Newbery Buzz: The Real Boy

If you have any interest in youth literature at all, you know that the Newbery Award, announced in January by the American Library Association, is the oldest and most prestigious prize given to a children’s book.  The buzz among teachers and librarians for next year’s award begins almost as soon as this year’s is announced, and by now book-watchers have a pretty good idea which titles are under consideration.  The whole process is shrouded in mystery: there’s no shortlist of nominees and committee members are notoriously tight-lipped about the books they’re considering.  But we thought it might be interesting to showcase a few of the year’s most highly-rated books in the lead-up to the ALA Youth Media Awards announcement on January 20.  Janie and Betsy, our designated middle-grade readers, talk over one likely contender:

The Real Boy, by Anne Ursu.  HarperCollins, 2013, 341 pages.  Age/interest level: 10-14real-boy

Janie: The Real Boy was on the short list for the National Book Award and has raked in a lot of starred reviews.  Here’s the premise: On a hilltop on the west side of the magic-haunted island of Alethia perches the “shining city,” protected by a high wall.  The “shining people” going about their charmed lives owe their shininess to magic, which they purchase rather than practice.  The Barrow, a working-class neighborhood at the foot of the mountain, is where they go to buy it from the magic smiths—metal workers, seamstresses, healers, and one true magician, Master Caleb.  Caleb’s wares are mostly little spells and enchantments, but he’s also serving up magic of a far more profound and consequential sort.  But when Caleb’s suspicious apprentice comes to a gruesome end while sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong, Oscar the humble “hand” must come up from the cellar where he mixes potions.  Oscar is unaccustomed to dealing with challenges and he’s is not comfortable in the world of people, where “everyone else seemed to understand each other and no one understood him.”  Fortunately he finds a friend in Callie the healer’s apprentice, though their relationship is hesitant and prickly at first.

As I see it, the main distinction of this magical story is its attitude to magic.  I get impatient with fantasies and fairy tales where the hero is rescued time and again by the aid of some otherworldly device.  The Real Boy takes time to ponder what magic is and how to use it: “The wizard’s job was to discover that core element [i.e., the unique energy that made each natural thing what is was] and coax that energy out.  Magic was manipulating these energies and making them work together.”  But—and this is crucial—there are always consequences, whether good or evil: it’s a lie that “you can have magic without monsters.”  What struck you most about this book, Betsy?

Betsy: The Real Boy is certainly distinctive in several areas (“distinctive” is the word that gets bandied about in Newbery circles). Ursu’s characterizations of Oscar and his friend Callie are quite well done. The theme is also striking. Taking some of the same thematic elements of Pinnocchio, The Real Boy asks questions about the meaning of suffering, of the need for perfection, and about each person’s identity. [Spoiler alert] There is a moment when Oliver thinks he is made of wood and that seems to explain his social awkwardness to himself. But the reality is much darker: because the parents of the Shining City wanted to avoid all suffering for their children–and look better themselves, they actually purchased wooden children. I find this, as a parent, disconcerting: even while it’s disturbing, I can see myself in these parents as I, too, wish to spare my children suffering. The ways we think we love our own family members is often more self-serving than we’d like to admit. The consequences of both Caleb’s (the magician) creation of these children and the parents’ desire to have these children are simultaneously horrifying and heart breaking. But it gives Oscar and Callie both a chance to shine and demonstrate their unique gifts. Did you see the same character growth and thematic distinction? Were you glad Oscar wasn’t labeled “autistic” or something similar? Did the wooden children come as a surprise to you?

Janie: Yes it was—the discovery scene is downright creepy.  I appreciate your thoughts about the complex parent-child relationship as depicted here. Regarding labeling, the story doesn’t reach for easy answers.  It was surprising in a number of ways (in order not to “over-spoiler,” I’ll just say that there are more plot twists to come).  One possible downside: the overall tone is rather solemn—not much comic relief, if any—and kids who are accustomed to jokey novels may have a hard time getting in to it.  Nevertheless, it’s beautifully written with sharp observations that grab attention.  I especially like that magical ills are cured by natural means: the hidden blessings folded into creation.  The story could serve as a parable for the countless ways we misuse God’s creation and don’t expect the consequences (natural and judicial) to fall on our heads.  I don’t know if that was the author’s intention, but every reader takes out of a good story what he or she brings to it.  That said, did anything strike you as “off” or not believable?

Betsy:  I liked the magical maladies being cured by natural remedies, too! Nice touch, that. Astute readers of fantasy may question Ursu’s treatment of Magic as sort of entity in itself with its own appetite and its own need for healing when there’s a breach. I won’t say more, but the outworking of the “whys” and “wherefores” behind the children may not satisfy everyone. Still, it’s a well written book that fantasy and non-fantasy lovers will both enjoy. I recommend it!

We’ve been Newbery watchers since Redeemed Reader began.  Here’s our coverage of the awards for 2013, 2012, and 2011.  This fall’s National Book Award winner might be possible Newbery fodder, too: here’s Betsy’s review.

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One Response to Newbery Buzz: The Real Boy

  1. Caryn January 17, 2014 at 9:00 pm #

    Lovely review ladies! I just finished this one a few days ago (I’m behind in my Newbery-possibles reading!) I too was thoroughly in love with the treatment and discussion around magic. In a society that tends to over-entertain with magic, I loved the seriousness of Ursu’s approach and the nearly constant shifting of the “bad guy” so to speak. I was also struck with the less than “happy ending” of the whole thing and how those consequences continue to play out instead of being solved in a short span with a tidy finish. My only disappointment, I guess, was that I really liked Malcolm the baker and was hoping to see/hear more from him. Great read though, and great review!

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