Growing up in Upstate New York, 26-year-old Molly Ostertag spent a lot of time in the woods—an environment conducive to broadening the imagination. She was also drawn to fantasy stories at a young age; she recalls hearing The Lord of the Rings read to her before she could read herself, came of age alongside Harry Potter, and loves the work of Tamora Pierce and Diana Wynne Jones. Admittedly drawn to “nerdy opportunities to become fantasy characters,” Ostertag also values the time she spent at a role-playing camp as a kid.

As Ostertag grew older, drawing and writing her own characters became her most gratifying creative outlet. She attended Bard College and studied illustration and cartooning at New York City’s School of Visual Arts. She began working on comics, including the web series Strong Female Protagonist with co-creator Brennan Lee Mulligan.

Through a friend and fellow artist, Ostertag also signed on with agent Jen Linnan in 2014. A big change came for Ostertag the next year, when she relocated from New York to Los Angeles, where she currently works as a designer for Disney’s Star vs. the Forces of Evil. “It’s a very exciting time in animation,” Ostertag says.

Clearly, a day job hasn’t interfered with her pursuit of her own creative endeavors. Though Ostertag illustrated Sharon Shinn’s graphic novel Shattered Warrior (First Second), which came out this May, The Witch Boy (Graphix, Oct.) is her debut as both author and illustrator. The middle grade graphic novel tells the story of a boy named Aster, who comes from a magical family in which boys are traditionally expected to become shape-shifters and girls to become witches. Aster, though, knows that he is a witch; he struggles to find acceptance from his family, while also facing off against a malevolent being that threatens his entire clan.

Ostertag found the experience of both writing and illustrating a book-length project to be greatly freeing. “It was really exciting to write a book for myself,” Ostertag says. “It gave me room to breathe.” Having that creative freedom was also a challenge—and meant doing a lot of redrafting.

The Witch Boy originated with the “academic idea of a boy who wants to do girly things, because you don’t see that very often,” Ostertag says. In the early stages of the creative process, she found her way with an intuitive sense of the “imagery, aesthetics, and emotion” of the story. Drawing, which Ostertag says “comes really naturally,” provided a path for her to “get to know the characters” and to carve out the narrative arc. Though early on she had a clear concept of the characters and creatures—including the dragonlike villain—working in the book’s weightier content, about breaking gender stereotypes, took more time. “I wanted to write about something real but do it in a smart, sensitive way, without being heavy-handed,” she says. “It was a balancing act.”

Ostertag believes that readers will have many different interpretations of the book—something that she relishes about the genre. “In fantasy stories, you can have a couple different ideas working at the same time,” she says. Her aim was to create for readers a hero who is “nonconforming, sweet, and a good friend who gets stuff done.” He also serves as a reminder to readers to “be understanding” of others who may not fit into the confines of a category—gender or otherwise.

Readers will soon have another story about Aster, as Ostertag has just finished writing and illustrating the sequel to The Witch Boy; it’s called The Hidden Witch and releases in fall 2018. Though she can’t reveal a lot of detail, she noted that the book will focus more on Charlie, Aster’s friend from the nonmagical part of town. In the meantime, she hopes that more and more readers will find their way to The Witch Boy, and if they take away from the book a greater sense of “being more comfortable in their own skin,” she will feel she has succeeded. Learning that her authorial debut has made an impact “is the best thing in the world,” she says.