Kelly Barnhill


We whine a lot about the vapidity of YA here, and at the same time I think we’ve also tended to overlook Children’s. There’s a lot of amazing stuff going on in kid lit right now. I’ve found children’s novels to be rich, complex, and challenging works with deep social themes and creative storytelling. It’s certainly far more interesting than YA. The cynical part of me wonders if this is because it’s aimed at boys as well as girls. More seriously though, I suspect this is at least in part because people who write YA do it either largely at a publisher’s behest, either dumbing down their already-successful adult work or making adjustments to a manuscript because publishers see YA as a cash cow right now and want much more (I’d guess there’s a lot of letters going out that say, “Well, we don’t see this as an adult novel, but we’ve spoken to Janet in YA who’d be willing to pick it up if you could make it work for that demo…”). On the flip side, people tend to write for children because they want to, and when you start out a project and end with the same goals, you get a better product.

Whatever the reasons, if you’re looking for deep works for young readers, Children’s is where to go right now, and Kelly Barnhill’s novels are a perfect encapsulation of the amazing stuff going on in the genre. I’m not through her whole catalogue yet, but am working toward it.

Tangentially, she’s also written an adult short story collection that I found phenomenally disappointing. She just doesn’t seem to be a great short piece writer, which is weird since the afterword said she preferred shortform. Hopefully she sticks to novels in the future.

The Witch’s Boy

I read this so loooong agooooo. The Witch’s Boy is about a woman who keeps magic sealed away in a jar, and when she’s imprisoned her son has to save her. The problem with the magic is that it’s evil, and to use it you have to do a whole battle of wills thing with it, and if you try to use it selfishly it will inevitably corrupt you, which we know because the one time the witch tried to use it selfishly was when one of her kids died and she accidentally bound his soul inside the soul of the surviving kid. Also there’s a bad king and good queen and lots of other stuff.

Shit I should have written this sooner.

The Girl Who Drank the Moon

I think this was probably the weakest of the three, at least from a worldbuilding perspective, though it was still very a cute story and I definitely rec it. The central conceit is that each year a kingdom leave a baby as a sacrifice to a witch in order to placate her, but actually the witch just shows up because the town keeps abandoning babies for seemingly no reason and she doesn’t want anything bad to happen to them. She usually takes the children to a nearby kingdom to be adopted, but one year she accidentally enmagicks the baby, and decides to raise it for herself. Hijinks ensue, and eventually the magic-baby has to save the town.

In addition to the trope subversion, the story has some good commentary on religious organizations, masculinity, and the importance of standing up to authority, even when it’s hard. There’s also a really interesting subplot exploring the fact that sometimes, even if you help someone, they’ll respond cruelly, and the moral there isn’t that you shouldn’t help people, but it’s also not that you should always help people anyway. It’s a subplot about it being okay to be selfish for your own protection, which isn’t something we see very often.

Iron Hearted Violet

Iron Hearted Violet is really about beauty standards, and the damage they do, and the way they make us hurt ourselves. It’s also about stories, and how powerful the tales our culture tells are, and the effect they can have on people who don’t see themselves in them. I think this is an important book in this cultural moment. I found some of the protagonist’s thoughts familiar to the point that I wonder if Barnhill either has a history with eating disorders or knows someone who does. This scene in particular hit me, as it’s basically a transcription of thoughts I deal with every day:

It’s about a young princess named Violet, who is ugly, and despite the fact that her family and friends love her, hearing stories about beautiful princesses slowly wears down her self-worth, to the point that she’s ripe fodder for an evil god trying to make bargains. In her desperation to be beautiful, she unleashes the evil god, but she’s smart and capable and brave, and she’s also the only one who can defeat it.

This book is interesting in that it has an incredibly unreliable narrator that’s done very well, far better than a lot of adult books. In addition to very valuable lessons about cultural messages and body image and male-female friendship, it’s also a great book for kids who like to write and want to learn about writing in an accessible way. It does a lot of really interesting things with narrative, tropes, and form.

