The Witch Boy
Writer/Artist: Molly Ostertag
A review by Samantha Pearson
The Witch Boy is Molly Ostertag‘s middle grade graphic novel debut. It follows 13 year-old Aster, whose magical family raises boys to be shapeshifters and girls to be witches. But Aster isn’t like the other boys. He hasn’t found his animal form; frankly, he would rather learn the same spellwork as the girls. This interest makes him both an outcast and a troublemaker. However, when several of the other boys are stolen by an unknown evil, Aster’s forbidden obsession with witchery is the only thing that can bring them back.
Although The Witch Boy is aimed at readers in the 8-12 age range, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Ostertag’s ability to craft a story is put to the test in this book, which combines magic, coming of age themes, familial strife, and many, many secrets. The plot is well-constructed and the various elements work well together; the payoff at the end of the story is 100 percent worth it. My only complaint, honestly, is that the story felt too short; I wanted more from the ending, though that might be because I fell so deeply in love with Ostertag’s characters.
Aster is eager to learn witchery and unwilling to accept that he simply can’t do something he’s good at, just because he’s a boy. Likewise, his non-magical friend Charlie doesn’t believe in gender defining a person’s passions, which makes her and Aster click immediately. Their friendship is, like Aster’s interest in magic, strictly forbidden. Non-magical people can’t know about the witches and shapeshifters — ostensibly, for the safety of everyone. The shapeshifters protect the humans and the witches from demons. That’s just how things are.
But through the course of The Witch Boy, “how things are” slowly begins to change. I found myself deeply enamored with Aster from the get-go, and Charlie’s curiosity and bravery made me want to be friends with her, too. Together, they are a force to be reckoned with, and it’s clear that no one in Aster’s family is ready for what happens once the two of them team up. The shock and awe is incredible to read, especially as the story wraps up and other things are made clear. I won’t say more so as not to spoil, but this book really packs the emotional punches.
It was difficult to read The Witch Boy as anything other than a coming out allegory; the discussions of gender and slow reveal of how muddled magic has always been make me think that Ostertag was aiming for something deeper in this magical coming of age story. I love that this book can be interpreted as a quiet metaphor for the LGBTQ experience, and I think it will make an excellent addition to any classroom library because of it.
The art is also beautiful, with colors that are vibrant and perfectly toned for the mood of the story on any given page. Ostertag’s art works well here, as it’s playful and light but easily lends itself to darker, more intense moments. The monster pages are also genuinely creepy, and later downright heartbreaking. Ostertag does a lot with a simple pen stroke, whether that be dialogue or drawing, and exploring that is always an emotional good time.
Buy it! The Witch Boy is a gorgeous, well-constructed book with a plot that digs far deeper than the magic that exists on its surface. It’s a great addition to any library, especially if you have young kids around (or you teach, in which case this graphic novel is an even better choice). Pre-order it now for delivery on its Halloween publication date, or perhaps pop into your local bookstore day-of to pick up a copy. Either way, you won’t be disappointed.