HEY REMEMBER WHEN WE WERE A BOOK REVIEW BLOG
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.