Title: The Real Boy
Author: Anne Ursu
Rating: 4 Stars
Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy
Length: 352 pages
Oscar is a magician’s hand. He happiest gathering herbs from the ancient Barrow, reading books snuck from Caleb’s library during the night, or working in the cellar, surrounded by cats while preparing various magical herbs for Caleb. He doesn’t remember life before becoming a hand, and he doesn’t quite get his fellow human beings. When an accident forces Oscar to work in the shop, two things happen. One, he realizes he doesn’t work and think like everyone else. Two, he makes a friend in the healer’s apprentice, Callie.
The “perfect” children from the nearby city begin falling ill, while something dangerous lurks in the forest, attacking things with magic. With the magician and healer disappearing for large amounts of time, Oscar and Callie have to find a way to help the ill children and figure out what exactly is going wrong.
I really enjoyed The Real Boy. For a one-off, middle grade novel, Ursu’s Alethia is richly developed, with magic oozing from its pores (or in this case, the soil). It has a full history and developed society. Oscar and Callie were delightful main characters. And perhaps this is just because I was reading the book while traveling, but I found it hard to predict where the story was going, which I loved.
One of the major themes running through the book is Oscar trying to figure out why he is different from anyone else. He struggles to read people, is anxious in their company, and would rather read about the different properties and uses for herbs. After finding an unusual doll halfway through the book, Oscar starts to worry whether he is even human. Thankfully, he has Callie to help him puzzle it out. In return for teaching her how to use herbal remedies, Callie teaches him how to read and understand people.
During the book, I noticed Oscar had several characteristics that can be found on the autism spectrum, and I wondered if this was intentional on Ursu’s part. I looked into it, and it was very much intensional. Ursu’s son has Asperger’s, and she wanted to write a hero that her son would see is like him.
What I really appreciated about Ursu’s story is the nuance she uses with the subject. Yes, autism is a part of it, but Oscar is so well-developed that he is much more than that autism box some might want to put him into. I can’t really explain how well Ursu deals with this, so I’d encourage you to read her touching thoughts about her son, Oscar, and writing the book on Read, Write, Reflect
. Here’s a taste:
I didn’t want Oscar to triumph in the end despite his autism or because of his autism; I wanted him to triumph because of who he is– an exceptionally brave, loving boy. I wanted him to know that he had the power to survive and triumph no matter what the world throws at him. I want every kid to know that. -Anne Ursu
While I caught the allusions to autism, I’m ashamed that I completely missed the numerous allusions to fairy tales throughout the book–specifically The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Pinocchio. I didn’t realize how much Ursu was weaving in older, familiar stories until I read another review that pointed this out. The allusions are everywhere, so now I really want to reread with this in mind!
The book is also really well-written and beautifully illustrated. Also of note is that the main characters are all people of color, but like the autism element, it’s quietly part of their characters without being a defining characteristic or an afterthought.
Ursu is also the author of Breadcrumbs, which has been on my to-read list for awhile now, and The Real Boy was nominated for a Minnesota Book Award this year. If you enjoy middle grade fiction or classic fantasy, I’d definitely recommend this book. And if you know a kid who enjoys fantasy, definitely hand this one to them.