Boy / Monster / Angel / Boy
When Heavy Medal readers gave monthly “Suggestions” of likely Newbery contenders from March through August, Catherine Gilbert Murdock’s THE BOOK OF BOY was at the top of the list (tied with THE JOURNEY OF LITTLE CHARLIE) with eight suggestions. It was an early 2018 publication, which is obviously an advantage in that process…but also: a pretty amazing book.
If you’re new to Heavy Medal, here’s a warning that we often reveal endings and surprises. And THE BOOK OF BOY has a pretty big surprise about halfway through, which I’m about to spoil if you haven’t read it yet. The surprise is that Boy’s “hump,” which causes him to be ridiculed, ignored, and teased by many (but not all) is actually the beginning of wings. Because he’s an angel. Murdock gives small hints about this along the way: Boy has the “face of an angel” (5), tells us that “naught in the world is so joyous as the feeling of flight,” (2) and never eats. But it’s not revealed for sure, and also not realized by Boy, until halfway through the book when he sees a painting and recognizes himself:
Faded though this image might be, there was not a shred of doubt ‘twas an angel. (136).
Some readers may guess the truth before I did, but I don’t think it matters that much. For me, this surprise worked like the one in Megan Whalen Turner’s THE THIEF: Even if you don’t realize the whole truth until the last moment, you still know there’s something special and different about this character. And also like THE THIEF, once you know the secret, there’s still much more to come.
The different reactions people have to Boy’s revealed identity impel the second half of the plot. The swordsman is awed. The steward is greedy and vengeful (“The thing is mine!” (134)). Secundus is kind of bitterly amused, at least at first: “An angel. Just my luck.” (142). And Boy is even more confused than before:
“I’m not an angel, I wanted to shout. I’m a monster who wants to be a boy. (144)
There’s much more to this book than that plot twist, and I believe I believe we can “find excellence” in all of the literary elements listed in the Newbery Criteria. The 14th century setting is vivid and distinct. We don’t get many dates or broad context; instead we get a feel for the churches, fields, roads, and for the way religion played such a large and varied role in everyone’s daily lives. Boy is a compelling and thoroughly original character. He has the goodness of an angel in many ways, but also real human wishes, and struggles with choices as much as anyone. Secundus is also fascinating, and he has his own mysterious quest. His interactions with Boy, who doesn’t really get his sardonic humor (or maybe he does a little), provide some light moments:
“You can read, milord?”
“Ah. Yes. ‘Tis a liability of my occupation.”
He barked a laugh. “I was once a lawyer.”
I did not say anything because I was so amazed to meet a man who could read, which even Father Petrus could not do, and also I did not know that word. (23)
Secundus changes in the reader’s view as Boy’s perceptions and understandings widen. That’s also true of minor characters that figure mainly in Boy’s memories, like Cook and Sir Jacques. Boy’s language suggest the historic era (“I was feared to approach” (22)), but unfamiliar usages are used judiciously, so most readers won’t struggle. His words are eloquent in a simple way that feels right for his character:
A notion sprouted like a weed inside my head: how fine ‘twould be if my hump were gone, so that I could know more smiles and comfort and safety. If I could live as something other than a hunchback or monster.
Stop, I ordered myself. You should not think so, Boy. ‘Tis not right.
But the weed would not stop growing, no matter how I tried to pluck it. (50-51)
Several plot threads intertwine seamlessly, including the secret of Boy’s condition, the search for the seven relics, and the wild pursuit of Boy once his angelic nature is known. And all contribute the themes of kindness and forgiveness.
In a Newbery year, it’s nice to have one book early in the year that rises pretty high. That can be sort of a measuring stick as you read other strong contenders. THE BOOK OF BOY has fit that role for me this year, and although there are still many unread books on my list, so far I don’t think I’ve read one that has matched it.
Filed under: Book Discussion
About Steven Engelfried
Steven Engelfried was the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon until he retired in 2022 after 35 years as a full-time librarian. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at email@example.com.
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