Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #297: The Witch Boy by Molly Knox Ostertag

I spent years in the story mines as an editor, reading bits and pieces of stories so I could reject them more quickly. That gave me a level of cynicism about standard plots and tropes that most mortals can only dream of -- which is nice if you think of it as a superpower, but not so nice if you realize that it means I enjoy a lot of things a lot less than people who haven't been through that kind of work.

And I find that reaction comes out most strongly when I'm looking at books for younger readers. It's only natural that those books rely on time-proven ideas and feature sturdy, recognizable characterization and center on plots that are equally mythic in structure. That's what that audience needs, and it's electric when it's done well.

But my mind tends to focus on ticking all the boxes on an "I've Seen This Before" checklist. And I need to remind that mind that I'm not the audience, and this standard Startling Reversal will not only actually be startling to most readers, but exactly the thing those readers need to see.

So I'm going to try not to grump about Molly Knox Ostertag's The Witch Boy, which is lovely and positive and thrilling in ways that were a lot more familiar to me than they will be to the kids who need this story today.

It's set in our world, the secret history version -- Aster is a preteen, and his family, and a few others, have a tradition of magic, which of course means they are the secret protectors of all mankind. All of the boys grow up to be shapeshifters; all of the girls grow up to be witches -- they can be nothing else. But Aster wants to be a witch, and has never had a dream of animal spirits.

He keeps trying to eavesdrop on the girls' lessons, keeps getting caught, keeps being taught that what he feels he must do is wrong -- and is soon told that his grandmother's twin brother tried to become a witch, became a menace, and had to be driven away by force.

You know where this is going, right?

Ostertag gives Aster a big family full of people with interesting faces, and a new friend in the  non-magic side of town. And she makes this very traditional journey new and true for a generation of young people growing up right now who might be told that what they feel they must do is wrong.

(Is the opposite lesson that whatever you feel most strongly must be right? Well, there's time enough to refute that in other books.)

If you're over the age of twenty-five, this is probably not a story you need to be told: you know it already. But there are thousands of people under that age -- more every year -- who do need to be told it. And The Witch Boy, coming from Scholastic and looking bright and shiny with Ostertag's awesome art, will be there in libraries and schoolrooms and book fairs across the country for them to find.

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