While this was unsurpringly my favorite of Barnhill’s books so far, I was super disappointed in the artwork, which depicts violet as a generic fantasy princess. It’s like the artist saw ‘ugly’ and could only picture a woman being average-looking. Either no one on the art team actually read the story or they were all so immune to irony we should bottle their dopamine.


  1. Roarke says:

    It’s like the artist saw ‘ugly’ and could only picture a woman being average-looking. Either no one on the art team actually read the story or they were all so immune to irony we should bottle their dopamine.

    This attitude/perception has seemed to get worse and more pervasive as entertainment generally becomes more visual, honestly. What’s that trope, Hollywood Homely or something? It sounds pretty much like that.

    Honestly, if I’d read these reviews without your disclaimer at the top, I’d have assumed they were just YA books. I’m really happy to see meaty fare like this offered to children.

    Oh, and I finished The Witcher books. I came out with a somewhat middling opinion, I dunno. It was definitely a hundred times stronger in the beginning, and so much of the treatment of Ciri in the later books just gave me pause.  

  2. Keleri says:

    These sound great! I should really read more children’s books, I’ve enjoyed Tamora Pierce’s aimed-at-slightly-younger-readers Circle of Magic books far more than her YA, for instance.

  3. Cosmogone says:
    >>The cynical part of me wonders if this is because it’s aimed at boys as well as girls.

    Naaah, boys’ YA sucks ass too, it just uses different tropes. Though, come to think of it, I’m not sure boys’ YA exists in the USA as a defined genre?

    Hm. I’ve always felt that it’s not like there are necessarily more good children’s writers, it’s that the good ones always seem to be incredibly prolific. Maybe it’s because, as you say, people who write for children actually enjoy their job.

    As for the recs themselves, these books sound pretty damn great. What strikes me the most, though, is that the themes and ideas you mentioned are of the “family-unfriendly” kind. …Okay, I realise that’s a weird statement, as there are quite a lot of works targeted at the younger audience that sorta deal with body issues and nobody would consider them family-unfriendly. What I mean is that you almost inevitably have a reveal that the girl was ∽beautiful all along∽ while Iron Hearted Violet seems to be much more… honest? I wonder if nobody can be arsed to edit children’s lit and that why you can get away with stuff you’d be told to tone down in a different genre.

    As a side note, do all good children’s books have human sacrifice or some other gruesome shit in them? Asking for research.

    1. CrazyEd says:

      … I’m not even sure I can name what I’d consider a YA novel specifically marketted at boys besides, like… books about thirteen year old boys in the woods with gumption written at least twenty years ago.

      1. Hyatt says:
        Ready Player One?
        1. CrazyEd says:

          Eeeeh, see, I do think Ready Player One was targeted to a young adult male audience, but not a Young Adult male audience, if that makes any sense. The YA market demographic is, at least on paper, teens about 13/14 to 17, and everything I’ve seen of RPO makes me see it as something meant for dudes ages 18 – 24. Young adults from the perspective of adults, rather than young adults from the perspective of teenagers who want to be seen as more mature than if they were reading a book labeled Teens.

          1. Roarke says:

            I agree with you. I remember reading The Pendragon Adventure as a sprout. I don’t have the feeling, thinking back, that it was really targeted at girls of the same early teen demographic. That’s what I think of as like, male YA, since apparently Dresden Files doesn’t count. 

          2. Cosmogone says:
            To be fair, Ready Player One appeals to nobody except it’s author, but I don’t really see how it’s not YA. It’s definitely targeted at 15-17 year olds. Maybe it feels like it was written for an older demographic because you try to approach this book like a reasonable person who realises that most teenagers don’t give a shit about the eighties?

            To answer your question, though, I can think of Maze Runner, the Percy Jackson series, John Green’s wank material BESTEST MOST FEMINIST NOVELS EVAR, The Bartimeus Trilogy, stuff like that. (Tangentially, how gender segregated are genres in America? Going by the information I have  it seems like a lot, but I don’t want to assume)

            1. Act says:

              Tangentially, how gender segregated are genres in America? 

