Anya lives in a nocturnal desert village, a close-knit community where all kinds of people work together to survive. Every aspect of life here depends on the magical pollen of the Night-Flower tree, and the tree depends on the pollination of the Moon-Moths. These creatures are fragile, needing the protection and care of a Moth Keeper. The Moth Keeper spends every night—when the village is awake – out in the desert with the Moths. The position is a lonely one, but vital to the community. That’s why Anya, who wishes desperately to be useful and valued, has pledged to become the next Moth Keeper.
The nights are long and cold, and spending so much time alone beneath the endless desert sky has Anya questioning everything, from her own abilities and worth to whether she even wants to live in the night-village. Are things better in the neighboring sun-village, which sleeps at night and wakes during the day?
Anya’s best friend worries about her, and her mentor encourages her to transition into the job more slowly, but Anya is determined to prove herself. Refusing help and insisting she is fine, Anya pushes herself until she makes a dire mistake. The Moths are lost, and the Night-Flower tree is dying. Can Anya get the Moths back in time to save her village? And even if she does, is there a future for her as a Moth Keeper?
Fans of K. O’Neill’s award-winning Tea Dragon Society books will find in this story a new fantasy world with some familiar touches. Like those books, this has a cozy setting full of kind, well-intentioned characters (who also, incidentally, seem to drink a lot of tea). Both include characters with animal-inspired design elements, like Anya’s fox ears and tail, which are taken for granted as part of the world.
O’Neill’s bio says that they “strive to make books with themes of kindness, inclusiveness, and well-being”. These ideas permeate this story, in which we see what can happen when Anya fails to recognize her own limits, but also see her learn to depend on others and find strength in her community. The editor’s note at the beginning of this book describes this story as being about burnout, which is an extremely timely topic. Here, burnout is treated not just as something that Anya must overcome, but also as something her community must remedy by recognizing that the Moth Keeper job might be asking too much of any one person, and that Anya needs their support.
The artwork is softly colorful, its palette full of twilight blues and the earth tones of the desert. Both inside the village and out in the desert, the settings are full of interesting details and curving, organic shapes. The character designs are whimsical and varied: there are humans, centaurs, and people with wings and feathers or animal tails and ears, and they wear thoughtfully designed clothes and accessories. The lineart is loose and relaxed, drawn with fine lines, so that even the detailed settings feel spacious and spare, not dense or crowded.
There are touches of sadness in this story – Anya comes from an unhappy family situation, another character has not seen his parents in the sun-village for a long time, and Anya meets a wandering spirit with a lonely tale. Ultimately, though, this is a hopeful story of kind people helping and supporting each other. Hand it to fans of the Tea Dragon Society books and other gentle, positive fantasy.
The Moth Keeper
By K. O’Neill
Penguin Random House Graphic, 2023
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13)
Creator Representation: Nonbinary ,