was also a GED teacher. I worked in a drop in center for homeless youth. I was a receptionist for a while and a secretary for a while. I was a bartender for a while. I was a waitress for a while. I was a park ranger for a while. I was trained as a wildland firefighter and also in search and rescue.

I was a janitor. Gosh, I'm missing something. Any way I’ve done a lot of things. Oh, I worked in a carpenter shop for a little while. That didn’t end well. So I'm a very restless person. And I'm a very curious person. But at one point it became very clear to me that the sum of my experiences prepared me for absolutely nothing, except for maybe writing books. Also that I had no other marketable skills, so I feel very grateful that I'm allowed to do this particular work.

Listening to stories

I was a delayed reader. It took me a long time to come to reading and to be able to be adept and fluent as a reader. I knew that one should read, I knew that that was a thing that I should be able to do, so I was very good at mimicking reading behaviors.

So I was very good at looking like a person who does read because you know as a little girl in Catholic school I was a rule follower and I knew about following expectations. But what I loved was listening. I loved the stories that were told to me. When I was a kid my parents read to us most nights. They read all of C.S. Lewis, they read all of Tolkien. They read a lot of Dickens to us. We loved Dickens as kids.

And I loved the way that stories would sound. I loved the, I loved the rhythm of language. I loved the shape of words. I loved that as a kid. When I was a little bit older because I was the oldest of five kids, one of my jobs, one of my tasks in the summer was taking everybody to the library. My siblings and, you know, whatever other kids happened to be in the house on that day. And so we’d walk down to the library and the walker library at the time was this weird, I think it was built in the late 70s, this weird, it was made out of concrete and most of the building was subterranean.

So it was this like weird underground world, but I loved being there. And they had this modernist looking research carols, so you’d find your little books and then sit in someplace soft. So I loved books with art. I would go and find books of paintings and just stare at the art for a long time. But what I loved doing was getting books on record. And at the time you could get books on record, you know, a lot of them were produced by the BBC.

They were done as radio plays and they had been released on record and I would bring them home and I had this record player that I bought with my own money at a garage sale. It was made by Fisher Price. And it was cream and orange. And I set it up in my closet, because you know with a big family you don’t have a lot of privacy. So I shared a room, all my siblings shared rooms. And so I would close the closet door and I would listen to books on record.

So I remember listening to a radio play of Treasure Island. And it was completely riveting and I listened to it again and again and again. And then later on when I became a reader I have always been an aural thinker, I think almost exclusively in language and not in pictures. And so as a result the way that a story sounds is kind of central to my relationship with that story.

Joyful read alouds in the classroom

And when I became a teacher my favorite part of being a teacher was reading out loud to the students. And we would always have like, there would be you know particular times during the week and we would have the book that we were working on and it would be separate from the books that they were reading and interacting with in a more scholarly way, you know the books that I would share out loud were just for the joy of it.

And so we read, gosh, we read all kinds. We read Holes by Louis Sachar. We read A Wrinkle in Time out loud. That was really fun to read out loud. We read Harry Potter. I loved just the experience of sharing books out loud. And so for me now in my sort of like this next iteration as a writer of books and writer of books for children, how the language sounds and how you interact with the text and the aural way is something that I actually think about a lot.

I think a lot about how this would be for a teacher reading it to a bunch of kids or for a parent reading it out loud to their own children. And so all of my books, I do all of my editing out loud. And I perform it at home to my dog whose name is Serious Black, who is nothing like his namesake. Alas he would not last five minutes in Azkaban. He’s very needy.

But anyway, I want to feel how the story feels in my body. When it feels right to read it out loud then I know it’s right.

Storytelling in all its forms

So there are a couple of things that I like to tell kids, because I do a lot of work in classrooms and I work for an organization called Compass, which is statewide arts organization in the state of Minnesota. And so I’ll do week long writing residencies and story writing residences with kids. And the fundamental aspect of that is that I want kids to be writing the kinds of stories that they themselves like to read or the stories that they themselves like to interact with.

But another thing that I talk to kids about, I do this a lot, is I talk about the fundamental aspect of storytelling for what it means to be a human being and that I tell them that first of all a story is not the words on the page, right, the story is something separate and we actually experience stories in all kinds of other ways that aren’t reading or listening that is separate from a book. And so I’ll have them brainstorm and they’ll talk about the stories that they interact with on television. They’ll talk about dance as a story. They’ll talk about video games as a story.

