Robin McKinley Seeks to Create Boundary-Breaking Fantasy | The Newbery at 100

Robin McKinley, who won a Newbery Honor for The Blue Sword in 1983 and the Newbery Medal in 1985 for The Hero and the Crown, discusses her introduction to the fantasy genre and her dedication to centering complex female characters.  

Robin McKinley Newbery books


Robin McKinley won a Newbery Honor for The Blue Sword in 1983 and the Newbery Medal in 1985 for The Hero and the Crown (both Greenwillow/HarperCollins). She has published 10 additional novels, several picture books, and a handful of short story collections. Whether she’s reworking fairy tales and legends or writing original high fantasy, her writing is characterized by sensory imagery, vivid settings, and memorable female characters. Her work has impacted not just the Newbery canon, but the fantasy genre, too.


The Newbery Medal spoiled high fantasy readers with The High King (1969), The Grey King (1976), and The Hero and the Crown (1985), but it would be more than three decades before The Girl Who Drank the Moon (2017) would represent the genre again. What draws young readers to the fantasy genre and to high fantasy, in particular?

I am gleefully in the process of becoming a hermit and I haven’t been a young reader in well over half a century; I can’t generalize. When I was first looking for books to read I was drawn to fairy and folk tales—Oz and Dr. Dolittle, Edith Nesbit and Edward Eager. 

When I was a kid, what we think of now as high fantasy hadn’t been invented yet. And then I found Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings—ahead of the curve, I might add. This was in the early 1960s when American college students were about to turn LOTR into an international phenomenon. One of them was the elder brother of my best friend in junior high, and he sent her LOTR one volume at a time over Christmas, birthday, and Christmas again. No, the local library didn’t have it. Yes, we had to wait a year and a half to find out how it ended.  

The simple answer to what was, and still is, so attractive about fantasy is the otherness of it—the otherness and the bigness. The variety. The possibility. Kids are naturally wild imaginative dreamers, yearners after greatness, even if they’re not sure what sort they’re yearning after. 

My view may be exaggerated by the sort of child I was, the sorts of friends I had, and the kids—and grown-ups—who talk to me now as the author of fantasy stories they have enjoyed (or, in a few cases, not enjoyed). 

Ordinary real life, with the laundry and bills to pay and taking the trash out—or the homework and the mean teachers and the cliquey school politics—can feel stifling. Fantasy is one way to take flight out of the ordinary. It’s not the only way, but it’s a very good one for those of us with minds and imaginations built on those lines. LOTR undoubtedly changed my life. It is far from perfect—it is, for example, one of the places where my burning need for capable, interesting, active women characters in the books I read came from—but when I was 11, it gave me wings. 

The audience for the Newbery goes up to—and includes—the age of 14. Some people might argue that your books push up against that boundary, but fantasy readers tend to be ambivalent about such age recommendations with adults reading children's books and children reading adult books. What's your take on this phenomenon? 

I don’t like hard boundaries. I’m afraid I think the idea that Newbery books are only for readers up to the age of 14 is nonsense, and I would hazard that all the real readers out there—including hard-working librarians trying to get the right books into the right hands—agree with me. It doesn’t even seem to me a very useful guideline. I appreciate that not every teacher or YA librarian can read every book, but a thus far and no farther is a door slamming shut. 

I do think that kids should have the chance to be kids for as long as their age says they’re kids (I realize many children do not have this chance), and this does require some adult direction. Most of my books can be and are read by precocious preteens, but I really don’t want kids that young reading Sunshine or Deerskin

While your debut novel, Beauty, did not receive Newbery recognition it is arguably your most popular book and has become a seminal influence on the fantasy subgenre of novel-length fairy tale retellings (which you further contributed to with Deerskin, Rose Daughter, and Spindle's End). What is the enduring appeal of fairy tales? And what is gained in telling familiar stories in new ways?
There’s been a lot of twaddle written about fairy tales (get thee behind me, Bruno Bettelheim, thou patriarchal git). I will add a little of my own, saying that while fantasy takes you out, fairy tales take you in. Fairy tales tell you things about human nature and the human condition that mere reality can’t reach. That bears a lot of retelling.  

However, both my book mail and my sales figures disagree with you that Beauty is my most popular book. I am happy (and relieved) to say that I get book mail for everything I’ve written—the huge majority of it positive, but with the occasional grumble or snarl—and from readers of all ages. What might have been interesting, 40-plus years ago, if I’d thought of it, was to keep a tally of how much mail I get for the fairy tale retellings & how much for the more straightforward fantasy. Too late now.  

Your other books continue to demonstrate great range within the fantasy genre, from Sunshine to Chalice to Pegasus, each of which has passionately devoted fans. You are also an accomplished writer of short stories, and I would be remiss if I didn't mention that your collections with your late husband Peter Dickinson—Water and Fire—are personal favorites of mine. Do you have a particular fondness for any of your books? And would you care to share anything that may be in the works?
The usual response to which of one’s own books is or are favorites is that it’s like asking which of one’s children one prefers. I’d take it in a different direction. It’s like asking which you like better, zebras or wallpaper? Having just been through a monster house renovation, I never want to think about wallpaper again, although I’m extremely pleased with what I chose and the gloriously precision-minded wallpaperer put on my walls. But that’s the mood I’m in. Wallpaper is good. So are zebras.

The years since my husband died have been a bit rough, and now there’s a global pandemic to oppress all of us. But at least one private thing is sorting itself out. I don’t know how long the novel I’m writing is going to take me; it’s very much a departure and is very demanding in all sorts of new ways. But I’m very glad to be storytelling again.


Jonathan Hunt is a coordinator of library media services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee. You can follow him on Twitter @jhunt24.

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