MMGM and #IMWAYR (2/15/2021): TRIPLE REVIEW of The Witch Boy, The Hidden Witch, and The Midwinter Witch, all by Molly Knox Ostertag
So here's a funny story. For my Four Weeks of Witches event, I planned to review a graphic novel I had on my shelf called The Witch Boy, written by Molly Knox Ostertag (I discovered this book because Ostertag is actually the wife of the multitalented author of The Fire Never Goes Out, ND Stevenson). So I grabbed The Witch Boy and read it. And it was so good that I wanted more. And there was more. Two sequels, to be exact, The Hidden Witch and The Midwinter Witch. So I ordered them on Amazon. And I read both of them as well, all in the span of about a week. And they weren't just so good, they were even better (a quality rarely found in sequels). And because I am but a humble servant of the book gods who bring us these gracious gifts, I determined that the best way to convey how absolutely amazing this series is would be to review the whole series in one mega-review, thus illustrating the fact that I literally read all three of these books in one week because they were so good. I will attempt—note that I say attempt—to exercise as much concision as possible, and I will keep spoilers to the absolute barest minimum. And because there is no time in this post for dillydallying, we shall now leap into the reviews!
The Witch Boy
The Witch Boy's protagonist, Aster, lives with his entire extended family in a house hidden in the woods. The reason for this arrangement: Aster's family is magical. For generations, the women in this family have taught their daughters witchcraft, and the men have passed down their ability to shapeshift into animals. It's a legacy Aster's sister and cousins are excited to join, but Aster is struggling. He can't get the hang of shapeshifting and finds himself fascinated by the witchcraft that the girls are learning...and he just might have a bit of skill with it too. But Aster's family is unwilling to bend its strict rules, leaving Aster as an outcast in either side of his family. When Aster's cousins begin disappearing after practice with shapeshifting, it seems like things are plunging downhill fast. But, with the help of a regular girl Aster befriends named Charlie, this tragedy might turn into the opportunity Aster needs to prove to his family that he actually does fit in...if they can just make space for him.
This book took so many years of my own thoughts and just slapped them down on the page, and I can't help but wish I had had a book like this when I was just a bit younger. I'm a boy, and I've never mentioned my gender on this blog before because, if I'm totally honest, I figured people might find it a bit odd that I've read way more books with female protagonists than male ones. (Luckily, I've realized that my blog readers are the least judgmental people on Earth). We all know that gender norms are an exceedingly confining and gross force against women, but we forget that, though men basically created this ridiculous system of norms, it actually confines boys and men too. Most of us are totally fine if a girl wants to play with trucks instead of dolls, but a boy playing with dolls instead of trucks? We freak out. We've become very willing to allow women to develop stereotypically masculine traits of power, leadership, confidence, etc.—after all, we've been infected with so much sexism that we unintentionally value those traits way more than stereotypically feminine ones like caring for others, being sensitive, actually feeling a full and healthy range of emotions (seriously, what an idea), etc. But because we devalue these traits through a different kind of sexism and misogyny, seeing boys caring for dolls when they're little makes us panic that they won't grow up into men, whatever that means. As may be apparent from this blog, I've never really been a stereotypical boy—I try to care about people and ensure that they know it, I have fears and anxiety and sadness (and always have), and I have always preferred to read a book or get my schoolwork done than roughhouse, scream about cooties, or prove my "manhood." I've learned from some recent further reading/watching (specifically, the book For the Love of Men by Liz Plank and the documentary The Mask You Live In) and learned that toxic masculinity spirals out of control into homophobia, transphobia, rape culture, school shootings, and so much more—it's horrifying. I've always felt like boys like me are largely absent from the MG world, and even as there have been more books with boys who feel their feelings and reject these ideals, none of them have actually gone the extra but essential step and said, "These norms are actually real, and they shouldn't be." The Witch Boy finally, finally, finally does. The two forms of magic in this book, witchcraft and shapeshifting, mirror our two sets of gender norms. Shapeshifting is about harnessing the strength of the animals you form yourself into in order to defeat evil demons and beasts. It's a flashy, brawny sort of skill, though with plenty of merit and value in the context of the story. Witchcraft is a quieter kind of art, involving the studying of names and history, and sets of steps to memorize. It's done quietly and without extravagance. Aster would much rather peer in through the window and take notes on the witchery lessons in his notebook (which he does, several times) than run around outside and play sports and games with the other boys. One of the things that The Witch Boy makes startlingly clear isn't just that Aster isn't like the other boys, but also that his family rejects his differences. His parents, thinking they are doing the best for him (which is worth something, but still), continue to try to push him into a form of magic he isn't interested in and cannot even do. It's all the more shocking considering how tight-knit Aster's family is in every other way—but what does being tight-knit even mean if you force just one person into being an outcast? Aster isn't willing to just be shoved into a spot where he doesn't belong, but it isn't easy standing up to your family's long-held traditions, especially when they've been ingrained in you so long that you start to wonder if maybe you are in the wrong after all. Again, it's startling that so few books ever bother to discuss these issues, which is why I am so grateful that Molly Knox Ostertag took it upon herself to tackle them here.
