Kelly Barnhill was sound asleep Monday when her cellphone rang at 5 a.m., blasting the theme from the TV show "Wonder Woman" and jolting her awake. (Her kids had changed her ring tone.) On the other end of the line was "a room full of extremely happy librarians," delivering the news that Barnhill had just won the highest honor in children's literature, the Newbery Medal, for "The Girl Who Drank the Moon."
"I am just completely gobsmacked by this," Barnhill said. "I haven't totally wrapped my head around it yet, actually."
Right after she got the call, she tiptoed into her son's room to tell him. "Leo, Leo, wake up! I have really big news! I won the Newbery!"
"And he said, 'The real one?' "
Barnhill, 43, who lives in Minneapolis with her husband, three children and a dog, is a graduate of South High School and St. Catherine University in St. Paul. "The Girl who Drank the Moon" is her fourth book for middle-grade readers and has been optioned for a movie by Fox Animation.
It's the story of a village that, every year, leaves a baby as a sacrifice for a witch who lives in the forest. The witch accidentally gives magical powers to one baby and decides to raise her as her own. Enter a young man who decides he must kill the witch, and …
"My book feels much darker to grown-ups than it does to children," Barnhill said. "Fourth- and fifth-grade kids, they're very global thinkers. They are literally in the process of writing the universe with every step they take through the world. The world around them is wondrous and strange and complicated and sometimes terrifying. I think that is the type of book that I aspire to write, this book that exists on many levels at the same time."
She spent a long time thinking about this book before she started writing it. "Years," she said.
One of the characters — a monster named Glerk — popped into her head one day when she was out for a run. "Suddenly there's this image in my head of this swamp monster with four arms and eyes that moved independently of one another and he was holding a daisy and saying a poem."
She ran home and wrote down the poem, and the story began to grow.
The book was a New York Times bestseller and was widely praised, ending up on many year-end "best-of" lists. In its review, the Star Tribune called Barnhill's book a novel "filled with wisdom and heart."
Minnesota writer Kate DiCamillo, winner of two Newbery awards, said, "I am over the moon about Kelly Barnhill winning the Newbery. This is a magical, potent book, and Kelly is a wonder."
Barnhill teaches arts education in Minnesota schools through the COMPAS program and has received awards from the Jerome Foundation and the Minnesota State Arts Board, and was a 2015 McKnight Writing Fellow. She has been a finalist for a Minnesota Book Award and a PEN/USA literary prize.
Her next book, "The Sugar House," is to be published in 2018. "It takes place in Minneapolis — not named, but people here will recognize it. It's a retelling of 'Hansel and Gretel,' " told from the point of view of a 12-year-old boy. "No matter what he does, people will perceive him as a bad boy. He's not a bad boy at all, but he does make some real dumb choices at times."
That line between perception and reality, "how we use stories to embolden and empower people, to separate or cause fear," has long been of interest to her. "That's a thing I think about a lot," she said. "Little did I know in this age of falseness and the alteration of how we perceive things that it would be so seismically topical."
In recent years, Minnesota has been a growing presence in the world of books for children, with Barnhill and DiCamillo as well as writers Anne Ursu, Stephanie Watson, Mary Casanova, John Coy, Alison McGhee and many others hitting bestseller lists and winning major awards.
In addition to the Newbery Medal, the American Library Association announced several other awards on Monday. Minneapolis writer Caren Stelson won a Robert Sibert honor for her nonfiction book, "Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor's Story," published by Minneapolis publisher Carolrhoda Books. "Sachiko" was also longlisted for a National Book Award.
The Robert Sibert Medal went to U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia for "March: Book Three," a graphic novel about the civil rights movement. Lewis' book took four awards on Monday and in November won a National Book Award.
The Caldecott Award, the top award for illustration, went to "Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat," written and illustrated by Javaka Steptoe. That book also won the Coretta Scott King award for best illustration.
The full list of American Library Association winners is online at www.ala.org.
Laurie Hertzel • 612-673-7302