Where to begin? Where even to begin with a book this finely crafted, this breathtakingly realized, this clever, this full of love and aches and metaphors and, yes, magic? (but not the magic you’re thinking of – not the easy kind, not the kind that comes without consequences.)
The Real Boy is the story of Oscar, a shop’s boy for a magician in a land where magic and charms are bought by the very rich for their every little whim. Oscar is no apprentice, mind you, he’s a boy who doesn’t know how to interact with people – who stays in the shadows and quiet to feel safe. The “real” world, the world outside his plants and his companionship with his cats, is sometimes so scary and overwhelming to him that Oscar sometimes wonders if there’s something wrong with him. But he doesn’t have to think of this much, not as long as he stays safe and tucked away, not as long as the magic works and the kingdom where he lives, the lovely Aletheia, stays protected and blessed by this magic. It’s only when things start going wrong, very wrong, with the magic, with Aletheia, with everyone around Oscar that he is tasked with finding out the truth about the world he has taken for granted and the truth about what makes him so different.
The best stories, the ones we tell over and over again, the ones we hug close, the ones that connect with something deep inside us, the best stories weave magic without ever once showing you where the seams are. To be more precise and less florid about it – the best stories never show you their tricks and they never make their metaphors obvious. This is what I love about Anne Ursu’s The Real Boy and *this* is what makes it one of the best stories: she takes what is such a thudding obvious metaphor (a boy who feels “wrong” and “not real” learns that he is in charge of his own identity and even destiny) and uses the magic of craft – rich language, fully-rounded characters, a well-paced, well-realized plot, to never once let you see it showing. Instead, when all the pieces of The Real Boy click into place, you suddenly understand what story you’ve been hearing all along, and in that moment it all hits in the right places.
I’ve read The Real Boy three times since I received my first advance copy from the publisher months ago. Every time, I have found some new detail in the way the story is put together. Every time, I have found another passage of simple, clear, evocative writing. And every time I have admired the way it all clicks: the coming of age elements, the subtle jabs at using “magic” to escape the hard work of living, the way lies so often go unspoken by those in power because they make it easier to live with selfish actions and retain their control.
Since my first read of The Real Boy I was in love with the geographic reality of Aletheia. Great fantasies have great fictional worlds and that’s what Ursu creates here. Aletheia has magic forests, a vast terrain of mountains and rivers, blighted Plaguelands, and a city ringed with magic. After much begging, the kind people at Walden Pond Press agreed to let me be part of the artwork reveal for The Real Boy. In an instant, I asked if I could feature the map of Aletheia because, to me, it’s the perfect invitation to the wonder of this world. They agreed! So, today, I am so happy to be able to bring you a glimpse at Aletheia.
All artwork copyright © 2013 by Erin McGuire
The Real Boy is a not always a nice, safe story. Characters, characters central to the story, are killed. Adults do terrible, selfish things and let children down. In fact, in many ways this story reminded me of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series – where children are used and disguarded by the powerful adults in their universe; specifically by adults who are grasping at some kind of ephemeral magic. And The Real Boy is scary in other ways too; ways about how frightening it is to know there’s something different about you, ways about how hard it is to step out of the safety of your childhood and into the wide, often harsh world. These are themes that will resonate with children even if they aren’t fully conscious of why and how.
Really, there are so many elements of The Real Boy that are resonant with childhood’s struggles and triumphs: that’s one of the reasons I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it for months and months. The Real Boy asks children BIG questions: how do we know who we are? How do we “fit in” if we’re different? What price would you pay for the simplicity of magic … and would you still pay it if you discovered that simplicity wasn’t so simple and cost more than you’d ever imagined? There are no easy answers to these questions and this book doesn’t pretend to offer them. To do so would betray the very things Ursu works so hard to create in this narrative.
What power there is in this story, what painful beauty. As Oscar unravels the very unpleasant secrets that live in the very soil of his country, of the shining city on a hill that he thinks he understands, he comes, through learning, challenging himself, and creating a support network, to discover the best of truths:
it is being different that makes us real.
The Real Boy is one of my favorite books of 2013 – heck, one of my favorite books of ever. It’s currently longlisted for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and it is my dearest wish that it’s in serious discussion for the Newbery. It’s out now and you can buy it! If you can’t buy it, check it out from your local library. If they don’t have it, request they purchase it.
AND because Walden Pond Press is so completely amazing, they not only let me share some art from the book but they’re giving away a signed copy to one blog reader. All you have to do is leave a comment on this post before October 18th.
The Real Boy is highly recommended for readers aged 7-12 who like fairy tales with deep thoughts, heroes and heroines who step up and stand up, and, well, for any children you know who are different. It will help them to know that their life, their real life, is theirs to experience on their own terms.