They’ll talk about plays as a story. They’ll talk about art as sometimes. Just a single piece of art tells a story, right?

Because one of the things that comes out of that is this sort of understanding that our need to tell stories and our need to share stories with other people is this fundamental aspect of what it means to be a human being and that whenever we tell a story or listen to a story or read a story or perform a story or just observe a story we are participating in this ancient human activity and we are connecting ourselves to the larger human family.

When I am encouraging a kid, a student to write a story I don’t tell them to make something that I will like, I tell them that they need to make something that delights themselves. And that’s why we do this, to delight ourselves and then maybe we can delight somebody else.

“Truth” in storytelling

When I wrote this book, when I wrote The Girl Who Drank the Moon, I was thinking a lot about the problem of false narrative and the way in which we can use stories to pull people together or we can use stories to drag people apart. And you see this happening sort of again and again in human history. I did not know when I wrote the book that it would become so very relevant now.

First of all, one of the things that we all need to do when we are given a narrative for how something happened, right, is to be able to step back and analyze; who’s telling the story, what’s being added, what’s being left out. And one of the things that I tell kids is because they’ve all had this experience, I tell them, you know, imagine a time when you’re in the kitchen and you’re in the kitchen with a brother or sister, and the pitcher of lemonade gets knocked onto the floor and your mother walks in and she sees the facts, right?

She sees the pitcher on the floor, she sees lemonade everywhere, she sees it’s really sticky, she sees two kids and she says what did you do to you. And she blames you. And she has done is that she has created a narrative. So first, second, third. First, you did some terrible thing and now the pitcher’s on the ground. And her narrative is justified by the facts that she sees. That narrative may be true or it may be false.

And, of course, I tell kids this and they’re like oh, my gosh that happened to me just four days ago. And so I think that that is an experience that a lot of us have in which we have all been, we’ve all fallen prey to being cast as the villain in a narrative that may not be actually true or at least it may not be the whole truth, right?  And so I think that one of the things that I tried to do with this book is I tried to show that these narratives about this witch in the woods they’re all based on true facts, right, and the facts as they understand them.

But all of them have had a narrative that cast those facts in a sinister light. And if they can see that happening in real time, to be able to see how the narrative is telling them one thing, but they already know that this other thing is true, then perhaps that can help my readers to have that same kind of skepticism and that same kind of pushback on a dominate narrative, like is that really how those facts are, is that really the light that these are in?

Or is there another side to this three-dimensional object that I need to go around the entire thing to be able to understand the story as it actually happened not just as it’s being told to me?

That is something that I wrestle with a bit in the book as well. Because in the character of Xan, you know, Xan has her own false narrative as well, right, you know, she goes and she rescues babies in the woods and why are the babies left in the woods?  Reasons. Right?  And she does not push on that. And so she is actually also guilty and she comes to realize that as well. She comes to realize her own culpability that I mean how many decades and centuries of terrible sorrow and misery that she did have the power to circumvent and to end, but didn’t because she couldn’t see beyond the limits of the narrative that she was telling herself, right?

And so I mean even the good character, she’s limited to, and even the good character, Bi, is also guilty of the sin of omission and it is not … we’re guilty not only of what we do but what we fail to do as well. And she failed. So I think that none of us are, none of us get to sort of like pat ourselves on the back too much, because all of us have our blind spots and all of us have just the stuff that we don’t see.

The importance of magic

When I was a little kid I was very open to possibility and I was very open to the notion that the world was more complicated than what met the eye. And part of that was just because I was weird. I was a very weird kid. And I say this, you know, not really as a point of pride, but just as a point of honesty.

And so I really liked going, there was this place, this space near my parents’ house that was, it was the old trolley tracks that, Minneapolis used to have this amazing public transportation system that was demolished by sinister forces from the auto and gas industry, and it was just, you know, just ripped up and gone. And so there’s all these little weird pockets, these weird corridors, where you can still see where the old tracks were and it’s all kind of like these wooded little random forests that just sort of, and they’re all scrubby, it’s mostly invasive woods and all kinds of stuff, but gosh I loved going there when I was a kid.

