the moth keeper

Author K. O’Neill may be familiar to graphic novel fans already as the author of The Tea Dragon Society series from Oni Press. I started reading O’Neill’s stories even before that, as webcomics! Now with a new publisher, The Moth Keeper is their most recent graphic novel, and a delightful one at that. The Moth Keeper is evidence of the evolution and maturation in O’Neill’s art, and as such it is a delight to behold, while maintaining the cozy charm inherent in their earlier works.


the moth keeper by k. o'neill book cover
Anya is finally a Moth Keeper, the protector of the lunar moths that allow the Night-Lily flower to bloom once a year. Her village needs the flower to continue thriving and Anya is excited to prove her worth and show her thanks to her friends with her actions, but what happens when being a Moth Keeper isn’t exactly what Anya thought it would be?

Night after night, it is lonely in the desert, with only one lantern for light. Still, Anya is eager to prove her worth, to show her thanks to her friends and her village. But is it worth the cost? And yet something isn’t right. When Anya glimpses the one thing that could destroy what she’s meant to protect, her village and the lunar moths are left to deal with the consequences.

K. O’Neill brings to life a beautifully illustrated fantasy with lush, gorgeous art and intricate world-building. A story about coming of age and community,
The Moth Keeper is filled with magic, hope, and friendship.


Anya lives in the Night Village, a small nocturnal community of animal-human hybrid creatures in the desert that depends on the Night-Flower and its Moon-Moths for survival. As the story opens, Anya is just starting an apprenticeship as a Moth Keeper. While it’s one of the most essential and important jobs in the village, it is also isolating and lonely – the Moth Keeper must be away from the community working during both the everyday and special ceremonies. Will Anya learn to make her peace with a life of solitude, or let her memories and the pressure of her new role overwhelm her?


While this heartwarming middle grade fantasy has many highlights, one of the most magical elements is its mythology. O’Neill has created a whole world, including a creation myth, festivals and rituals to celebrate important moments, an ecology and economy tied into the climate and nocturnal/diurnal rhythms, and characters with struggles and strengths, extensive backstories, and flashbacks. In other words, there are layers upon layers of history, care, and society in this graphic novel, and they are all skillfully interwoven and expertly illustrated. I particularly enjoyed how O’Neill revealed the history of the moths and the village’s dependence on them, and the moon-blinded ghost – those scenes were clever, poignant, and dreamy.


The Moth Keeper is a story told almost entirely in the visual medium. Dialogue is not missing, but on many page spreads is not the point – O’Neill asks readers to connect with the landscape, the dreams, and the multitude of details of Anya’s world through observation. Taking the time to fully take in the art is a must – this is not a volume to rush through. And the art itself does not disappoint!


Speaking of the art, the areas where I see the most evolution in O’Neill’s style are the linework, illustration of light (or lack thereof in a nighttime world), and in the illustrations of the desert landscape and ecosystem. In scenes where characters discuss the past or historical tradition, the linework is thicker and more smudged, paired with missing borders around each panel for a less finished look. This lends a dreamlike feeling to those images. In contrast, the rest of O’Neill’s artwork is contained neatly within hand drawn, black-bordered panels with a white gutter. Most pages have many smaller panels of varying sizes and shapes – there is a sort of magic in the studied irregularity throughout the book as a whole. Full two-page spreads are few and far between, and startling for that. O’Neill’s work with light – especially the bobbing lantern that Anya carries each night to lure the moths into following her, and the gradations of sunrise – is of especial note. I was enchanted following light sources from panel to panel (that might make me a special comics nerd, who knows!) almost as much as by the variety of creatures populating the Night and Day villages. At the end of the book O’Neill discusses her inspiration for the landscape and ecosystem of The Moth Keeper, and includes rough landscape and plant studies – these will help readers understand the many, many hours of work, research, and care that go into creating the details of a graphic novel world. The art as a whole is particular, full of depth, and at the same time dynamic and engrossing. It is an artistic feast.


On its surface, The Moth Keeper is a story about adjusting to adult responsibility, making peace with the past, and finding one’s place in the world. However, it invites deeper reflection and multiple rereads, and reveals more secrets and beauty each time, as only a masterpiece can. I adored it.


Recommended for: fans of K. O’Neill and the Tea Dragon series, Wendy Xu, Snapdragon, and The Witch Boy, and anyone looking for fantastical middle grade graphic novels with lots of heart and gorgeous artwork.
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