The following passage is excerpted from Kelly Barnhill’s 2017 Newbery Medal winner The Girl Who Drank the Moon.
For as long as Xan could remember, every year at about the same time, a mother from the Protectorate left her baby in the forest, presumably to die. Xan had no idea why. Nor did she judge. But she wasn’t going to let the poor little thing perish, either. And so, every year, she traveled to that circle of sycamores and she gathered the abandoned infant in her arms, carrying the child to the other side of the forest, to one of the Free Cities on the other side of the Road. These were happy places. And they loved children.
When Xan arrived at the grove, there was no baby to be seen, but it was still early. And she was tired. She went to one of the craggy trees and leaned against it, taking in the loamy scent of its bark through the soft beak of her nose.
“A little sleep might do me good,” she said out loud. And it was true, too. The journey she’d been on was long and taxing, and the journey she was about to begin was longer. And more taxing. Best to dig in and rest a while. And so, as she often did when she wanted some peace and quiet away from home, the Witch Xan transformed herself into a tree—a craggy thing of leaf and lichen and deep-grooved bark, similar in shape and texture to the other ancient sycamores standing guard over the small grove. And as a tree she slept.
She didn’t hear the procession.
She didn’t hear the protestations of Antain or the embarrassed silence of the Council or the gruff pontifications of Grand-Elder Gherland.
She didn’t even hear the baby when it cooed. Or when it whimpered. Or when it cried.
But when the child opened its throat into a full-fledged wail, Xan woke up with a start.
“Oh my precious stars!” she said in her craggy, barky, leafy voice, for she had not yet un-transformed. “I did not see you lying there!”
The baby was not impressed. She continued to kick and flail and howl and weep. Her face was ruddy and rageful and her tiny hands curled into fists. The birthmark on her forehead darkened dangerously.
“Just give us a second, my darling. Auntie Xan is going as fast as she is able.”
And she was. Transformation is tricky business, even for one as skilled as Xan. Her branches needed to wind back into her spine, one by one, and the folds of bark devoured, bit by bit, by the folds of her wrinkles.
Xan leaned on her staff and rolled back her shoulders a few times to release the kinks in her neck—one side and then the other. She looked down at the child who had quieted some, and was now staring at the witch in the same way that she stared at the Grand-Elder—with a calm, probing, unsettling gaze. It was the sort of gaze that reached into the tight strings of the soul and plucked, like the strings of a harp.
“Bottle,” Xan said, trying to ignore the harmonics ringing in her bones. “You need a bottle.” And she searched her many pockets to find a bottle of goat’s milk, ready and waiting for a hungry belly.
With a flick of her ankle, Xan allowed a mushroom to enlarge itself enough to make a fine stool to sit upon. She let the child’s warm weight rest against the soft lump of her midsection and waited. The crescent moon on the child’s forehead dimmed to a pleasant shade of pink, and her dark curls framed her darker eyes. She was calm and content with the milk, but her gaze still bore into Xan—like tree roots hooking into the ground. Xan grunted.
“Well,” she said. “There’s no use looking at me like that. I can’t bring you back to where you were. That’s all gone now, so you might as well forget about it. Oh hush now,” for the child began to whimper. “Don’t cry. You’ll love the place where we are going. Once I decide which city to bring you to. They are all perfectly nice. And you’ll love your new family too. I’ll see to that.”
But just saying so made an ache in Xan’s old heart. And she was, all at once, unaccountably sad. The child pulled away from the bottle and gave Xan a curious expression. The Witch shrugged.
“Well, don’t ask me,” she said. “I have no idea why you were left in the middle of the woods. I don’t know why people do half the things they do, and I shake my head at the other half. But I am certainly not going to leave you here on the ground to feed some common stoat. You’ve got better things ahead of you, precious child.”
The word precious caught strangely in Xan’s throat. She couldn’t understand it. She cleared the debris from her old lungs and gave the girl a smile. She leaned toward the baby’s face and pressed her lips against the child’s brow. She always gave the babies a kiss. At least, she was pretty sure she did. The child’s scalp smelled like bread dough and clabbering milk. Xan closed her eyes, only for a moment, and shook her head. “Come now,” she said, her voice thick. “Let’s go see the world, shall we?”
And wrapping the baby securely in a sling, Xan marched into the woods, whistling as she walked.
And she would have gone straight to the Free Cities. She certainly intended to.
But there was a waterfall that the baby would like. And there was a rocky outcropping with a particularly fine view. And she noticed herself wanting to tell the baby stories. And sing her songs. And as she told and as she sang, Xan’s step grew slower and slower and slower. Xan blamed the onset of old age and the crick in her back and the fussiness of the child, but none of those things was true.
