The Witch Boy by Molly Ostertag

Read: 16 April, 2018

My kid is still an early reader, which means that he does best when there are pictures. Unfortunately, a lot of books for his reading level aren’t at his story level, so I’m always struggling to find things that will actually hold his interest while he practices his literacy. Turns out that graphic novels are perfect for this, because he can easily read books that are written for much older children, and therefore have more risque scares and complex plots.

The Witch Boy is exactly all of that.

The story is just scary enough to be a thrill, and I loved the message of being yourself – outside of social boxes like gender. This is a wholesome story to share with kids, and I loved the amount of representation the author was able to cram in.

Plus, we got a huge kick out of the fact that the main character is watching Steven Universe in one panel. My son literally squealed and ran the book over to show me when he caught that!

Having now read it myself as well, we’re both hoping that this will become a series.

Song of the Lioness #1: Alanna, The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce

Read: 20 August, 2015

I really didn’t know much about this book going in, except that I had seen it recommended several times as feminist (or, at least, female-friendly) fantasy. Turns out that it’s about Alanna, the girl half of a girl/boy set of twins, who wants to be a warrior. She and her brother concoct an identity switching scheme (a la Parent Trap) so that he can go study magic while she studies fighting as Alan, a second son.

My first shock was in the intended audience. I was hoping for fantasy, something like The Wheel of Time maybe, but was prepared for YA. But Alanna isn’t even YA, it’s more for mid-grade readers, maybe around 10-11 years old. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, I do read a fair bit of children’s and preteen fiction, but I’d spare anyone else the same mistake. I also found that the narrative was rather naive, even for a children’s book. It seems that the book was originally written for adults, and included drugs and sex and all those adult-y things, but was revised in the hopes of finding a more selling market. It’s interesting to think what the original book might have been like.

The writing style felt very skimming. It rushed from event to event – Alanna fighting the bully, Alanna trying to hide her developing body, Alanna getting her sword, Alanna fights the plague, etc. – but never lingers long enough to give any of these episodes much depth. This isn’t an adult fiction versus children’s fiction issue, either, since books like Harry Potter still managed to give each little episode a feeling of substance. The whole series was apparently originally written as a single book, cut into four parts for its intended audience. The result is a series of largely unconnected episodes, and then a sudden ending. There’s no flow, no arc, no build-up. There’s no real climax, in the sense that the mega-battle that occurs at the end was only set up a handful of pages earlier (minus a few instances of foreshadowing that don’t make sense until the end – and, honestly, don’t make much sense even then, though I suppose that’ll be revisited in subsequent books).

The writing style was mostly quite solid, and it was certainly a fast read. I can certainly see the book’s appeal to the younger set. The only real flaw that I noticed was the repetition, such as when the narrator mentions twice in two pages, with nearly identical wording, that the plague tends to be fatal to people who come down with it hard and fast. There are also multiple episodes of people freaking out that Alanna has seen them naked when they find out that she’s a girl. In fact, this seems to be the only reaction the people around her are allowed to have. Worse, the reaction makes sense for her school buddies, who would have bathed together and are said in multiple passages to swim together. However, when George, the king of thieves, expresses the same concern, it feels like a stretch. The fact that this is the only scene in the whole book where Alanna is actually described as seeing George naked feels hamfisted. Like the author had the idea that this would be a reaction she wants her characters to have, so she shoehorned it into Alanna’s outting to George, then later on came up with a much more organic situation with Alanna’s school friend and forgot to revise that first attempt.

My last quasi-complaint is that Alanna is a bit of a Mary Sue. It’s not enough for her to be really good at archery but not so good at swordplay – rather, she just needs a bit more training and then she can excel at both! It’s not enough for her to be pretty competent in her studies, she must be the best! It’s not enough for her to make a few friends, she must be loved by everyone (including the prince, and excluding only the neighbourhood bully, on whom everyone immediately turns in her defence). I feel like a more flawed character, one who has weaknesses (or even just “not-the-best-at-this-nesses”), would have been much more interesting. That said, I am saying this as an adult reader, and I am not so far removed from KidMe not to know how gratifying a Mary Sue can be to a young reader. So I’m willing to withhold this as a real complaint. I am not the intended audience for this book, and it’s unfair of me to review it as if I were.

In following books, I hope that the magic system will be more developed. As it is, I find it rather unclear. Magic seems to be institutional, in the sense that there are monastic orders of magic users, and healers look to be a dime a dozen. And yet, nearly everyone we meet with political authority (except for the Big Bad, who is instantly identified as such because of Alanna’s gut feeling, blergh) seems very mistrustful of magic, to the point of suppressing their own innate abilities. Alanna’s own overarching quest seems to be to find a balance between her martial and magical skills, with the implication that the magical skills are in disfavour and she must bring them back up to suitable prominence, yet it’s hard to see how a society that feels this way could bring itself to turning all the second sons into mages. Further to this point, there’s no reason given for Alanna’s distaste of magic. She hates it, she just does. Her father believes it killed her mother, but her brother clearly disagrees and Alanna herself never seems to put much stock in that explanation. So why does she hate magic so much, except as a plot device?

I’m griping a lot, and I do stand by my complaints. However, I realize that I am not this book’s intended audience, and that its intended audience would have no trouble overlooking most of what I’ve mentioned. In fact, I can very easily see how my 11 year old self would have absolutely loved this book. That doesn’t minimize my complaints, and I don’t believe in holding Children’s books to a lower standard, but I can still acknowledge that this could be a beloved book in the hands of the right age group.

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The Year I Stopped Reading Men

After a glut of female authors, Anna Szymanski read a novel by a male author and was not impressed. “It was like when you turn on a TV set after spending a significant period of time streaming television online. Suddenly, you’re covering your ears and asking why those Kia hamsters can’t play a different song. You never used to notice the commercials, but now they’re all you can hear.”

In her article, Szymanski argues that school curricula should be including more female authors at all grade levels. “We need to support the work of female writers, including female writers of color and lesbian writers and everyone else whose story is almost always filtered through a white, male lens. We need to arm young women with the critical understanding that their experience is valid — that they are not a trope or a category. Leaving a few Dickens novels off the syllabus in favor of some Virginia Woolf or Jamaica Kincaid may be a small step. But it’s a start.”

It’s an interesting article, and I recommend reading the whole thing.