Review: The Real Boy

“He looked at the note. Writing it had taken an eternity, and by all rights the words should have transformed into poetry somehow.” p. 284

The Real Boy by Anne Ursu, illustrated by Erin McGuire.
Walden Pond Press Imprint, HarperCollins, New York, 2013.
MG fantasy, 341 pages.
Lexile:  730L .
AR Level:  4.9 (worth 10.0 points)  .

Oscar is content to mix up packages, serve the most powerful magician in the Barrow, avoid the cruel apprentice, and ignore the existence of the city of Asteri and the wealthy patrons who come to seek the magic his master makes.  His world is orderly and known, his thoughts consumed with plants and trees and cats.  Until disaster strikes and upends his life.

The Real Boy by Ursu
The Real Boy by Anne Ursu, illustrated by Erin McGuire.

I’ve been wanting to read this book since 2016.  AICL doesn’t have a review, but found it good enough to mention in passing twice, first within the review of another book and then again at the end of this short story review (which reminds me I want to get to that book also).

The Real Boy also received a positive review from Disability in Kidlit.  I’d highly recommend reading it for an #ownvoices review perspective.  Writers will also perhaps be interested in this interview with Ursu about writing this particular book – inspired by her son’s diagnosis, but not based on him.  She speaks eloquently about her process and even the mistakes or things she would do differently.

Ursu has beautiful, emotionally fraught writing and intricate worldbuilding.  Although this is entirely set in a fantasy world, she clearly researched her story well.  Ecology, nature, and herblore are a major focus of the book, and the parallels to real life plants will delight avid gardeners.  I was also impressed by the trauma reactions, which rang true to my own experiences around children with similar needs and traumas.

McGuire’s artwork is all in line with the cover and enhances the work.  My main fault with the cover was that it wasn’t immediately clear that the protagonist is a person of color.  However, that is cleared up inside, where he and others are shown to have dark skin and hair.  The illustrations are all full page, and there’s about one per chapter.

The Real Boy by Anne Ursu page 331 resized
Full-page illustrations of Oscar and Callie can be seen throughout the book, reinforcing that they are dark-skinned.

By the way, I have gotten some feedback not to use person of color so much.  In this case I am using person of color to describe Oliver because this is set in a fantasy world – his race is not defined according to our world.  However he is clearly described in text and shown in illustrations to have dark skin and hair.

It’s difficult to say much about this one without spoilers, because despite the gorgeous, intricate writing, there is also a lot of plot.  Oscar’s world changes drastically and he is so incredibly brave, but also doesn’t have much of a choice but to carry on – a distinction that much children’s literature misses.  Oscar doesn’t get to choose whether his world will change, but he does get to decide how he reacts to that change; much of the power of Ursu’s writing comes from the skillful depiction of that nuance.

Although this is a MG fantasy and not a YA dystopian novel, some aspects reminded me of On the Edge of Gone – especially the slow unfurling of a character’s entire world, the fascinating story of how a person chooses to deal with such drastic change, and the ultimate revelation that it’s possible to stay true to yourself while also bettering your life.  So it makes sense that Corinne Duyvis would positively review this book.

Without giving away too many details of the plot, I’ll mention that the break between chapters eleven and twelve is not a good place to stop reading.  If possible, it would be best to continue up to chapter 15 where a particular scenario is resolved.

Suffice it to say that when I read that point, my heart dropped and I had to keep reminding myself that two blogs I trust had suggested this for a reason.  Yes, I cried twice while reading this middle grade fantasy novel.

The ending was both satisfying and maddening.  I so want a sequel to further explore this world, witness the further growth of Oscar and other characters, and find out how the secrets he uncovered are dealt with by the rest of his world.

On the other hand, the ending is a perfectly acceptable conclusion.  We reach a good stopping point, and the major questions and problems have been solved – it’s just that new, intriguing ones have taken their place!

The Real Boy by Anne Ursu Aletheia map resized
Map of Aletheia, the magical island in Anne Ursu’s MG fantasy novel illustrated by Erin McGuire.

This book is incredibly moving, but there are significant losses.  Terrifying deaths, life in danger, servitude, kidnapping, slavery, plague, home loss, illness, thievery, destruction of property, reckless environmental destruction, and monsters both human and inhuman. I found it valuable and felt it portrayed these subjects well, but a sensitive young reader might get overwhelmed.

This is a rare book indeed, an immersive MG fantasy that centers a neurodiverse character of color.  Even more surprising is that it’s not an #ownvoices book, but has gotten a positive response from #ownvoices reviewers.

With this review, I’ll add my recommendation to the more illustrious ones this book has already received from AICL and Disability in Kidlit.  This standalone novel takes you on a journey with Oscar.  Recommended.

Author: colorfulbookreviews

I work in a library by day and parent the rest of the time. I am passionate about good books representing the full spectrum of human diversity for every age group and reading level. This blog is my attempt to help parents, educators, and librarians find the best children's books authored by or featuring characters of color.

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