And Xan found herself stopping again and again just to take yet another opportunity to unsling the baby and stare into those deep, black eyes.
Each day, Xan’s path wandered farther afield. It looped, doubled back, and wiggled. Her traverse through the forest, normally almost as straight as the Road itself, was a twisty, windy mess. At night, once the goat’s milk was exhausted, Xan gathered the gossamer threads of starlight on her fingers, and the child ate gratefully. And each mouthful of starlight deepened the darkness in the child’s gaze. Whole universes burned in those eyes,—galaxies upon galaxies.
After the tenth night, the journey that usually only took three and a half days was less than a quarter done. The waxing moon rose earlier each night, though Xan did not pay it much mind. She reached up and gathered her starlight and didn’t heed the moon.
There is magic in starlight, of course. This is well known. But because the light travels such a long distance, the magic in it is fragile and diffused, stretched into the most delicate of threads. There is enough magic in starlight to content a baby and in large enough quantities to reveal the best in itself. It is enough to bless, but not to enmagic.
Moonlight, however. That is a different story.
Moonlight is magic. Ask anyone you like.
Xan couldn’t take her eyes off the baby’s eyes. Suns and stars and meteors. The dust of nebulae. Big bangs and black holes and endless, endless Space. The moon rose, big and fat and shining.
Xan reached up. She didn’t look at the sky.
(Did she notice how heavy the light felt on her fingers? Did she notice how sticky it was? How sweet?)
She waved her fingers above her head. She pulled her hand down when she couldn’t hold it up anymore.
(Did she notice the weight of magic swinging from her wrist? She told herself she didn’t. She said it over and over and over until it felt true.)
And the baby ate. And ate. And ate. And suddenly she shuddered and buckled in Xan’s arms. And she cried out—once. And very loud. And then she gave a contented sigh, falling instantly asleep, pressing herself into the softness of the witch’s belly.
Xan looked up at the sky, feeling the light of the moon falling across her face. “Oh dear me,” she whispered. The moon had grown full without her noticing. And powerfully magic. One sip would have done it and the baby had had—well. More than a sip.
Greedy little thing.
In any case, the facts of the matter were as clear as the moon sitting brightly on the tops of the trees. The child had become enmagicked. There was no doubt about it. And now things were more complicated than they had been before.
Xan settled herself cross-legged on the ground and laid the sleeping child in the crook of her knee. There would be no waking her. Not for hours. Xan ran her fingers through the girl’s black curls. Even now, she could feel the magic pulsing under her skin, each filament insinuating itself between cells, through tissues, filling up her bones. In time, she’d become unstable—not forever, of course. But Xan remembered enough from the magicians who raised her long ago that rearing a magic baby is no easy matter. Her teachers were quick to tell her as much. And her Keeper, Zosimos, mentioned it endlessly. “Infusing magic into a child is akin to putting a sword in the hand of a toddler—so much power and so little sense. Can’t you see how you age me so, girl?” he said over and over.
And it was true. Magical children were dangerous. She certainly couldn’t leave the child with just anyone.
“Well, my love,” she said. “Aren’t you more troublesome by half?”
The baby breathed deeply through her nose. A tiny smile quivered in the center of her rosebud mouth. Xan felt her heart leap within her and she cuddled the baby close.
“Luna,” she said. “Your name will be Luna. And I will be your grandmother. And we will be a family.”
And just by saying so, Xan knew it was true. The words hummed in the air between them, stronger than any magic.
She stood, slid the baby back into the sling and began the long journey toward home, wondering how on earth she’d explain it to Glerk.
The New York Times bestseller
Every year, the people of the Protectorate leave a baby as an offering to the witch who lives in the forest. They hope this sacrifice will keep her from terrorizing their town. But the witch in the Forest, Xan, is kind. She shares her home with a wise Swamp Monster and a Perfectly Tiny Dragon. Xan rescues the children and delivers them to welcoming families on the other side of the forest, nourishing the babies with starlight on the journey.
One year, Xan accidentally feeds a baby moonlight instead of starlight, filling the ordinary child with extraordinary magic. Xan decides she must raise this girl, whom she calls Luna, as her own. As Luna’s thirteenth birthday approaches, her magic begins to emerge–with dangerous consequences. Meanwhile, a young man from the Protectorate is determined to free his people by killing the witch. Deadly birds with uncertain intentions flock nearby. A volcano, quiet for centuries, rumbles just beneath the earth’s surface. And the woman with the Tiger’s heart is on the prowl . . .
The author of the highly acclaimed, award-winning novel The Witch’s Boy has written an epic coming-of-age fairy tale destined to be a modern classic.