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June is Pride month! For the month of June I’m going to be checking out some popular and not-so-popular LGBTQ+ themed or inspired books. As a queer person I want to explore not just the quality of these books but also how the represent our community as well.
I thought it would be a fun way to kick off my summer reading and I hope that some of these books make it onto your reading list as well. As a parent trying to raise self loving and queer accepting kids I also decided to pick up a few books for our home library.
The Witch Boy Book Review
The first one I got my hands on was “The Witch Boy” by Molly Knox Ostertag. I actually first paid attention to this graphic novel back when it first came out in 2017. At the time I was working in a library and heading programming for school aged kids.
Part of my job was helping to grow our collection with more diverse books. This was one of my picks. Like most librarians, I didn’t actually read it – just went off the reviews and synopsis.
My own kids range in age from 6 to 13 which means middle grade fiction gets a lot of use in our house. What’s more, graphic novels are king. Really though, who can blame kids for liking comic books? I sure do, even now.
As a graphic novel The Witch Boy definitely holds its own. This wasn’t Molly Knox Ostertag’s first work, and you can definitely see why she’s been successful. The art style is cute and unique – not your typical comic book nor Japanese Manga style.
It’s its own, which I love. The book is also full colour – something that makes reading graphic novels more interesting and engaging.
The book tackles some complex visuals and manages to convey what’s going on and the tone successfully through the graphics. You can always see what’s going on, nothing looks out of place. All in all, this is a well polished comic.
Unlike traditionally books, the art matters a lot in graphic novels; it can enhance the story or detract from it. In this case it’s the former and it makes me want to check out her other books.
The Witch Boy, boiled down, is a story of a kid who doesn’t fit into the roles that are expected of them. While he tries to do what he’s supposed to, he ultimately discovers that doing the forbidden thing makes more sense and uses it to save the day – eventually convincing everyone that he was perfect just as he was.
Tropes make up the plot in some areas, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The story feels familiar, not tired.
This is more an observation than a criticism. It’s important to remember that this story was written for children, ones who first of all aren’t as exposed to a wide variety of media, and secondly who rely on storytelling patterns to garner a better understanding of the plot.
By using a tried and true story line the author is able to introduce more complex ideas without worrying about losing her audience or it getting over their heads.
Furthermore, in many places the visuals help carry the story in unique ways. Graphic novels only have so much space for writing so it’s much more challenging to tell a complex story in a single volume.
Overall the book is incredibly engaging. I couldn’t put it down and read it in one sitting. Although it was clearly meant for middle grade kids, I still wanted to see what would happen next in the story as an adult.
What I said before about tropes and formula might be true, but there was enough nuance and changes to these patterns to keep me hooked.
It’s not a very long book and can easily be read in one sitting, but you could spend a lot more time taking in the visuals and re-reading the story again and again. This is especially true for the target audience.
If you need any more convincing, as soon as my 8 year old saw the book she immediately was drawn to the cover and flipped through it. It looked “cool” and “exciting” enough to get her attention when she flipped through and it’s since made its way into her backpack.
Pushing Gender Norms
That brings me to my next point, which of course is what The Witch Boy does best of all. It fights gender norms.
The author got her start drawing a web comic called “Strong Female Protagonist” about a former female superhero navigating life. Its primary focus is social injustice, and these attitudes can be seen in the writing of The Witch Boy as well.
First of all, the novel itself can be enjoyed easily by both boys and girls. The main protagonist is a boy and there is a mix of action and drama that appeals to most kids at the middle grade reading level. Not super masculine or feminine, it certainly doesn’t feel written for one specific gender – just kids.
The story follows Aster who lives in a society where girls learn witchcraft and boys learn shapeshifting. Not only does Aster sneaks into the girls’ lessons and wants to be a witch, he’s also struggling to learn shapeshifting like the other boys. He doesn’t just want to, he can’t.
Aster meets another kid, Charlie, who’s a regular human. Charlie complains of similar things: the boys get more options for sports than the girls in school. Neither is fair and they bond.
What’s interesting about this book is it’s not necessarily a transgender story: Aster wants to do witchcraft as a boy, he doesn’t want to be a girl.
LGBT+ / Queer Themes
First and most obvious is Charlie mentioning “her dads” in a couple conversations. There’s zero attention drawn to it and it’s fit into conversation the same way someone might say “my mom will kill me if I get my pants dirty” in a middle grade book. That normalisation of queer relationships is really important, especially in kid lit.
You also see a lot of what queer and gender nonconforming kids go through. Aster is bullied for wanting to learn witchcraft and for not knowing how to shapeshift. He doesn’t fit in with the other boys, either.
The women in Aster’s family gatekeep womanhood (in this case, witchcraft) because he’s a boy. He’s ushered away from their “secret” rituals and forbidden from doing them himself. This isn’t because they don’t love him, but because they believe it’s for his own protection.
Charlie also goes through her own problems with conformity and injures herself showing off to a group of boys. She admits to wanting to do the things they do because it seemed fun. She’s a bit ahead of Aster in her self acceptance and is already pushing the gender boundaries when they meet.
Most queer people have this experience, though. In the gay community we call them baby gays, in the trans community we crack someone’s “egg” when they discover who they are, and so on. These sherpas of sort help us navigate the complexities of our emotions and identities to discover who we are. Like with Charlie and Aster, finding someone like you can be liberating.
I should also add here that the author is a woman married to a woman. I don’t know how she identifies, but it’s definitely an LGBTQ+ book written by a member of its own community.