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'Dreadful Young Ladies And Other Stories' From A Self-Proclaimed 'Strange Woman'


Kelly Barnhill won the prestigious Newbery Medal last year for her children's story "The Girl Who Drank The Moon." Her new book "Dreadful Young Ladies And Other Stories" is just as fantastical but delves into darker, more complicated worlds for adult readers. There's a woman and her Sasquatch lover, a professor who happens to be a giant insect, a witch, an inquisitor, a taxidermist. Kelly Barnhill joins me now from Minnesota Public Radio in Minneapolis. Welcome to the program.

KELLY BARNHILL: Thank you so much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to talk about your book, of course, but I have to ask you about the bio on your website first. It says Kelly Barnhill writes books. It's a strange job. But to be fair, she is a strange woman, so perhaps it makes sense.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: What does that mean? What makes you so strange?

BARNHILL: (Laughter) Well, I think for those of us who make their living by their imagination, it's kind of a little bit par for the course. I think that I've always been the sort of person that tends to think in hyperbole - and trying to find the strange in the normal and the normal in the strange - you know? - which means that I will sort of wander about in the library - and finding weird bits of information that I can't shake and I can't get rid of. And then it ends up coming into my stories a little bit.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell me about how that might have made its way into one of these stories.

BARNHILL: Well, so, for example, I have a story in the collection called "The Taxidermist's Other Wife." And that story came from this bizarre fascination with taxidermy that has kind of followed me in my life. When I was first a teacher, my husband was in graduate school, and we had a little baby. And we had this neighbor who was a taxidermist. He had started doing what's called rogue taxidermy, which is, like, making chimera animals. It's like, you know, kind of look...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's like sticking different bits of animals together to make something else.

BARNHILL: Yeah, like with squirrels with bat wings or whatever.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Now I'm beginning to understand your work a little better.

BARNHILL: Indeed. And what he said was, you know, I don't know what's going on with me, but I can't start a project without wanting to give it wings. And I have never been able to shake that notion and that sentence of wanting to allow a thing to transform into something else.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In an essay you wrote, you compared your own storytelling to taxidermy. What did you mean by that?

BARNHILL: Yeah. So what I meant was that - I mean, when we write a short story, we are trying to pin down this moment of time. And we're trying to create something that has never been alive. And we are trying to give it eyes and skin and breath and to make it live it for the reader and to make them feel astonished or to take their breath away or to break their hearts.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what binds these stories together for you? I have my theory, which, of course, I will tell you...

BARNHILL: Oh, good.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Which is, in a way, this series of stories is a rumination on what women are allowed and not allowed. It seems like in every story, there's a woman in it or a girl, and it's about the limits to her agency, if you will, and how they get around that.

BARNHILL: Yeah, absolutely. But it's also - I mean, I think that you can't really escape the notion of gaze, as well, because for all of them, these are women who have been kind of pigeonholed by the gaze upon them. And maybe that's a parental gaze, or maybe that is a male gaze, or maybe that's a community gaze, right? And I think that that is a fairly universal predicament that we find ourselves in.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You won the Newbery Medal last year, which is amazing. Where do you think it's at for female authors in terms of, you know, their recognition and how their work is acknowledged and received now?

BARNHILL: Yeah. Well, that's a work in progress. You know, I think that we are in the midst of a conversation that is not always very comfortable. And it's good that it's not comfortable because, sometimes, in order to get to the truth of the thing, we have to make ourselves uncomfortable. I think that a lot of people are starting to ask very serious questions about how we listen and how we read and how we put a premium on certain voices and put a discount on others. And I think that because of that, we're trying to open ourselves up to voices that we might not have heard before. And I think that that conversation is a long time coming.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Kelly Barnhill - she's speaking with us from the studios of Minnesota Public Radio. Her new book is "Dreadful Young Ladies And Other Stories." Thank you so very much.

BARNHILL: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.