Kelly Barnhill is a very cool person. I don't know her personally, but you can just tell about some people.
She is a mother of three, a teacher, and a writer (and probably a million other things too). She has written poetry and short stories for adults, non-fiction books for children and, now, her first middle grade debut novel, The Mostly True Story of Jack. As she has said, "I write fiction and nonfiction - things that are Literary and Speculative and Informative and Funny and Frightening and Lyrical and Odd. Sometimes, I do all of these things at once."
Kelly is a writer's writer. "...My life is built on books. I read books, and think about books, and talk about books. In my house, the books mingle, multiply and conquer. There are cities of books, regions and empires. They crowd and compete for space, they swallow resources and build teetering towers that stretch from the floor to the sky." She cares about stories, this is clear, but she also cares very deeply about words - the way words sound, and how those sounds create meaning.
As she says in an interview with Jeff VanderMeer, "Language, language, language. I am not a visual reader or thinker at all. My sensibilities are entirely aural. I like the weight and texture of words, both in the ear and in the mouth." She also tells author John Brown, "Even now, when my house is quiet and my kids are at school, it is difficult for me to call up a mental image of their faces - but the texture and timbre of their voices is with me all the time. And it's always been like that for me as a reader - I'm much more attracted to books with a strong aural sensibility. I like prose that is rhythmic and rich. I think language works best when it is a sensual experience - not just in what it evokes (though that's clearly important) but how it feels in the mouth, how it feels in the ear."
It is fascinating that a writer with such a lyrical, aural sensibility - indeed a passion (or obsession) with it - has written 13 nonfiction books, but Kelly has done just that. And she credits them with teaching her how to write even better fiction. She tells Luc Reid, "I had insanely strict word counts - not only in total, but I had limits as to how long my average sentence length could be, how long my paragraphs could be, how many words could be on each page. It was like nonfiction haiku. But funny. Hardest thing I ever did. The thing is, that work - that painstaking, back-breaking, soul-crushing work - was probably the best thing I ever did. I became ruthlessly economical. I became much more concerned with voice. I learned to see the humor in everything... My work as a nonfiction writer built me into the writer I am now. And really, it convinced me that I really could write for children."
And she certainly can. Not only does Kelly pay particular attention to the way her words-on-a-page sound (she reads and re-reads her work aloud hundreds of times in the process of writing), she tells incredibly quirky, compelling stories. Her themes are unique, but ultimately, universal and important to share. "I think, in a lot of ways, people who write for children are secretly writing letters to the person we were as children. I write fiction because I want to tell the child that [I] was - the lonely child, the struggling child, the hurting child - that friendship is possible, and love is possible, and hope doesn't always hurt. Jack [from The Mostly True Story of Jack] is a painfully lonely person who has never known belonging, never known friendship, never known love. There are, unfortunately, a lot of children who feel like that from time to time - and far too many who feel like that all the time."
See? Kelly is cool. But she is also warm - warm-hearted and deeply committed to her work and to children. "I believe in stories. I trust in stories. Storytelling is hardwired into our brains: it dictates how we think, how we understand the world, and how we make the world new again."
Did You Know?
In addition to fiction, nonfiction, and short stories, Kelly Barnhill writes poetry. After a "ten year hiatus," she returned to the literary genre in September 2011 and commented that, "It felt awkward at first, and insubstantial - like flexing the phantom tendons and imaginary bones of a hand that had long since been amputated. They were ghost poems." To take a look at her work, visit her blog or click the links below:
"Even the Dead are Breathing"
This article was originally published in October 2011, and has been updated for the
September 2012 paperback release.
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