In thirteen-year-old Aster’s family, all the girls are raised to be witches, while boys grow up to be shapeshifters. Anyone who dares cross those lines is exiled. Unfortunately for Aster, he still hasn’t shifted . . . and he’s still fascinated by witchery, no matter how forbidden it might be.
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.
The Witch Boy is one seriously impressive graphic novel by Molly Ostertag – one of the un-put-down-able variety. It’s a middle-grade allegory that tackles toxic masculinity, gender expectations, and discovering identity in a way that never feels forced or heavy-handed.
It’s also a tough book for me to write about because it’s not something specific about the craft that wows me as much as how damn good it is as a whole. And from my desire to Not Give Away Too Much.
- The art is very good and supports the story and it’s tone extremely well. I like how many of the panels with character & dialogue don’t have detailed backgrounds (which makes me feel better about not wanting to draw detailed backgrounds in every single panel myself 😂).
- The story is perfectly paced, with a good balance of character development and action. There are plenty of pages with little to no dialogue, like the example to the right.
- I like the simple conceit of having black pages for night scenes and white pages for day scenes (see below for a page from a night scene).
- I really like how she handled magic, especially using cool symbols instead of using English or phonetic spelling (also visible in the page to the right).
Themes, themes and even more themes
What does wow me is the story itself, because it could easily have been as heavy-handed as an after school special or a morality play. That it’s not is extremely impressive, even if the themes are obvious.
In the book’s world, men become shapeshifters charged with protection while women become witches who seem to do everything else. Aster wants to learn witch magic and has no interest in shapeshifting. And yet he feels pressure to become one, while being chided for his interest in magic.
Sound familiar? It makes me wonder if they have their own versions of blue truck & dinosaur-oriented toddler clothing for shapeshifters and pink magic-oriented toddler gear for witches.
SPOILERS – don’t click this if you haven’t read the book
But beyond the obvious gender roles is Aster not feeling like a witch. That he knows himself – and he’s always felt like that. Not unlike an LGBTQ teenager. It’s powerful and must be a moving thing to read if it’s something that you’re going through as well. (Note the last line of the blurb at the top: and be truly himself.)
This is where the story could have become a morality play but instead Molly focuses on the story rather than beating us over the head with themes.
But the themes are there, and there are many of them – with the next biggest theme being about the effects of toxic masculinity. The last male to delve into magic just happens to be Aster’s grandfather who literally turned into a monster. It’s such a simple conceit BUT IT’S SO DAMN GOOD.
There’s also the theme of being an outsider or unusual. Aster’s new non-magical friend is a girl who’s totally into sports – and she has two dads. Molly delves deeper into being an outsider and the social issues involved in the next book in the series, The Hidden Witch.
Long story short, it’s a good and deeply meaningful story on many levels that resonates with readers. Unless your head is firmly up your ass, you will fine something to relate to in this graphic novel.
And now a little craft of writing geeking-out
Aster is a clever af name. It’s Greek for star (which I know because I’ve considered naming a character that) but it’s also a plant genus. A plant genus that includes flowering herbs. Like, a plant that blossoms into a flower (consider our themes) which is a herb (something that can be used in spells). And witches deal with natural things like asking trees to bear more fruit. It’s an exceptionally meaningful name.
(I do wonder sometimes what if writers gave less meaningful names? I’m not totally sure about this as I can’t bring myself to pick a random name just ’cause. I suppose we can pick a name designed to throw readers off…)
Anywho, if you haven’t read this book yet WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?
Hit one of the links in the sidebar to order the book from Amazon or to find it at your local library. (And if you’re a school or library, you NEED this book on your shelves.)
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed the book, please let me know in the comments – which I will proclaim to be a SPOILER-FILLED ZONE! So don’t look at the comments if you haven’t read the book yet 🙂