The Witch Boy and The Hidden Witch

The Witch Boy
by Molly Knox Ostertag
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there (Witch Boy and The Hidden Witch)!
Content: There are some intense images of violence. It’s in the middle grade graphic novel section of the bookstore.

I’d been seeing this one on a LOT of the best-of 2018 lists and I realized I knew NOTHING about it (I had gotten it in, but really paid no attention to it), so I realized I needed to get this one and read it. And since it looked up K’s ally, I decided to buy both it and the sequel as well.

Aster is part of this old magical family, where the girls are all witches and the boys are all shape-shifters. But Aster, at 13, has realized that his talents lie with being a witch rather than a shape-shifter. Except, because that’s what GIRLS do and he’s obviously not a girl, he’s forbidden. Like actively. Every time they find him sneaking around trying to learn witchcraft, the women shame him and shun him. Especially since the last time a boy tried to be a witch — Aster’s grandmother’s brother — he turned into a monster and was never seen again.

(Yes, I do think this is meant to be a feminist allegory for gender roles and toxic masculinity and how silly they are. If a boy wants to be a witch, then LET HIM BE A WITCH.)

Things get complicated when Aster’s cousins — all of whom embrace the traditional male role and become shape-shifters — start disappearing. And Aster — because he’s both male and a witch — is the only one who can save them.

The story continues in The Hidden Witch; Aster’s family has (kind of sort of) accepted him as a witch and is trying to teach him, when his non-magical friend, Charlie, gets attacked by a bit of dark magic called a “Fetch”. It turns out that there’s a rogue witch in town, and the family has to figure out how to take care of them.

This one, honestly, wasn’t as good as Witch Boy, which I adored. She did wrap up the story of the grandmother’s brother, which was left hanging in the first book, but I’m not sure how much I cared about that. I did like seeing Aster use his witchcraft to help Charlie figure out where the Fetch was coming from, but it just didn’t have the larger conflict that Witch Boy had. Even so, it’s delightful series, expertly drawn (Ostertag worked on Star vs. the Forces of Evil, and her art style fits that). I adore the friendship between Aster and Charlie, and I liked how Ostertag worked in diversity without making it a huge “look at me, I’m diverse” issue.

She’s a solid graphic novelist, and someone I’m excited to see more from.

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You Bring the Distant Near

by Mitali Perkins
First sentence: “The swimmers have finished their races and are basking in the sun.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is some mild swearing. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

This one is a difficult one to describe plot-wise. It’s a slice of life, looking at three generations of women in an Indian family as they move to America and make a life here. It starts with the mother, Ranee, and her two daughters, Sonia and Tara, as they move from London to New York in the early 1970s. Each of the daughters reacts differently to coming to America, each looking for their own way to cope. Ranee isn’t as adaptable: she complains about their apartment in Flushing, she complains about her husband sending money home. Then he passes on, and Ranee is forced to adapt to this country as her daughters grow up and get married, one to an Indian, the other to a black American man.

The book then picks up when Ranee’s granddaughters, Anna and Chantal, are in high school. They are dealing with their own issues: Chantal is bi-racial and is trying to figure out her own identity. And Anna, though American, was raised in Mumbai where her mother is a Bollywood star, but has recently moved back so she could go to high school and college in America.

Perkins handles all this admirably; giving us a taste of Bengali culture, as well as the things immigrants do in order to fit in. One of the more interesting parts of the novel, for me, was set after 9/11, when Ranee goes through her own transformation as a reaction to the terrorist attacks. She figures out what “American” means to her. And that sentence may be what’s at the heart of this delightful novel: what does “American” mean? Perhaps it has become an individual expression for everyone, and there isn’t a “norm” anymore. (That was probably always the way it was, but we pretended otherwise.) Which is, as posited by this book, a very good thing.

An excellent read.

George

by Alex Gino
First sentence: “George pulled a silver house key out of the smallest pocket of a large red backpack.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher rep.
Content: There’s a lot to talk about and think about here; be prepared for questions. Content-wise, however, it’s simply written, ¬†and so is in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

I don’t quite know what I expected from this. It’s got an agenda from the beginning: it’s the first middle grade book about a transgender female child. So, from the start, there’s that underlying the entire book.

There isn’t much plot. George is physically a boy, but identifies as a girl. It’s a secret she keeps from everyone. Except that, as the fourth grade is putting on a play of Charlotte’s Web and George would love to be Charlotte. And she wants to be Charlotte. Which means, in a round about way, being brave and informing people of her true self.

It’s a very open, accepting book; there are bullies, true, but mostly people are accepting once George comes out and confesses her true self. It’s quite liberating.

But, that’s all it is. It’s an important book, true, and an open-minded one. But it’s not really a good book. It’s kind of pedestrian, language-wise, and there’s way too much that’s told and not enough shown. I always felt like I was on the outside, looking in (maybe that was on purpose), and I never quite connected with the story, either. Not that I don’t understand its importance; I do.

I’m just not sure I liked it.

Better Nate Than Ever

by Tim Federle
First sentence: “I’d rather not start with any backstory.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is some bullying, a bit of swearing, and some frank talk about sexuality and alcoholism. I probably wouldn’t give it to a third grader (it just feels more mature than an 8-year-old, but you know your kid), but a 4th or 5th grader would be fine with it. It’s in the middle grade (3-5th grade) section of the bookstore, though the library has it in the teen section (which surprised me).

Nate Foster is a 13-year-old kid living in the blue collar town of Jankburg, PA (just outside of Pittsburg). His dad is a “maintenance engineer” and his mom runs a slowly dying flower shop. They have put all their hopes, dreams, and expectations on Nate’s older brother, Alex, the sports star. Which leaves Nate as the… well… outcast. It doesn’t help that he’s a Broadway musical fanatic, knowing them all, singing away, quoting incessantly. Which leaves his family (and the town) baffled.

Of course, Federle is playing off of stereotypes here: people in blue-collar towns are (obviously) backward and don’t understand Culture. People — boys especially — who like musicals are (obviously) gay. (There is much too much discussion about Nate’s sexuality here. And while his position is “I’m 13, how would I know if I were gay?” it bothered me that musicals are, necessarily, lumped in with being gay. Can we just get over that, now, please?) Boys who are short, overweight, and awkward are (obviously) bullied at school (and by his — jerk is not a strong enough word — older brother).

When Nate finds out about open auditions for a new musical based on the movie E. T. he jumps at the chance. And because he knows his backward parents would never let him, he takes the opportunity (with the help of his friend Libby) to run away to the auditions. He was supposed to go there and back again in a day, but (of course) things don’t quite work out. Which brings us to another cliche here — the kid from the backward blue-collar town has NO IDEA how to make it in New York City. (Which may be true, having never run away to the big city when I was 13.)

Even with all the cliches and stereotypes, this wasn’t a terrible book. And I think what saved it, for me at least, was Nate himself. Federle caught the voice of an awkward, insecure, hopeful kid someone who has been beaten down his whole life, and yet still remains optimistic about everything. He’s adorable, and heart-warming, and just plain fun. It was this that kept me reading, and when I finished, it was this that made the book a good one for me.

Additionally, it’s one of those books that’s good to have out there, if only because it addresses stereotypes. There aren’t that many books out there where the male main character gets to be something other than stereotypically male. Hopefully, boys will pick this up and give it a shot. If only to increase their empathy.

There’s a sequel — Five, Six, Seven, Nate — which just came out. I may even like Nate enough to give that one a shot.