(So much for concision—I need to pace myself now!) I'm going to spread out my series-wide praise throughout the three mini-ish-reviews here, but let me get a bit of my praise in here while I can. First of all, this book may sound horribly depressing, but it really isn't—it's only about an hour of reading (i.e. no wallowing in misery), it draws out one's own inner struggles more than it drags out the ones within Aster, and there's also just so much fun and amazing stuff to love here! Like the magic system—imagine a book about witches actually having a magic system with literally any kind of logic! Though we learn quite a bit of cool stuff about shapeshifting, witchcraft unsurprisingly gets more of a focus here than shapeshifting, and we see that it has a sort of academic bent— there are new words to learn, magical heirlooms passed down through the generations, and ritualistic lists of steps to do things like scry (spy on other people, basically), ask plants to grow new fruit, or create effective spells. (And the depth only grows from here in the next two books—more techniques, more basic mechanics, and even a bit of detail regarding whether there's more magic out in the world). One more thing before we proceed to book 2: Molly Knox Ostertag's art style is just fantastic, with clear illustrations, expressive faces and colors, and easy-to-follow panel layouts—combined with the solid amount of words to ensure that things actually make sense, it's no surprise that this series gets a pretty good Rating for the Graphic Novel-Averse!
The Hidden Witch
So this is the part where Molly Knox Ostertag decides (correctly) that she is talented enough to combine darker, painful-world-issues realistic MG, lighter classic-middle-school-issues realistic MG, and totally fun fantasy MG into a single cohesive book. With the summer coming to a close, Aster and Charlie (who I will talk about, I promise) are both heading back into their studies. Aster is plenty busy with his own studies of magic, which he's fallen behind in. Looking to his grandmother for help, Aster finds himself figuring out whether he's ready to show compassion to the villain of the previous book (yes, the child-abductor villain with the giant monstrous shadow on the cover of book 1). Meanwhile, Charlie is going back to the local middle school, where she feels pretty comfortable considering her friends and new positions on the sports teams. But as she makes friends with a troubled foster child named Ariel—and deals with attacks from the shadow, or Fetch, of an unknown witch—her life and that of Aster and Ariel collide.
One of the best parts of the first book in this series is the budding friendship between Aster and Charlie (talk about two friends who bring out the best in each other), and it only gets even better in The Hidden Witch, especially considering things have calmed down a bit (hard to imagine, of course, considering the aforementioned drama in the synopsis). Charlie is a kind and fearless soul, and the way she can just open her heart to so many different people, from Aster to Ariel and even more, is just wonderful—as is the way she can lighten up the worst situations. Not to be outdone as the protagonist, Aster has grown quite a bit as well, from a child under the thumb of bullying and scorn for being himself to a child who can be proud of who he is and admirably bring the compassion he should have received to other people who need it, like Sedge (one of the previously abducted children who is still reeling with trauma), the previous villain of the story, or even Charlie's new friend Ariel. Ariel, a foster child and the new kid at school, brings quite a bit to the table as well, showing how sometimes it's hard to bring kindness to others when your past experiences have put you down again and again. I loved the message in this story of showing compassion toward those who are hurting while also expecting them not to hurt you in return, and I was also thrilled to see that there's a lot of time in this story for Aster and Charlie to just relax and enjoy the freedom and growth they've been permitted. (Even Sedge gets a bit of delightful character growth!) And the magic developments, familial drama, acknowledgement of the trauma residing from book 1, and abundant fun make this book a fantastic follow-up in the series!
