Artist Spotlight - Kelly Barnhill

You know you’re in for a good week of creative writing when COMPAS teaching artist Kelly Barnhill is in your classroom. Her stories bubble with excitement, magic and fantasy; by the end of the week, so do the stories written by her students. Her latest book, The Girl Who Drank the Moon, has been called “an epic coming-of-age fairy tale,” and has been picked up by Fox Animation for a hybrid live-action/animation! This week we take a look back at an Artist Spotlight we ran on Kelly back in September 2012. Read on to find out how working with kids plays a role in her success...

What’s your writing style/genre?

My work is all over the map, really. My short fiction is for adults, and it ranges from literary to surrealism to fantasy to horror to noir and back to literary. Primarily, I like to explore that no-man's-land between genres. That's where my best writing it. My work for children is all over the map as well. THE MOSTLY TRUE STORY OF JACK, for example, was a hybrid coming-of-age and magical realism, while IRON HEARTED VIOLET is a good old fashioned high fantasy. And my new book is something else entirely. I prefer, in general, to push into new territory with each new project, and to keep myself uncomfortable, and learning.

Will you share a piece of advice for aspiring writers?

Embrace failure. All of us fail - usually a lot. With each failure, we have two choices: we can use our failure as an excuse to give up, or we can use our failure to deepen and clarify our work and make it better. Failure is instructive. Failure builds us into the artists that we are meant to be. 

How does teaching your craft to youth affect your own writing?

Teaching workshops is deeply useful to me as an artist - and transformational. Kids, in my experience, are vigorous thinkers and broad imaginers. Their relationships with the stories they read and the stories they write and the stories they tell is a primal one. They make me think of that line from Walt Whitman: "I too am not a bit tamed. I too am untranslatable. I sound my barbaric YAWP over the roofs of the world." The trick is to let them feel that, hear that, and honor it on the page. When I teach children, I feel the power of their imaginations crashing over me like a wave. I try to think like them and dream like them and sound my own barbaric yawp over the world.

By the end of a week with you, what are 3 things you hope most students have learned?  

First, I want every child to be able to understand what narrative means, and why the process of telling stories is so important to the human condition. Second, I want every child to understand that Story spins from conflict, and conflict is a function of both character and world building. Third, I want them to understand that every story is simply a series of choices - and the ramifications of those choices. And what your characters choose reveals something about them. Just as it reveals things about ourselves as well. We are only known by the choices we make, and the ways in which we interact with the world. Our choices matter, not only for how we are seen and known by the people around us, but in how we tell our most important story: the story of our own, single, and terribly precious lives. 

When does Iron Hearted Violet hit bookstores?

October 9 (2012)! I can't believe it! 

For information on bringing Kelly or another COMPAS artist into your classroom, visit our Creative Classroom page or contact Julie Strand.

This Artist Spotlight was originally published on September 25, 2012.