Once upon a time there were two brothers, as alike to one another as you are to your own reflection. They had the same eyes, the same hands, the same voice, the same insatiable curiosity. And though it was generally agreed that one was slightly quicker, slightly cleverer, slightly more wonderful than the other, no one could tell the boys apart. and even when they thought they could, they were usually wrong.
"Which one has the scar on his nose?" people would ask. "Which is the one with the saucy grin? Is Ned the smar one, or is it Tam?"
Ned, some said.
Tam, said others. They couldn't decide. But surely, one was better. It stood to reason. (p. 12, e-ARC)
"Once upon a time..." That phrase still manages to captivate readers no matter how many stories they have read since that time they picked up that one special book in their nascent reading youth and were spellbound by what followed after it. There was that sense of something past, something important, something magical, that was about to unfold. It could be a tale of a hapless peasant who becomes a wise king or a hidden peasant beauty who becomes a princess. Or it could be someone who just struggles against a troubled and horrid past to create something magical and wonderful in the present. There are so many ways that these stories can go and a good storyteller can lead us readers of all ages to reminisce about those earlier "once upon a time" moments while looking forward to seeing how this iteration will turn out.
In her third novel for middle grades (ages 8-12) readers, The Witch's Boy, Kelly Barnhill begins her "once upon a time" with twin boys, full of love for each other, who confound those around them. They do not judge each other, but that is not the case of the villagers around them, who seem determined that one is "better" than the other, despite not being able to identify them readily. So when one of them, Tam, drowns in a tragic accident while Ned survives, the villagers begin gossiping that the "wrong boy" survived. This, coupled with Ned's grief over losing Tam, drives Ned into a stuttering, near mute stupor for years while his father, who only managed to rescue Ned, also tumbles into depression.
This tragedy also serves as a catalyst for change, as it turns out that Ned's mother is a "witch" who has been entrusted with a special clay pot that contains old magic that predates the creation of the village and the strange, haunting woods that cut it off from the wider world. And one day, there comes a band of bandits crashing through the woods, led by an enigmatic man with a little talisman around his neck. The clay pot becomes a source of contention and when Ned somehow gets the magic within attached to him (literally, as words are stitched into his flesh), along with something else a bit more intimate to him, he finds himself not only battling with the bandits, but also with the willful, sometimes amoral voices within the magic.
The Witch's Boy easily could have been a tale of Ned learning how to wield this magic and how to save his village from invaders, but Barnhill introduces a second story, this of a young girl, Áine, who lives in a cottage on the woods' cusp while her father roams far and wide after the death of her mother. She is an accomplished archer, brave and determined, yet afflicted with loneliness due to her mother's death and her father's change in mood. Her story becomes entwined with Ned's, yet she is not a sidekick, a simple character tossed in to make it more than just a boy's tale. Áine's past is integral to the tale and she, along with Ned, are fated to have a role in restoring the magic to its rightful owners.
Barnhill does an excellent job in developing Ned and Áine's characters, as each feels fully developed and with easily relateable situations and reactions to the world around them. As I read this tale, I found myself thinking back to what the nine or ten-year-old me would have enjoyed reading. That younger me certainly would have enjoyed being able to place himself within a tale, seeing the PoV characters as being extensions of his imagination. The current me, more interested in the mechanics of the story, also found Barnhill's narrative to be appealing, as she carefully develops the situation, not foreshadowing too heavily, but also providing just enough information for the basic narrative contours to be anticipated. There are no lags in the story; everything moves smoothly toward a satisfying conclusion.
The Witch's Boy is one of the better middle grades fiction that I have read in the past few years. It is a story that can easily appeal to both boys and girls and if I were teaching, for example, sixth grade language arts this year, I could see having a copy of it available for enrichment would be a worthwhile investment. It is Barnhill's best novel to date and I am curious to see what magical tale she will write next.