Review: The Ogress and the Orphans by Kelly Barnhill

By Luanne Clark

Kelly Barnhill is an award-winning author of children’s chapter books. In 2017 she won the prestigious Newbery Award with The Girl Who Drank the Moon. She’s back with a new book, The Ogress and the Orphans. It looks to be an instant children’s fantasy classic. And it’s one that can be enjoyed by readers of all ages.

The Ogress and the Orphans would make a great bedtime story for 6-9 year olds. It’s got dragons and villagers and bad guys and good guys and trouble and adventure and fire and castles and crows and a blind dog.  And, of course, it’s got an ogress and 15 beloved orphans. Something for everyone! On the simplest level it’s a well-written, captivating story to be enjoyed by the listener and the reader. 

The target audience for The Ogress and the Orphans is the middle grades reader. There’s just so much to celebrate here. There are themes to dig into like community, empathy, and autonomy. And Barnhill’s exquisite use of language and imagery is something that will draw the young reader into the world of Stone-in-the-Glen. It’s children’s literature at its best.  “A story, in the mind of a reader, is like music. And discussing stories among other minds and other hearts feels like a symphony.” Isn’t that great language for young readers? 

Even though not intended for the adult reader, I thoroughly enjoyed it and would recommend it wholeheartedly. Barnhill’s prose is vibrant and thought provoking. The Ogress and the Orphans  has so many layers. It’s an allegory for the human experience and the dangers we face if we abandon love and generosity. “It only takes some people doing good to encourage many people to do good….It is the best sort of magic.”

Our story begins and ends in the village of Stone-in-the-Glen. It’s a happy community full of beauty, culture, and friendly citizens.The local orphanage has 15 young residents and is cheerfully supported by village resources. Then, one awful day, the library mysteriously burns to the ground. “Books flew out the melting windows like panicked birds, their wings bright and phosphorescent.”

The fire at the library is followed by disaster after disaster. Each new trial drives

the citizens further apart. Soon the common areas are empty, the residents wary and hesitant to engage. Using the scarcity of food and resources as an excuse the village stops supporting the orphanage. Matron and Myron do the best they can for the orphans but it’s a hand-to-mouth existence.

Into this depressed and depressing scenario enters The Mayor. He is golden. He is dynamic. He is charismatic. He says what the people want to hear. He delights in the discord as he taxes the poor villagers to fill his coffers.

 Another newcomer to Stone-in-the-Glen is The Ogress. Because of her appearance and past experiences with humans she is shy and builds her home on the outskirts of the village. Although she has her crow friends, she longs for human interaction. Through her telescope she watches the villagers and sees their troubles; she responds with compassion and generosity. She bakes. And gardens. And makes art. On any given morning a villager may find a plate of cakes or a box of vegetables or a beautifully drawn picture on their doorstep. These anonymous gifts help keep the orphans from the brink of starvation.

When one of the orphans runs away in order to leave more for the others left behind, The Ogress finds her unconscious in the forest. She nurses Cass back to health and returns her to the Matron and Myron. In the meantime, The Mayor foments discontent: he stirs the villagers into hating The Ogress and incites them to violence against her. Even though the children try to tell the adults that The Ogress is their benefactor and a great help to the village, no one believes them. “What’s the use of truth when people refuse to believe verifiable facts?”

But-not to worry! Truth does prevail. The power of love and generosity is restored. The Mayor is unmasked, The Ogress is welcomed, and Stone-in-the-Glen is once again a village of caring citizens. Kelly Barnhill’s new novel is a moving story of empathy and community. Above all, it asks the question: What is a neighbor? It’s a question worth examining.