The Real Boy by Anne Ursu is definitely one of my favorite books. In this novel for middle grade readers, Ms. Ursu has spun an enchanting fantasy tale, which emphasizes the importance of friendship and of believing in yourself. I was hooked from the first paragraph, completely engrossed in the magical world she created.
The Real Boy of the title is Oscar, a ten-year old orphan who lives in the village of Barrow on the island of Aletheia. Aletheia is a magical island with two major cities, Barrow and the Shining City. Barrow is a working class town with working class residents, while the residents of the Shining City appear to be perfect in every way. At an early age, Oscar was taken in by the Barrows magician, Master Caleb, to be a shop hand. Oscar feels a strong connection to plants and to magic, and he enjoys his day job of grinding herbs and making tinctures for Master Caleb. But Oscar has a secret: late at night when he is, according to Master Caleb’s one very strict rule, supposed to be in bed, he stays up reading in the library. Over time he has gathered much information about herbs and magic – enough to manage the shop himself – although it is the magician’s apprentice Wolf who is in charge in Master Caleb’s absence. When Master Caleb has to leave to visit the continent, Oscar is left under the supervision of Wolf, who constantly mistreats Oscar. Then one day after a trip into the woods, Wolf returns dead and his companion, the village guardian’s apprentice, is never found.
Left on his own to run the shop, Oscar eventually begins to rely on the help of a new acquaintance, Callie, the healer’s apprentice, who helps him talk to the shop’s customers. While Oscar and Callie are becoming friends, Aletheia begins to fall apart in several ways. The seemingly flawless children from the nearby Shining City begin to show troubling flaws: one can’t speak, another can’t eat, and still another can’t remember anything. Meanwhile, the shops in the Barrow village are being ravaged by a monster with an insatiable hunger to consume anything to do with magic. It is up to Oscar and Callie to determine the cause of these catastrophes and to put a stop to them. Through the course of the novel, Oscar realizes that the City people are not what they seem, and that it is the “real boy”, the working class orphan from the blue collar town of Barrow, who is needed to save the day.
I first heard about Ms. Ursu and her books on the Read Aloud Revival website through their Live Author Event for one of her other novels, Breadcrumbs (a spectacular book, itself). I loved how open she was about her experiences, her creative process, and the amount of time and effort that goes into writing a book. I am really looking forward to my next Anne Ursu story!