The Girl Who Drank the Moon is a timely story that warns against ignorance, the danger of unchecked sorrow, the strength required to walk a path separate from the expected, and above all, the importance of always asking questions. While the author wrote the story with a 5th grade reader in mind, like any truly good children’s book, I think it would be equally enjoyable for adults, even though they may not read the same story between the covers.
I first found this book on an outing (ok, pilgrimage) to one of my favorite bookstores; Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon. On that cold December morning, as my children scoured the shelves for ways to make the most of their holiday gift money, I sat perched at a tiny table in the children’s section where I had set up a temporary home-base for the children to deposit their selections before finally sifting through them and making the difficult decision of what is (and consequently isn’t) going to be purchased. It will of course be of no surprise to anyone, that despite my best efforts, I managed to grab a rather substantial selection of random books that had caught my eye while I was on my way to that little table, and as I waited for the children to come and share their discoveries with me I began to read them.
The Girl Who Drank the Moon, is the only book I remember looking at that day, because unlike the others that I had flipped through before opening it, once I began to read it, I could not put it down.
The story begins with a harassed mother answering her child’s questions about the witch who lives beyond their village gates, and how once each year the youngest child is left in a clearing for her to take, and what would happen if they didn’t leave a child. The way the author managed to have you hear the persistent and earnest tone of the questions of the child, without ever giving him/her a single line of dialogue was genius. In fact, for the entire first chapter, we only ever hear the mother’s responses, which are both informative and vague. Right from the start, it is clear, that this is something that is not to be talked about, but is to be greatly feared and absolutely to be obeyed with private sorrow and silent resignation, even when the loss is personal.
However, what the people of this town don’t know, is that while there is a 500 year old witch named Xan, who lives beyond the town out in the forbidden forest, it is not she who demands these children be left in the forest. Rather, it is she who rescues them, takes them to loving families, and nourishes them with starlight along the way. That is until one day, when she accidentally feeds one of these sacrificial children moonlight instead of starlight. Knowing that she cannot safely place a child who may have become enmagicked into an ordinary family, and also because she falls in love with her, Xan decides to keep the child whom she names Luna. Together with Glerk, an ancient swamp monster poet and Fyrian, a tiny dragon who believes he is immense, she raises Luna as her own.
The story that unfurls is a beautifully written fantasy novel that integrated a number of different traditions, ideas, and cultures, without mentioning outright any in particular. There were definite elements of Western and Eastern thinking, folklore, magic, and culture. And yet whether this was by design or happy accident, I cannot say. All I can say is that it works. It works for the story, and I think it also works for the reader. Because the world described is both vague and all encompassing, I think that any reader can find themselves within the pages of this novel. Luna is described as having dark hair and olive skin, a vague enough description where she could be from almost any where on the planet. Xan, outside of having a name that sounds as if it might be Asian in origin, is described only as being old and (at least at the beginning of the story) a little on the heavy side. Other than this, very little description, if any, is given about what the people in this story look like. I think this is rather fabulous, because the people of the story will ultimately look however the reader would like to imagine them to be.
I think what I loved most about this book, was that it spoke of poetry, magic, math and science, as being inseparable and indispensable. Magic is used for both good and evil, but in either direction, like any great power, can be quite volatile and may not always be controlled. Within the witches workshop there were gears and tools, maps and charts, and science books. The ancient swamp monster who quoted the Poet, the way others may quote a prophet, states his intentions to teach the child not only poetry but also mathematics. This liking, of art, science, and the mystic, rather than treating them as mutually exclusive further acts to include more readers of varying backgrounds and beliefs. I love that.
While I cannot guarantee that you will love this book, I can honestly say that I think it would be pretty hard not to. It has all the elements of a good story: love, loss, a quest, family, secrets, and magic, all offered from multiple perspectives and wrapped up in a well thought out and fully formed immersive world.