The Witch’s Boy by Kelly Barnhill

By Ekta R. Garg

October 1, 2014

Rated: Bookmark it!

A boy survives a tragedy in which his twin brother dies; a young girl follows her father to a hideaway in the woods in the hopes that it will give them a new start in life. A king, egged on by greedy men, embarks on a quest to reclaim a portion of his kingdom. And magic beings wait in a forest for the time and the person who can come to free them from an enchantment of their own making. Author Kelly Barnhill offers middle grade readers a modern-day fairy tale in The Witch’s Boy, a novel that offers charm and depth in equal measure.

When twins and best friends Ned and Tam build a raft, they have one goal: to reach the sea. Their trip goes horribly wrong; only Ned comes home and that too after his father rescues him. Ned’s mother, Sister Witch, summons all of her knowledge about magic to save him. She does it with hesitation; she has only used the magic for the benefit of others, and she doesn’t know what consequences it will have in using it for personal gain.

The magic does save Ned’s life; it also has consequences. His smooth speech turns into a debilitating stammer. Every attempt to read turns into a dead end. Ned withdraws from the company of the villagers who call him “idiot.” More than anything he carries the reputation of “the wrong boy” who was rescued.

Meanwhile, Aine allows her practicality to rule her life. Despite her mother’s death, Aine does what she can to take care of her father. He in turn loves her, but more and more Aine notices that his behavior has begun changing. One day he comes home and tells Aine they will move out of their home by the sea and into a cottage in the woods. There, he believes, they will find refuge from the temptations that entice him.

Aine and her father move, but the new location only contributes to his straying from home. Little by little Aine figures out the truth: her father is a bandit. More than that, the other bandits look to him as the Bandit King. Aine does her best to adjust to her new life and to accommodate her father’s trips away from home that become more frequent. Soon, however, events force Aine to realize that her life will never return to normal.

In the midst of all of this, the Stones in the woods wait. Long ago they let loose their magic in the world. Now they see how complicated matters have become as a result of the magic roaming the land. They know someone must set them free in order to make everything right again.

Author Kelly Barnhill gives middle grade readers a wonderful story. She doesn’t shy away from building depth into her story, giving her main characters flaws that make them more endearing and their challenges that much harder all at the same time. As a result readers will find themselves entrenched in the world of Ned and Aine. The book’s length might make some parents wonder whether their middle graders can handle it, but parents can rest assured. Every page and chapter make the journey well worth it.

I highly recommend The Witch’s Boy for those readers who enjoy a modern twist on a fairy-tale world.

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