And it seemed magic to me, because you couldn’t really hear the cars and you couldn’t really see the houses, you were just in this little space of green. And it felt like a magical wood. And it felt like there was magic there. It felt like that to me. And I needed that to be magic, because I was a super lonely kid. I was bullied at school. I wasn’t particularly good at school. There was just not very much that I was very good at. And so I didn’t really know what my place was.

And so I would go over here and I could imagine a place and I could imagine a place that had endless possibilities that were available and also where the world that I was in seemed complex and unknowable and mean to me. And the world that I created in my imagination was also complex and unknowable. But it was hopeful and that my oddness and my not good at things-ness was not a liability, but rather it allowed me to encounter strange and magical things in the realms of my own little mind. So that’s where that came from.

Winning the Newbery

So here’s what happens when a person wins a Newbery, what happens is that your phone rings at five in the morning and it rings and you don’t know who’s on the other end and you answer the phone and it’s a room full of super cheerful and enthusiastic librarians who tell you congratulations and they’re all excited and they’re kind of yelling and you can hear somebody jumping up and down and they’re so thrilled. And all you can do is respond with garbly nonsense because you just woke up and you don’t actually totally believe that this is really true or real life. 

And surely they called somebody else by mistake and they didn’t mean to call you at all. So that’s what it was like for me. But it was good that I live in the state of Minnesota because if I lived in California they would have called me at three in the morning. So this is just how they do it. The thing is that I think that some people are lucky enough that they at least have an inkling that they are likely to get a phone call that morning, because everybody knows when it’s going to be, because there’s been enough conversations and their books have been coming up in a lot of conversations and so they’re aware.

I was not aware at all. First of all, because my books a high fantasy novel and high fantasy novels don’t really win the Newbery, I mean, the last time was 1985 with The Hero and the Crown.

I mean, the nice thing about winning the Newbery is that, I mean, on one hand it’s a lot to take in. It took me a really long time to even process that it was true at all, which caused some like weird conversations because my picture was in the newspaper.

The mayor of Minneapolis declared Kelly Barnhill day and like the superintendent of Minneapolis public schools, because of course I'm a graduate from Minneapolis public schools, came to a ceremony and shook my hand and like it was bananas, right?  I even have the mayor’s proclamation at my house. And it was bananas.

I mean, the time for me when it really started to feel real to me was actually when I was in the state of Texas, because I went down for the Texas Library Association.

And the Texas librarians are a force of nature. But my book was also a Blue Bonnet. And it was the first time that I had been in a … I mean, that conference is huge. There were so many just deep and profound book lovers that are there. And it was the first time that I had really like seen how my book has mattered to some people. And that was deeply humbling to me. And one of the things that we do as writers is that we write our book and we live with our book and we live with these characters and we live with the sound of it and we live with each sentence.

But then we hand it over to our publishers and the book doesn’t belong to us anymore. The book belongs to the reader. And the story is built by the reader. The story isn’t built by the writer, the writer just you know, the writer creates the world and creates the characters and writes a lot of pretty sentences and gives a lot of raw materials and the reader builds the story.

And so to be in that environment and to see the stories that the readers have been building and to be in the presence of this book that isn’t mine anymore and that truly belongs to them that was amazing to me. I’ll never forget it. I’ll never forget it.         

My book box

So for all of my books, all of my books start out with a box, because I can’t write a book right away. I have to think about a book for a long time. And when I start thinking about a book I get a box. And sometimes it’s a shoe box or something it’s an old Amazon box or something. And I will start to let things accumulate in a book into the box. And you know sometimes it will be a sentence that pleases me or sometimes it will be some notes about a character or sometimes it will be some things that are true about the magic.

For The Girl Who Drank the Moon, that book started with a poem and a swamp monster. I was out for a run and I was on this beautiful little wooded trail and I had this sudden image in my head of a swamp monster with four arms and a very long tail and wide damp jaws and one thing that never made it into the book is that his eyes moved independently of one another and he was holding a daisy and he recited a poem.

And the thing is that I don’t think in pictures very often, it’s very rare for me actually.

I think in language, I think in sounds. I think in smells and I think in touch. But I really don’t think in images at all. But when I do get these unbidden visions, this like bright, really sharp picture. So first of all it exhausts me when it happens. But I always pay attention to it. So I stood there and I memorized the poem and I ran home and I wrote the poem down. And it was the heart is built of starlight and time, a pin prick of longing lost in the dark, etc., etc., which is the last poem that appears in the book.

