Kelly Barnhill is one of the foremost manufacturers of dragons. A mom, teacher, and author, she creates these creatures in her small blue study just off a well-used kitchen in her Minneapolis home. Once these new monsters are in good shape, she sets them free in books.
Her 2016 novel, The Girl Who Drank the Moon, won the prestigious Newbery Medal, one of the biggest prizes in children’s literature. The dragon in that book is tiny and hangs out with a good, gnarled witch who saves babies in the woods.
In her most recent children’s book, The Ogress and the Orphans, a dangerous, glinting dragon comes to town, disguised as a slick politician. And in her first novel for adults, When Women Were Dragons, published earlier this year, ordinary American wives and mothers sprout wings, spit fire, and fly.
All these dragons, sent flying by one mom in running shoes. It got us wondering: What are Barnhill’s secrets to leading a life that gives her clear access to those wells of creative imagination deep inside, where fairy tales and myths are born?
“I go out with my dog trail running nearly every day. Just hearing birdsong, feeling the soft ground, moving my body — there’s a particular joy of breathing deeply while surrounded by trees that gives me a sense of calm that I need inside.”
Writing By Hand
Barnhill has written all of her books in longhand, in small notebooks. “It all started because my kids were little: If I had a notebook, I could write at a moment’s notice. But I noticed right away that when I was writing longhand the connectivity of my ideas was much deeper, and more unexpected, and I was able to associate and riff off ideas that I couldn’t access by screen.”
Longhand writing is believed to activate different areas of your brain, and Barnhill thinks it’s particularly powerful for artists. “You get access to metaphor, image, creativity, and association I don’t think you can access otherwise. It’s quiet, it’s tactile, and it brings up all sorts of sensory material.”
Drawing on Beauty
“There’s no happier vacation than going camping in a national park. When my husband and I were young, we worked for a summer at Olympic. Since then, we’ve taken the kids to the Everglades, Shenandoah, Yellowstone, Glacier, Rocky Mountain. National parks make me feel so patriotic. They are the jewels of our country, and when you see something that beautiful, it really gives you beauty you can draw on forever.”
Meditating on and Drinking Tea
“I am a near-constant tea drinker. The meditative part, the way tea can’t be rushed — there’s a whole process that forces you to stop and simply be for a moment, and I think that’s really important. We get so distracted and overwrought by so many things assaulting our brains all day. But with tea, you have to turn on the kettle and wait for the kettle, then pour the water and wait for the tea; then you sit down and you’re holding this warm thing — I find it all profoundly pleasurable. Look at one of my books and behind it is thousands of cups of tea.”
This article originally appeared as “Imagining Dragons” in the September 2022 issue of Experience Life.