The Midwinter Witch
Things come full circle with The Midwinter Witch, the last book in this wonderful series. Aster's semi-immediate family (and its other branches that live elsewhere) have the tradition of coming together every year for a reunion known as the Midwinter Festival. There's plenty of fun and socializing to be had, but what Aster is thinking about most are the Jolrun tournaments, held each year to choose the best shapeshifter and the best witch of all the kids. This tournament could be Aster's chance to prove to his whole family that he is a true witch, and to maybe even inspire more kids like him. But acceptance is a slow process, and Aster wonders if he is expecting people to move too fast in changing their long-held mindsets. Meanwhile, Ariel (who we met in book 2) is finally learning to open her heart to more people, including Aster's loving family. But strange dreams and unnerving forces threaten to hurt the people she loves...or to prove that she'll end up doing the same after all. At the Midwinter Festival, things unsurprisingly go sideways (and certain characters do certain things that certainly made me angry with them). Amidst the chaos, Aster, Charlie, and Ariel have to figure out if this might be their opportunity to finally craft the lives they want to live.
What a wonderful conclusion to this fabulous series! First of all, I appreciated how the resolution to Aster's battle for acceptance was given breathing room throughout this series. Getting people to change their minds is indeed a long process, and I appreciate that the difficulty was not overly simplified. Even so, The Midwinter Witch makes it horridly clear how, as we all sit around taking our sweet time to get used to things, people like Aster are forced to feel like them being themselves is some kind of burden on everyone else and like they should just let people be comfortable in their current mindsets. We. Make. Kids. Think. That. Them. Being. Themselves. Is. A. Burden. What is wrong with us?????!!!!! Within the context of the story, you will want to reach into this book and slap some of the adults across the face, but within a real-world context, we need to think about who needs to actually bear the burden of change here—the people hurting, or the people obliviously prancing around. (See if you can guess what my pick is.) The Midwinter Witch makes it clear that Aster choosing to be himself is as much a burden as it is a blessing—with every wonderful moment of living your truth and even inspiring others (seriously, one scene at the end—well, you'll see), there's also a moment of judgment and bitterness. We need to work harder to keep the judgment and bitterness to a minimum.
Luckily, things aren't all painful in The Midwinter Witch (just like they aren't all painful in the previous books). The delightful MG friendship aspects only get better here—Charlie carefully plans every detail of a sleepover for the other characters, complete with horror movies, unhealthy snacks, and nail-painting (even for the boys, which is apparently something that still freaks us out—sigh). Also, we get a bit of LGBT+ representation here with Charlie and Ariel's barely-noticeable crush on each other (I'm honestly still wondering if it happened, but I'm pretty confident it did), which is of course nice to see! Ariel really gets to grow here as a character—she continues to fight in the push-and-pull against her inner demons, which tell her that she can only push people away and that she should just give in. Kids should never have to construct their own family from scratch while watching others bask in the family they already have, but the fact that Ariel manages to do so is heartwarming nonetheless. And one last bit of praise—the Midwinter Festival has tons of fun magical details and fun family joy that just adds to the wonderful atmosphere this series has put together!
Go ahead, try and guess. OK, I'll tell you—read this series! It would have been enough for Molly Knox Ostertag to tackle gender norms in such an insightful and powerful way that so many kids could relate to, but she decided that constructing incredible worldbuilding, memorable characters, and amazing intersecting plotlines were also all things she could put on her to-do list. I saw myself in these books in a way I haven't in countless others, and I can imagine so many other kids and adults from all walks of life will see themselves here as well. Please, please, please don't miss out on this wonderful series!
My rating is: Stunning!
My rating for the graphic novel-averse is: 3!