And I wrote it down and I never changed it, I didn’t change a single word. And so I stared at the poem like what is this?  And I just wrote it down on a little note card and then I turned the note card over and I wrote the words swamp monster. And then I stared at that for a little bit and then I wrote his name is Glerk. And then I was like well, crikey, this is a book I think. And so I got a box and I put it in the box.

And so over time I put all kinds of things in the box. I drew a picture of the grand elder Garland’s robes and I drew a picture of the tree house that Xan lived in and I drew a picture of one of the dresses that Luna wore and I wrote poems and I wrote things that were true in the protectorate, I did a lot of research on bogs, because bogs are cool.

And I talked a lot, I wrote a lot about Xan’s magic, I wrote a lot about Xan’s history, just little tiny bits and pieces. And they would all just go in the box. And I usually have to think about a book for about two years, sometimes more, before I can start to write about it. And so by the time I write, I know a lot about what the magic feels like. And I know a lot about what the world smells like and I know a lot about what the bark of the trees feels like, and I know a lot about the texture of people’s hair and I know a lot about the clothes that they wear, because I’ve thought about all of those things.

And so part of getting ready to write a book is to be in that place and to be in that world and to just pay attention. And to pay attention to things that even your characters don’t notice.

I don't always know how the story is going to end, but I know all the details.

Write the stories that move you

I need to sort of recalibrate my soul I read Diana Wynne Jones, because she’s so wonderful and because I like her unruly haphazard magic that she uses. It almost feels like the weeds that spring up between the nice carefully laid out lines of the sidewalk, you know, and it’s just, it’s the stuff of life that takes over when we’re trying to like put order and rules on things. I love her books.

Another thing I do a lot is I read a lot of fairy tales. I read them constantly. And again it’s that kind of baffling storytelling and the immediacy of a fairy tale is so cool to me. But I also read everything. I love reading non-fiction. I just finished, actually I just reread the The Soul of an Octopus, which is such a good book. I love reading stuff like that. And I read a ton of poetry. And also if I need to recalibrate my soul I also go back to Louise Erdrich’s book, Last Report of Miracles at Little No Horse, because it’s wonderful.

One of the things, another thing that I tell kids when I teach writing is I tell them that week we’re going to write the way that real writers write, which is to say selfishly. And I tell them that this is like the big secret that writers don’t tell people that we are writing to entertain ourselves. We are writing to make ourselves question and wonder and feel things.

We are writing to make our own hearts beat a lot and we are writing to make our own, we write to make ourselves laugh and we write to make ourselves cry. When I was writing The Witches Way I was in a coffee shop and got to one particular scene and started sobbing inconsolably. And I wasn’t expecting to, but we write to elicit great emotions in ourselves.

And so I tell kids, you know, you are writing for yourself, you’re going to write to delight yourself. You’re going to write the stories that move you.

Building readers through writing

I get a lot of writing from kids. I mean, they write a lot for me. And part of it is this, that I'm just not their teacher, right?  It’s like how kids will behave way better for the babysitter, right?  And oh, it’s not mom, okay, well then, I’ll do all the things that I'm supposed to do. And so that’s part of it.

But also I think that they don’t get an opportunity to write selfishly in school. There is so much prescriptive reading and prescriptive writing that I think isn’t necessarily good for them. I think that one of the things that I really like to encourage teachers to think about is using creative writing as a tool to build readers, because when kids are writing selfishly, when they are writing for their own interest and joy, they are thinking about the books that make them feel interested and joyful.

And it leads them back to the page. And when they can make something happen on the page, when they can think about a narrative arc and when they can think in terms of beginnings, middles and ends and when they can think in terms of you know laying the ground work for what’s going to happen later on, then they can start to see that happening in the books too and they start to be able to read like writers, right?

It’s sort of like that old truism I listen and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand. They are doing the work and they understand it in a different way. And it makes them a different kind of reader.

Writing nonfiction for kids

My work for Capstone I think is what built me into a children’s author. Writing non-fiction for children, particularly that type of nonfiction, is incredibly difficult work, because first of all you have to research the heck out of it because they have to be correct.

You also have to, you have all kinds of limitations to how you can write the thing. You have all kinds limitations on your vocabulary choice. You have all kinds of limitations on how long your paragraphs can be. But then your books also have to be engaging, they have to be factual and they have to be funny.

