When Minneapolis writer Kelly Barnhill won the Newbery Medal, her life changed in ways she could never have predicted.
The main one: She no longer felt invisible.
“My e-mail became a federal disaster area,” she said. “There were FEMA tents all over the place! Nobody prepared me for that. I had 300 Skype requests within 24 hours of winning the Newbery. I would open my e-mail and I would cry.”
Barnhill, who has written four books for middle-grade audiences, actually wasn’t invisible before winning the highest honor in children’s literature a year ago. Her books had been bestsellers, had won various awards and had been named best books of the year by Kirkus, Library Journal, the New York Public Library and Entertainment Weekly, among others.
But it’s true that the Newbery raised her profile considerably. It did other things, too.
“On the positive side, what the Newbery gave me was a feeling of time,” Barnhill said. “Winning the Newbery meant that I suddenly had breathing room, because nobody expects you to turn anything in immediately.”
What did Barnhill do with the time? She put aside the middle-grade novel she had been working on — “I needed to let this book breathe a little bit,” she said. “I just need to listen to it a little harder so it can become what it wants to become.”
And instead she pulled together a collection of short stories. For grown-ups.
In some ways, the stories and novella that make up “Dreadful Young Ladies and Other Stories” (to be published Feb. 20 by Algonquin) are not terribly different from the novels she writes for middle-grade children.
They have strong female characters; they’re set in exotic unnamed countries with fantastic landscapes; they’re about love and responsibility and freedom and despotic rulers and the importance of story and serious changes in the environment — in other words, they are political; and they all involve some kind of magic.
But, she maintains, these stories are most definitely for grown-ups.
Fables with a political edge
“I think kids are interested in big, juicy stories,” she said. “They like big stories, big ideas, these big choices that you can’t undo. Those big, first-time choices.”
Adults have already made those choices, she said. “And so our view is not so much forward, it’s actually back. Kids look forward, teenagers look inward, and adults look back. That’s one of the reasons why these are definitely stories for adults. The view is different than a story for children.”
Barnhill has been writing short stories for years, and all of the stories in this book have been published elsewhere, in speculative-fiction journals such as Shimmer, Tor.com and Sybil’s Garage.
The opening story in the collection, “Mrs. Sorensen and the Sasquatch,” sets the tone for the book. It’s about a childless widow who falls in love with Sasquatch. She takes him to church with her, hopes to have him baptized, fills her home with his friends — all creatures of the forest — while her neighbors gossip and speculate.
In small towns, even in big-city neighborhoods, “Everyone has a clear idea of what someone should be doing with their life or their choices,” Barnhill said. “And sometimes people become extremely invested in how somebody else is making their choices. People get very invested in stories. And so with Mrs. Sorensen, that story at its heart is a story about true love and family, but it’s also a story about faith and what does it mean to be a loving person and what does it mean to live a life of faith.”
Barnhill chose to tell that story not by pussyfooting around with delicate symbolism, but by placing a big hairy Sasquatch right in the middle of the action: “Mrs. Sorensen brought her Sasquatch to church,” she writes. “The Sasquatch wore nothing other than Mr. Sorensen’s father’s old fedora hat, which was perched at a bit of a saucy angle. It held Mrs. Sorensen’s hand in its great left paw and closed its large bright eyes.”
Stories that defy genre
Are these fables? Fairy tales? Fantasy? Science-fiction? Speculative fiction? Perhaps they are all these things.
“Whenever we can get people to move slightly out of their comfort level is a good thing,” Barnhill said. “It’s why when I write for adults I like to write stories that aren’t easily classifiable. They sit on the edge of genre. I think it makes people uncomfortable, and I want people to be uncomfortable.”
The heart of the collection is a novella, “The Unlicensed Magician,” which was published two years ago in Great Britain and won the World Fantasy Award for long fiction.
The story is about a girl called Sparrow who is born with magical powers and who is being raised secretly by a junk man and his former lover, the egg woman. It has the feeling of a fairy tale. But it opens with loudspeakers blaring disinformation from the country’s Dear Minister, which makes the story one that could be set in North Korea or even in modern-day America.
The Dear Minister knows of the magical girl’s existence, although he doesn’t know who or where she is. He wants her magic for himself, so he deploys the army to find her.
“I think that I’ve always been a political person, and I think that this notion of how we enact justice in the world and how we subvert justice in the world — these questions are tied to every kind of fiction that I write,” Barnhill said.
“They all ask these questions of who are the haves, and who are the have-nots, and how we choose to distribute power or resources or money or even magic. If magic is a resource, there’s going to be some people trying to keep it all for themselves.”
Barnhill will launch the book Feb. 20 at Magers & Quinn in Minneapolis, and then she’ll set out on book tours, to Chicago and Milwaukee, and the East Coast, and Texas and the Santa Fe book fair.
And then maybe back to that middle-grade novel? What’s the status of that, anyway?
“Ha ha ha ha ha,” she said. “My editor asked the same thing.”