Although it's a middle-grade novel, "The Witch Boy" appeals to teen and adult readers alike. (Illustration via Jaila Desper, University of Maryland)
Although it's a middle-grade novel, "The Witch Boy" appeals to teen and adult readers alike. (Illustration via Jaila Desper, University of Maryland)

Gender Roles and Individuality in Middle-Grade Novel ‘The Witch Boy’

Who says graphic novels are teen-exclusive?

With authors such as Rick Riordan, James Patterson, P.J. Palacio and Katherine Applegate garnering widespread critical acclaim themselves, the middle-grade literary scene is already shining. But with her writing, which is brimming with shapeshifters, witches and magic, novelist Molly Knox Ostertag is making the case that she is a thrilling new voice ready to be heard.

Her debut novel, “The Witch Boy,” has already won a variety of accolades since its release, including the Best Mainstream Comic Prism Award, and, despite its status as middle-grade book, has been applauded for addressing a number of heavy themes, including gender roles, conformity and individuality, which are more commonly found in classic and contemporary adult novels.

Ostertag has written beautifully diverse and charming characters to fit the colorful world of “The Witch Boy,” and she is unafraid to use them as mouthpieces for the questions she poses about what gender roles comprise and what happens when someone does not fit into these pre-assigned boxes.

Though she has contributed illustrations to graphic novels in the past, “The Witch Boy” is the first work that Ostertag has both illustrated and written entirely. She is able to brilliantly tackle the questions she poses through her characters, answering them through colorful illustrations and heartwarming narration.

Magic and Gender

At first glance, “The Witch Boy” has what seems to be a very straightforward plot: a young boy named Aster belongs to a magical family in which men are expected to become animal shapeshifters, and women learn the secret practice of witchcraft.

The role of “witch” is typically assigned to a female character; think of Morgan le Fay, Baba Yaga or Maleficent. Depending on the depiction they may or may not be evil, but they most certainly are not men.

This is a narrative Aster’s character seeks to break. He finds himself spying on magic lessons, taking notes and dealing with the worried glances from his family. His character stands out in other ways, too, as Latonya Pennington from Pride has pointed out, “Aster’s long pony tailed hair and fondness for purple goes well with Aster’s gender role nonconformity.”

Ostertag does a fantastic job of incorporating these characteristic in both Aster’s narrative, dialogue and physical presentation.

His parents have often repeated the fact that men in this magical world are meant to fight the demons that lurk outside of their protected home, enlisting the assistance of animal spirits.

Because Aster is curious, however, and wants more than what is expected of him and his gender, he is able to confront a monster that threatens the lives of his family and friends. The beauty of Ostertag’s message is that it touches the hearts of young and older readers alike.

Character Diversity and Complexity

This complex plot requires characters that are far from simple. Aster is a boy of mixed race, as his mother is a white woman with red hair, while his father is a man of darker skin and dark hair. Charlie, a human whom Aster encounters while secretly practicing magic, is a black girl with a broken leg, and her bravery and enthusiasm for adventure help Aster overcome his fears in the end.

Even within the magical world itself, Aster’s parents have different lineages and it’s revealed that his grandmother also has mixed magical abilities.

One great example of character complexity is the villain of “The Witch Boy,” a shifter-gone-rogue named Mikasi. While it’s not too difficult to connect the dots as to how Mikasi and Aster are connected, readers will still appreciate Ostertag’s heartbreaking construction of a sympathetic antagonist.

Mikasi’s role as the villain reflects Aster’s problem of not fitting his assigned role. As a young boy, Misaki begs to be taught the craft his witch sisters learn, but his pleas are ultimately denied. This pressure to conform breaks him, causing him to resent his family. From then on he starts using dark magic, but because he never received proper training, he becomes a creature unknown to either shapeshifters or witches.

“The Witch Boy” argues that forced conformity can be harmful. When Makasi’s family rejects him for wanting to be a part of something considered feminine, he seeks out dangerous alternatives and then becomes a shunned outcast filled with bitterness. If Aster goes down that same path, might he meet the same fate?

Again, Ostertag’s portrayal of characters is flawless. Mikasi is colored red, but when his backstory is revealed in black-and-white panels, it is his red, warm coloring that contrasts with the monotonous coloring of his closed-minded family.

Are the Declarations Too Vague?

As with many other middle-grade novels, there are predictable twists and turns that make reading this novel less exciting.

If you can see the shocking ending from a mile away, what will keep you engaged to see the protagonist’s victory? The answer is simple: You believe in the character and their goals.

As readers, it’s easy to side with Aster because he is an outcast. Wanting him to achieve his dreams of practicing magic is something you can root for, because there might be a part of yourself that relates to his struggles.

Ostertag has created driven, exciting and diverse characters. Aster’s leading role is what readers focus on, but when perspectives shift, it’s clear that the author had thoroughly developed each character, and any of them could’ve been the main protagonist.

“The Hidden Witch” is the second book in the series, and it promises to further explore the intense but complicated relationships between Aster and his magic.

The third graphic novel in the series, “The Midwinter Witch,” will debut in November of this year.

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