A Q&A with K. O'Neill, Author of March/April Kids’ Indie Next List Top Pick “The Moth Keeper”

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Independent booksellers across the country have chosen K. O'Neill’s The Moth Keeper (Random House Graphics) as their top pick for the March/April Kids’ Indie Next List.

The Moth Keeper follows young Anya, the new protector of the lunar moths, a role that affects the survival of the Night Village, as she learns what proving her worth really costs.

“A beautiful children’s graphic novel full of wonder, magic, warmth, and a touching story about community, responsibility, and burnout,” said Caleb Masters of Bookmarks in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “The Moth Keeper is a special book that readers both young and old will find humor and meaning in.”

Here, O'Neill discusses their process with Bookselling This Week.

Bookselling This Week: Your love of and connection to nature is evident in The Moth Keeper, both in the story and the illustrations — from the Moon-Moths, Night Flowers, and the desert. I would love to learn more about your craft of visual storytelling and how nature has influenced it.

K. O'Neill: To me, nature is healing and delightful, while reminding me of my place in the wider balance of things and my smallness. There is a rhythm in nature, particularly in Aotearoa, between the huge and sublime, and the small and detailed. Rhythm I think is one of the most important factors in a graphic novel — knowing when to draw back and breathe, and when to move from beat to beat. I also wanted to try and portray a specificity of setting within a fantasy context, and I’m fortunate to have incredible landscapes on hand to study and draw from.

BTW: Early on in the role, Anya knows the importance of the Moth Keeper to the night village’s survival. She shares, “I want to become a light for others. I want to hold my lantern up high for everyone.” This internal pressure continues to build throughout the story. Can you share more about this idea of burnout and places to look for support?

KO: Burnout can take so many different and complicated forms. I think it can be hard for anyone but especially for young people to identify even as they experience it. It can be the exhaustion of working hard in school on a subject you are passionate about, or even caring emotionally or physically for someone you love very much. As an author, it is the complex feeling of doing what I love for a living and having to manage the mental and physical toll the work takes. That’s why in this book I wanted Anya to have a complicated experience of burnout — her community is very important to her, and the job she is doing is noble. At the same time, I wanted to question whether the burden that noble job takes is an issue that she needs to solve alone.

BTW: Anya comes to realize being a Moth Keeper can be lonely and isolating. She thinks to herself, “If my lantern went out right now, would I even exist anymore?” Can you talk about the feeling of insecurity and unraveling in young people?

KO: As a young person, I felt very insecure about my path in life. I struggled to recognize good qualities in myself and didn’t value my skills enough to believe I could ever make a career out of them. Specifically, I really struggled with questions of, “what if I did this, or what if I had done that?” And that was at a time when I had a lot less social media to skew my perspective! I can’t imagine how much more challenging it is for young people these days to overcome feelings of insecurity. Whatever the source, I think the solution is the same — though not at all simple. It is accepting both your strengths and shortcomings equally and without shame, and fully inhabiting the life that is yours to live.

BTW: Anya’s friend Estell shares, “I used to think the pollen was a gift just for us, but so many things rely on it throughout the desert. That’s the magic of it — it’s part of the rhythm of nature. Everything is connected.” Can you share more about how nature (and the magic of simple things) is reflected in the community spirit of the night village?

KO: The people of the night village have long quiet hours to spend crafting and processing food together. They use what is naturally abundant to them and all pitch in to produce what they need and no more. That, to me, is the essential spirit of a balanced co-existence with nature, and naturally produces a deeper appreciation for well-made things, for the pleasure of cooking and making and giving to others, and the various abundances that come with the seasons.

BTW: Along the lines of a community spirit, independent bookstores serve a vital role in local communities. How have independent bookstores played a role in your life?

KO: Creating books can sometimes feel like isolating work — I think that’s one of the main feelings I drew on when depicting Anya’s experience of a lonely occupation. Whenever I step into my local independent bookstore and browse the children’s and graphic novel sections in particular, it reminds me of the wonderful ecosystem of creators that I am very lucky to inhabit. It helps me feel more connected to what I make, inspired to do the best work I can, excited to see what has recently arrived on the shelf.

I have also done some wonderful events at independent bookstores, and I’m so grateful that the kind staff offered their time and energy to an event that allowed me to connect with their local community. At each event, I treasure both the interactions with readers that I may never have otherwise been able to meet, and the generosity of the staff.