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Kelly Barnhill lives in Minnesota with her husband and three children.
She is the author of four novels, including The Girl Who Drank the Moon, winner of the Newbery Medal. for the year’s most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.
The Witch's Boy received four starred reviews and was a finalist for the Minnesota Book Awards.
She is also the winner of a World Fantasy Award and a Parents’ Choice Gold Award. She has also been a finalist for the NCTE Charlotte Huck Award, the SFWA Andre Norton Award, and the PEN/USA literary prize.
Photo credit Janna Fraboni
Otherworldly, yet rooted in patriarchal realities, Kelly Barnhill‘s When Women Were Dragons is a storytelling masterwork. Set from the 1950s, it presents a magnificent maelstrom of fire-breathing women who refuse to keep quiet, exposing the trauma of enforced silence, and shining a blazing light on how vital it is to transcend imposed shame and live your own way. “I was four years old when I first saw a dragon. I was four years old when I first learned to be silent about dragons. Perhaps this is how we learn silence — an absence of words, an absence of context, a hole in the universe where the truth should be”. So shares Alex, the narrator of this brilliant novel, who lives at a time when adults remember the “mass dragoning” of women that occurred on 25th April 1955, but never mention it. Alex’s aunt Marla was among those who rose up and transformed into a dragon, but it’s as if she never existed. Marla is never spoken of again - not by Alex’s sick mother, and not by Alex’s father, who leaves her to raise Marla’s daughter Beatrice. Before her transformation and vanishing, Marla told Alex that, “All women are magic. Literally all of us. It’s in our nature. It’s best you learn that now”. Fearing little Beatrice won’t be able to resist her powerful urges to dragon, Alex shuns any such notions, and silences Beatrice’s talk of dragons. But librarian Mrs Gyzinska, who supports Alex’s plan to become a mathematician, shares her learned insights, and frames the phenomenon of dragoning in the context of patriarchy: “There are people who have problems with women, and alas, many of them are also women. That is because of something called the patriarchy… an unnecessary and oppressive obstacle, and best disposed of as soon as possible.” As Alex grapples with tremendous conflicts and prejudice, we’re presented with a spectacular prom scene, a tense but glorious reunion, a beautiful love of a lifetime, and glorious sisterhood. What a story.
April 2022 Book of the Month | Generosity over greed, kindness over cruelty, unity over division, and the power of books, Kelly Barnhill’s The Ogress and the Orphans is an exceptional allegorical adventure, with its guileful, all-knowing narrative voice (readers are instructed to “Listen”) and sparkling characters casting a captivating spell. “Once upon a time, when it was a lovely town”, Stone-in-the-Glen used to glow with trust and kindness between neighbours, but not anymore. “It was said that the Library housed the heart of the town. And the mind of the town”, and so everything changed the day it burned down. Now the townsfolk have put their faith in the Mayor (apparently a dragon slayer), and lost their former munificence. And the only inhabitants aware of this cruel shift are the fifteen children of Orphan House, who were “studious and hard-working and kind. And they loved one another dearly, ever so much more than they loved themselves”. When one of the orphans goes missing, the town turns on the Ogress, who is, in fact, also “hardworking and kind and generous. She also loved others more than she loved herself”. Indeed, the calm kindness and generosity of the Ogress sits in stark contrast to the suave, sweet-talking, self-serving Mayor, an exquisitely-crafted villain who might just bring a few politicians to mind, with the prejudicial scapegoating of the Ogress also striking a powerful chord. It falls to the orphans to expose the true villain of the piece, to change opinions of the Ogress, and to restore goodness to their town. Alongside the thrilling, enchanting quest and message of kindness, the author shares messages about the power of books: “The ideas and knowledge contained inside their pages have mass and velocity and gravity. They bend both space and time. They have minds of their own. There is a power in a book that surpasses even that of a dragon”. What a wondrous, timely triumph — I adored every perfectly-placed word. We were thrilled that Kelly joined The LoveReading LitFest to talk about the joy of storytelling. You can find a preview of this event and sign up to become a member. The LoveReading LitFest is a digitally native, all year round, online literature and books festival, with new content released every week is a free-for-all-users festival.