The Witch’s Boy
Several of you have mentioned Barnhill’s THE WITCH’S BOY, and our library copies finally hit the shelves recently. I wasn’t a fan of Barnhill’s starred debut THE MOSTLY TRUE STORY OF JACK, and was underwhelmed by IRON HEARTED VIOLET….so I’m having a hard time parsing my appreciation of THE WITCH’S BOY. Did it simply exceed my modest expectations, or is it actually quite good? Barnhill’s world building is fully solid in this tale. She keeps it simple, which I think is smart, allowing her to develop the mythology for the forest and the stones in a way that gives a consistent tension to the narrative. Her characters are appealing-yet-flawed, and play on the usual fairy tale tropes with light twists throughout. I especially appreciated the complexity of the parent/child relationships…each parent has grave weaknesses, but is yet beloved, in a way that has a real-world resonance. The smart humor in the subplot with the elder queen; the voices of the magic; the animal-attachement side-narrative… all these elements add additional flavor that is well suited to the audience.
My quibbles with Barnhill’s third novel don’t, I think, sink its successes. The character motivation isn’t always convincingly fleshed out… Why does Aine’s feeling about wolves remain unchanged after her first encounter, which seemed so life-changing? Why is Ned so willing, so fast, to make a fatal sacrifice? I accept these and other turns because they feel acceptable within the story and basic character sketches that Barnhill has laid out, but at times I don’t feel quite convinced, I just feel like I’ve been sold something. The story also feels long for what it ultimately gives. Not draggy in any one place…it’s just that if I compare it word-for-word with WEST OF THE MOON, or EGG & SPOON, I don’t think it gives as much per square inch. These flaws, however, if truly flaws, can be seen as consistent for the intended presentation: it’s a nice long fantasy for a younger reader. Ultimately simple, but complex enough for the 8-10 year old. Is it, even, distinguished?
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About Nina Lindsay
Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at email@example.com
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