Johanna Albrecht, children’s manager of Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, N.C., talks about a September middle-grade novel that drew her in.
I was a fairly early reader of The Witch’s Boy by Kelly Barnhill, since our store is only a few miles away from Algonquin Books, the book’s publisher, and we often get first pick of their newest titles. While at times I felt The Witch’s Boy was too long or cumbersome for young readers, overall I think it will satisfy kids and parents searching for an epic story.
Barnhill writes just the sort of books I loved at age 11: serious, folkloric fantasy with no-nonsense heroines. The Witch’s Boy is set in a land of atmospheric mystery, with dangerous legends that keep villagers out of a shadowy forest and powerful magic that only one woman in the kingdom can control. When Sister Witch’s twin sons take their raft too far onto the turbulent river nearby, only one boy, Ned, makes it safely home. His childhood is then ruled by his guilt and confusion, his parents’ grief, and the possibility that his brother is still with him in some magical way.
After bandits from the forest attempt to steal his mother’s magic, Ned takes it upon himself to keep it out of their hands – literally. The magic inhabits his body and attempts to control his thoughts and actions. I particularly loved the visual description of this magic, and readers will enjoy creating their own interpretations of how the magic writes itself in words along Ned’s skin, glowing and changing as he attempts to control it. He then must make a journey through the forest with some unexpected allies to save his kingdom and family from attack.
Ned’s main companion is smart and strong Aine, who is fiercely independent and admirably practical in the face of intense situations. She also has some great snappy dialogue. The combination of shy Ned and headstrong Aine is a great one; they make an interesting team and will be very relatable for boys and girls alike.
The Witch’s Boy is perfect for fans of new fairy tales like Catherynne Valente’s Fairyland series and a good placeholder for kids not quite old enough to take in all the detail and symbolism of J.R.R. Tolkien. The cover art by Jon Klassen is also striking and attractive – you can’t help but admire his lettering and detailed silhouettes. The story’s magic, mystery, and emotion will appeal to readers looking for an epic fantasy stand-alone.
The Witch’s Boy by Kelly Barnhill. Algonquin Young Readers, $16.95 Sept. ISBN 978-1-61620-351-1