Newbery Medal winner promotes new fantasy book in Brooklyn

Brooklyn BookBeat

March 8, 2018 Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Author Kelly Barnhill. Photo by Bruce Silcox

“I sometimes get asked: Where on earth do your stories come from? And I usually respond with a lie: I have no idea. I do, of course. I know exactly where my leaf-boats and love letters from the dead and snake ladies and un-dead babies and lovelorn giant insects and sentient villanelles come from. I’m a strange person. And I think strange things. And then I write strange stories. Even when I was a little kid, I was the one who looked for faces in the trees and ghosts in the windows. I was the one who knew there were monsters at the bottoms of lakes and that lipstick was poisonous and that it was perfectly plausible to fall in love with an enormous beetle.”

—From “Wings, Wings, Wings,” an essay by Kelly Barnhill

Acclaimed as “a fantasist on the order of Neil Gaiman” by the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Kelly Barnhill is a writer who defies easy classification. Her bestselling novel for young readers,The Girl Who Drank the Moon,” won the 2017 Newbery Medal and was called “impossible to put down … exciting and layered,” by The New York Times.

Barnhill has also written many stories for adult readers, and her singular voice and narrative powers are on full display in “Dreadful Young Ladies and Other Stories,” a collection of nine short works of fiction that explore bold and changeable visions of love, yearning, ignorance, enlightenment, belief and hope — refracted through the original lens of this highly imaginative teller of tales. This week, Barnhill visited Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene to speak about her latest book.

Barnhill’s stories draw their power from their author’s trademark startling metaphors and unforeseeable twists: A widow defies her community and claims an unsuitable creature as her soul mate. A soldier in wartime wrestles with his divided sexuality in a series of love letters to a faraway wife he mostly loves. The poetry of a dead boy refuses to relinquish its power over the girl who once loved him. A witch is plagued by the deadly repercussions of a spell. A man’s new wife may owe her existence to his taxidermy skills. The young women in the title story seek their empowerment through rebellion and imagination.

“I started my career as a short story writer, and will probably continue being one, despite the novels,” Barnhill explains. “Or maybe because of the novels. The short story requires an entirely different set of muscles to build, and uses an entirely different part of the voice. There is, at its center, something immutably miraculous about the substance and process of reading stories. We read because we hunger to know, to empathize, to feel, to connect, to laugh, to fear, to wonder — and to become, with each page, more than ourselves.”

With bold, reality-bending invention underscored by richly illuminated themes of love, death, jealousy and hope, the stories in “Dreadful Young Ladies” cement Barnhill’s place as one of the wittiest, most vital and compelling voices in contemporary literature.

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