My two-year-old is dealing with the concept of personhood. Lately she’s taken to proclaiming proudly “I’m a person!” when she has successfully mastered something. By the same token, failure to accomplish even the most mundane task is met with a dejected, “I’m not a person”. This notion of personhood and what it takes to either be a person or not a person reminded me a fair amount of Anne Ursu’s latest middle grade novel The Real Boy. There aren’t many children’s books that dare to delve into the notion of what it means to be a “real” person. Whole hosts of kids walk through their schools looking around, wondering why they aren’t like the others. There’s this feeling often that maybe they were made incorrectly, or that everyone else is having fun without them because they’re privy to some hitherto unknown secret. Part of what I love about Anne Ursu’s latest is that it taps directly into that fear, creating a character that must use his wits to defeat not only the foes that beset him physically, but the ones in his own head that make even casual interactions a difficulty.
Oscar should be very grateful. It’s not every orphan who gets selected to aid a magician as talented as Master Caleb. For years Oscar has ground herbs for Caleb, studiously avoiding the customers that come for his charms, as well as Caleb’s nasty apprentice Wolf. Oscar is the kind of kid who’d rather pore over his master’s old books rather than deal with the frightening conversations a day in his master’s shop might entail. All that changes the day Wolf meets with an accident and Caleb starts leaving the shop more and more. A creature has been spotted causing awful havoc and the local magic workers should be the ones to take care of the problem. So why aren’t they? When Oscar is saved from the role of customer service by an apprentice named Callie, the two strike up an unlikely friendship and seek to find not just the source of the disturbance but also the reason why some of the rich children in the nearby city have been struck by the strangest of diseases.
Though Ms. Ursu has been around for years, only recently have her books been attracting serious critical buzz. I was particularly drawn to her novel retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” last year in the form of the middle grade novel Breadcrumbs. So naturally, when I read the plot description and title of The Real Boy I assumed that the story would be some kind of retelling of the “Pinocchio” tale. As it turns out, there is the faintest whiff of Pinocchio circling this story, but it is by no means a strict model. As one of the librarians in my system put it, “I am scarred for life by Pinocchio (absolutely abhor any tale relating to inanimate objects longing to become real to the point where I find it creepy) but did not find this disturbing in the least.” Truth be told it would have been easy enough for Ursu to crank up the creepy factor if she had wanted to. But rather than clutter the text up with unnecessary disgust, the story is instead clean, fast, exciting, and to the point. And for all that it is 352 pages or so, you couldn’t cut it down.
There have been a fair number of novels and books for children this year that have been accused of being written with adults rather than children in mind. I’ve fielded concerns about everything from Bob Graham’s The Silver Button to Cynthia Rylant’s God Got a Dog to Sharon Creech’s The Boy on the Porch. Interestingly, folks have not lobbed the same criticisms at The Real Boy, for which I am grateful. Certainly it would be easy to see the title in that light. Much of the storyline hinges on the power of parental fear, the sometimes horrific lengths those same parents will go to to “protect” their young, and the people who prey on those fears. Parents, teachers, and librarians that read this book will immediately recognize the villainy at work here, but kids will perceive it on an entirely different level. While the adults gnash their teeth at the bad guy’s actions, children will understand that the biggest villain in this book isn’t a person, but Oscar’s own perceptions of himself. To defeat the big bad, our hero has to delve deep down into his own self and past, make a couple incorrect assumptions, and come out stronger in the end.
He is helped in no small part by Callie. I feel bad that when in trying to define a book I feel myself falling back on what it doesn’t do rather than what it does do. Still, I think it worth noting that in the case of Callie she isn’t some deux ex machina who solves all of Oscar’s problems for him. She helps him, certainly. Even gets angry and impatient with him on occasion, but she’s a real person with a personal journey of her own. She isn’t just slapped into the narrative to give our hero a necessary foil. The same could be said of the baker, a fatherly figure who runs the risk of becoming that wise adult character that steps in when the child characters are flailing about. Ursu almost makes a pointed refusal to go to him for help, though. It’s as if he’s just there to show that not all adults in the world are completely off their rockers. Just most, it would seem.
There’s one more thing the book doesn’t do that really won my admiration, but I think that by even mentioning it here I’m giving away an essential plot point. Consider this your official spoiler alert, then. If you have any desire to read this book on your own, please do yourself a favor and skip this paragraph. All gone? Good. Now a pet peeve of mine that I see from time to time and think an awfully bad idea is when a character appears to be on the autism spectrum of some sort, and then a magical reason for that outsider status comes up. One such fantasy I read long ago, the autistic child turned out to be a fairy changeling, which explained why she was unable to communicate with other people. While well intentioned, I think this kind of plot device misses the point. Now one could make the case for Oscar as someone who is on “the spectrum”. However, the advantage of having such a character in a fantasy setting is that there’s no real way to define his status. Then, late in the book, Oscar stumbles upon a discovery that gives him a definite impression that he is not a human like the people around him. Ursu’s very definite choice to then rescind that possibility hammered home for me the essential theme of the book. There are no easy choices within these pages. Just very real souls trying their best to live the lives they want, free from impediments inside or outside their very own selves.
I’ve heard a smattering of objections to the book at this point that are probably worth looking into. One librarian of my acquaintance expressed some concern about Ursu’s world building. She said that for all that she plumbs the depths of character and narrative with an admirable and enviable skill, they never really felt that they could “see” the world that she had conjured. I suspect that some of this difficulty might have come from the fact that the librarian read an advanced reader’s copy of the book without the benefit of the map of Aletheia in the front. But maybe their problem was bigger than simple geography. Insofar as Ms. Ursu does indulge in world building, it’s a world within set, tight parameters. The country is an island with a protected glittering city on the one hand and a rough rural village on the other. Much like a stage play, Ursu’s storyline is constricted within the rules she’s set for herself. For readers who prefer the wide all-encompassing lands you’d see in a Tolkien or Rowling title, the limitations might feel restrictive.
Now let us not, in the midst of all this talky talk, downplay the importance of illustrator Erin McGuire. McGuire and Ursu were actually paired together once before on the underappreciated Breadcrumbs. I had originally read the book in a form without the art, and it was pleasant in and of itself. McGuire’s interstitial illustrations, however, really serve to heighten the reader’s enjoyment. The pictures are actually relatively rare, their occasional appearances feeling like nothing so much as a delicious chocolate chip popping up in a sea of vanilla ice cream. You never know when you’ll find one, but it’s always sweet when you do.
Breadcrumbs, for all that I personally loved it, was a difficult book for a lot of folks to swallow. In it, Ursu managed to synthesize the soul-crushing loneliness of Hans Christian Andersen’s tales, and the results proved too dark for some readers. With The Real Boy the source material, if you can even call it that, is incidental. As with all good fantasies for kids there’s also a fair amount of darkness here, but it’s far less heavy and there’s also an introspective undercurrent that by some miracle actually appears to be interesting to kids. Whodathunkit? Wholly unexpected with plot twists and turns you won’t see coming, no matter how hard you squint, Ursu’s is a book worth nabbing for your own sweet self. Grab that puppy up.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
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- Changeling by Delia Sherman
- Jinx by Sage Blackwood
- The Mostly True Story of Jack by Kelly Barnhill