Published October 31st 2017 by Graphix (first published October 28th 2017)
Format read: Finished copy via publisher
When a mysterious danger threatens the other boys, Aster knows he can help -- as a witch. It will take the encouragement of a new friend, the non-magical and non-conforming Charlie, to convince Aster to try practicing his skills. And it will require even more courage to save his family . . . and be truly himself.
Molly Knox Ostertag shares the story of thirteen-year-old Aster, who is destined to be a shapeshifter because he's male. But he actually has a gift for witchcraft; something only the women of his family practice, and will get him exiled, if he showcases his talents.
However, when the other shapeshifters begin to go missing, Aster realizes that his hidden talents, along with the encouragement of a non-magical friend named Charlie, can be key to solving what's putting the other boys in danger.
One of the reasons The Witch Boy so thoroughly captured my imagination immediately, is the decision to take on an age-old topic: are boy and girl interests separate? Or more specifically in literature, are there boy books and girl books? It's something I've seen argued by many well-meaning (if somewhat misguided parents), and argued against by authors who want literature to be accessible for all.
Ostertag's decision to show just how much of a struggle it can be to be caught up in gender norms - Aster frequently feels isolated, cut-off and alone - isn't an easy storytelling choice, but it's beautifully, thoughtfully done. We never doubt for a single moment that those who are challenging Aster's choices are wrong, and it's important to wholeheartedly support Aster in ensuring his gifts will develop and grow. Consequently, when Aster meets Charlie, someone else who is smashing the rigid boundaries set by gender norms, it's reassuring seeing two kindred spirits have found each other.
However, there's an overwhelming feeling of dread as Aster tries to find his way; his family members and friends are disappearing, and no one seems to be able to know why. Aster quickly realizes that he might be in a unique position to help, and in pure teenage fashion, sets off to do this on his own, with Charlie's guidance.
(However, Ostertag does come up with a clever line to circumvent the usual trope of teenagers doing dangerous things without letting adults know!)
Without giving too many spoilers away, the eventual revelation on the disappearances of friends and family, is a strong, poignant reminder on the acceptance of situations like Aster's, and why it's so important for us to live and let live. Ostertag, to her credit, doesn't resolve the story perfectly; she makes it clear it's still going to be a challenge going forward. However, it's the realism of that ending, which makes this book all the more valuable.
With vibrant art and illustrations that flow off the page like magic - pun intended - this is a valuable read for younger readers and adults alike.
(I'm actually going to slip my ARC into a little free library in my neighborhood, in the hopes of passing on the lessons of this book.)