So it’s like nonfiction haiku with jokes. It’s really hard. But boy, oh boy, did that hone a lot of skills for me.   

And it was great work for me, because I'm a curious person. I love calling scientists and finding out what they’re doing. I love learning about that guano that was cool for me. I love learning about the history of the sewer system, because the history of the sewer system by the way is amazing, because once a culture, and this knowledge has like come up independently of the other places and they would figure it out and as a result their civilization would flower and then eventually it would get lost.

But the thing is, the reason why their civilization would flower was because once they could figure out that if they had clean water to drink and they were able to get rid of all of the gross germs and everything else from our leavings, then suddenly their babies didn’t die of dysentery or diarrhea or disease. So their babies didn’t die. And then also their kids were not fighting diseases all their entire childhoods so their children were getting bigger and stronger. Their brains were more developed, because they were able to hold onto more of their own nutrition.

And so their brains were developed in a better way. And so suddenly they had better engineers. They had better philosophers. They had better soldiers and stronger soldiers. They had better laborers and stronger laborers. And suddenly they were Rome, right, and take over the world. And in fact, you know, when the barbarian hoards came in to Rome and sacked it, they did two things, they knocked out the sewer system and they knocked out the aqueducts and they brought Rome to its knees.

The sewer system was so important to Rome that they even had a goddess of the sewers, Cloacina. And there was like this two week festival in her honor every single year, because they knew that like this was important stuff. But also the Indis people in what is now Northern India, they had indoor flushing toilets and a modern sewer system back in 4000 BC. So this knowledge has sort of come up. It was so fascinating. I loved learning that. It was so cool.

I learned all about how to maintain water. I learned all about sweat that a human being can run down any animal on earth except for a horse, even a cheetah, because most animals will overheat and we don’t. We can run for days. We don’t like to, we would prefer not, but we can. We literally are built for it. Pretty nuts, huh?  I love that. I love learning stuff.

Stories out loud for struggling readers

I was a delayed reader. And it’s hard for me to say exactly what made me become a reader. I know that it really wasn’t until really the end of fifth grade that I was reading with such fluency that I could read a whole novel and understand it and enjoy it and get to the end. It really took me until then, maybe it was almost sixth grade actually now that I'm thinking about it.

Anyway, it didn’t come naturally to me.

My youngest child, my son, was also a delayed and reluctant reader. And for my son and for me what brought us, what was able to bridge that gap was reading out loud and having books that we shared out loud. So books on tape were really important. But also books as relationships, because I can remember so many aspects, for example, Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens, I loved that book so much.

But every, every moment of that book when I think of it, I hear my dad’s voice reading it, right?  And I remember being on that couch and I remember, it was winter in Minnesota and the windows were leaky and we had metal blinds and they would kind of shake, which added to the tension of the scene. And I remember the touch of the couch and I remember my cat on my lap and I can remember so many of the, sort of the physical sensations of being present in that story.

We think about reading acquisition as being able to answer questions at the end of the passage, but that’s not reading. That’s not reading a book, because a book is a relationship that when we read a book we are doing the work of building the story but we are also opening our hearts and our minds to the experience of the characters. And so we are putting ourselves in relationship with this story, with these characters, with this world.

And so I think that for a kid who is really struggling with reading I think that being … one of the things to have them do in the meantime is to have books that are read to them, either by a parent or by a teacher or to be able to have that experience of a story being shared, because then they are developing all of those great cognitive skills that we need to have in place in order to be good readers, to foreshadow and make predictions and to be wondering and to like be thinking backwards, right, you know, that we need be kind of unstuck in time when we are reading a book, right?

But then also what they also will maintain is that closeness and that intimacy with a book. My son partially because of some pretty harsh reading curricula that was introduced in his school became convinced that he was too dumb to read, which basically broke my heart into a thousand pieces and just refused to read at all.

And sort of his only interaction with books was the books that we shared. And we read every single night. And it was this, it is the time that I treasured and that I still treasure. And when he was ready, when he found the books that spoke to him, when he was able to turn to books as a way of being able to have a world that he could kind of control a little bit, when middle school and everything else got to be kind of a lot, then all of those, then that closeness and the relationship and that knowledge of the relationship was in place. I am so glad that that is what my parents did with me and I’m so glad that that’s what I did with my son.

"Writing is thinking on paper. " — William Zinsser