Oscar is a “hand” in a magician’s shop. He is lower than the apprentice, Wolf, and Wolf makes sure that Oscar is aware of it at every opportunity. But Oscar is happy in his work, harvesting and preparing herbs for the potions that Master Caleb sells, slipping into the magician’s library each night to read voraciously, and sleeping in the basement with a bed full of cats. He can’t remember anything before the time that Master Caleb brought him home from the orphanage, so he tries not to think about it.
Then comes the day that the apprentice, Wolf, goes out for a stroll with a lovely girl and is brought home in pieces in a sack. Soon after, a huge monster crashes through the front windows of the shop and eats up all the potions on the shelves. Master Caleb and the other magicians disappear from the village, and the beautiful, perfect city children begin to fall ill. It’s up to Oscar and the healer’s apprentice, Callie, to solve the mystery of the fading magic and help the children to recover.
The Real Boy is a fairy tale starring an autistic boy and a sassy girl who take on adult responsibilities and risk mortal danger to save other human beings who have never shown them a moment’s kindness. Although it was confusing at times, the reader puzzles out the answers at the same time that Oscar is puzzling out the key to his own identity. Both Oscar and Callie are winsome characters, and Ursu displays a depth of knowledge about herbs and other growing things.
I hesitated to read this one because I am not a fan of Pinocchio, and I was afraid that this novel would be heavily dependent on the classic tale. Although there is a connection, the “real boy” versus “wooden boy” theme was lightly written, and the story could be easily enjoyed without any knowledge of Pinocchio. Master Caleb was certainly not the kindly Geppetto. Some of the scenes would be quite frightening for a younger child, so I’d recommend this for ten and up.
For me, this is not a Newbery contender, as it does not rise to the literary level of some other novels this year, and some of the characters and plot threads seem to fall into oblivion. Where are all of the magicians? Why did the baker leave? When the wonderful baker is leaving, he tells Oscar to call on him whenever he needs help, but nothing ever comes of that. Are Oscar and Callie going to live all by themselves now? They are children, after all. Although it is a good story and the writing is fine, it feels uneven and incomplete to me.
Next up: a nonfiction contender.
Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.