              Phenomenally so. This was actually the subject of my last term paper, and will probably be what I write about again in the fall.

            2. Cosmogone says:
              Well, damn. I sorta hoped I was just drawing premature conclusions based on outliers.

              I’ve asked because you brought up the discrepancy between children’s lit and YA, which reminded me about a bunch of articles I’ve read back when Hunger Games first came out. They all talked about how teenage boys don’t pick up female writers because there’s societal pressure for them not to. Fair enough, I gues… except the idea that a kid would be bullied for reading, for example, Song of the Lioness was presented very matter-of-factly and the core message instead was that women should “step down” and let men write more books which, huh? Point is, I still have no idea how common this line of thought is and when this sort of policing even starts if children’s lit is more relaxed about gender.

            3. Actislazyandwontlogin says:
              Yeah, boys are not supposed to read ‘down’ but girls are expected to read ‘up.’

              It all dates back to the turn of the last century, when the middle class started to flourish and books became inexpensive and accessible — the big panic was that a) women and b) the aspirational middle-class would suddenly have access to art, not only consuming but writing it, and thus that art needed to be devalued or pulled out of their reach.

              Weirdly, it didn’t affect the poor or POC in the same way, since they were seen as lesser in a way that lent them authenticity, so art by them was more ‘natural’ even if it was intellectually inferior. This is how, for instance, you can see such awful misogyny in the Harlem Rennaissance — the pushback against women included black men acting out against black women for the same reasons white men were pushing away white women.

              But yeah, you can draw a straight line from the current hypersegregation in the markets to moral outrage about women reading in the 1910s.

            4. Cosmogone says:
              W E W. Okay, that explains quite a lot. Thank you for elaborating.)
  4. Farla says:

    I remember being really impressed by the YA section at the library when I was younger, especially in comparison to what I’d find in the adult book sections which were so often one idea padded to ridiculous length. Even then, I suspected that because YA was thought of as so much lesser than adult books, and not going to have much of a shot at the bestseller lists, you had to write something actually great for a publisher to want it. Then that changed.

    I wonder if, now that children’s fiction is where the actual good writing has migrated too, we’ll see adult readers and their money colonize and ruin it. Maybe eventually the cool plots will wrap all the way around into adult fiction and the cycle can begin anew.

  5. SpoonyViking says:

    :-( My poor, poor rec! It deserved better.

    1. Act says:

      I really liked it, if it helps! xD

  6. illhousen says:

    The central conceit is that each year a kingdom leave a baby as a sacrifice to a witch in order to placate her, but actually the witch just shows up because the town keeps abandoning babies for seemingly no reason and she doesn’t want anything bad to happen to them.

    Alright, this is really hilarious.

    Kingdom people: A witch has taken residence near us! We must placate her with a child sacrifice lest she would eat all our children!

    Witch: What the fuck? Why is there a baby in the woods? Better take it somewhere for adoption or something.

    Kingdom people: The witch has accepted the sacrifice! We’re safe! But for how long? Better make sacrifices for her every year!

    Witch: …Another baby? Is it, like, a tradition for them or something? Whatever, off for adoption you go.

    Kingdom people: Oh, what a cruel fate has befallen us! But we must endure! Bring on the next baby!

    1. CrazyEd says:

      The central conceit is that each year a kingdom leave a baby as a sacrifice to a witch in order to placate her, but actually the witch just shows up because the town keeps abandoning babies for seemingly no reason and she doesn’t want anything bad to happen to them.

      … I’ve actually written something like this before.

  7. SpoonyViking says:

    Out of curiosity, is “The Neverending Story” also sold in America as a YA novel?

    1. Actislazyandwontlogin says:
      I think of it as Children’s, but I also think it predates YA as it currently exists.
      1. SpoonyViking says:

        Oh, yeah, definitely. I ask because here in Brazil it’s classified as sort of the equivalent of YA, which is completely silly – hell, I’d argue against classifying it as Children’s literature.

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