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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

The Real Boy

The National Book Award Finalists were announced last week; the Longlists cut by half into Shortlists. Among the Young People’s Lit titles that are squarely within Newbery range, TRUE BLUE SCOUTS and THE THING ABOUT LUCK are hanging in there.  FLORA & ULYSSES did not make the final round, nor did A TANGLE OF KNOTS or THE REAL BOY.

Yet Ursu’s THE REAL BOY seems to be a popular fall favorite, is faring well on the Goodreads Newbery list, and Rachel Stein and Sam Eddington are championing it at For Those About to Mock, where Sam calls it “meticulous in its world-building, sharp in its characterization, and beautiful in its prose.”   I agree, and yet, I can’t get totally behind this one.  I was completely involved in the reading of it, and think this is even stronger than Ursu’s BREADCRUMBS.  Yet it had enough chinks in that world-building and characterization that the strengths didn’t quite hold up for me.


Those chinks didn’t really make a mark until the end, though I noticed them from the start (the alphabetical garden that defies how things actually grow (basil (high water/sun annual) doesn’t mix well with Bay leaf (perennial shrub);  the very flat characterization of important side characters such as Macolm and Caleb);  the world building was so intriguing that I was able to put these aside.   But as Oscar and Callie started to unravel the mystery in the last third and quarter of the book…that world building started to unravel too, and some how became less curious, less mysterious, and even less real.   When we get to the idea of a whole town with fake kids….there was not enough underpinning this idea to make it hold up.  I stopped believing in it, which was really an amazing feat, given the strength of Ursu’s prose in establishing a vivid and believable setting.  I wonder, too, about the double-reveal;  the first one was so unexpected to me that it opened the story powerfully…  but the second took it right back to where I assumed it was going all along…except for the other-kids-being-wood part, which, again, I just needed a little more foreshadowing for to believe that it had been there, all along, under my nose, and wasn’t just an invention of the author.

Am I reading from too mature of a viewpoint? I am a true fan of fantasy, but I like a complex magic in them.  I’m less fond of stories where Magic is treated with a broad brush, capital letters, all-or-nothing.  This is, admittedly, probably the best capital-M Magic book I’ve read in a long time.  Am I just not the real reader for this book?


Nina Lindsay About Nina Lindsay

Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at


  1. Nina, the world-building was exactly where it lost me. You’ve described pretty much where I fell out of the story.

    When I was a first-round Cybils Fantasy & Science Fiction judge last year, I learned that I really place a lot of emphasis on internal logic. Does the world work? A lot of my fellow judges didn’t mind nearly as much as I did when there were holes. But in this case, the holes, the things that I didn’t quite believe would work, were the niggling things that make me not *quite* so enthusiastic about the story.

    It also seemed like the whole town would be sure to fall apart before too long after the end of the story. Maybe that shouldn’t matter, but how the magic worked was left pretty vague, and I wasn’t at all sure how things would be able to carry on.

    LOVED Oscar, though.

    This book reminded me a lot of JINX. Both had a magic forest and a kid with a connection to it. But I thought JINX’s magic forest was more nicely developed. JINX had some other problems, though.

    I did really enjoy THE REAL BOY. But I find it interesting that you put your finger on exactly the issues that bothered me.

  2. Leonard Kim says:

    Nina, I completely agree with you about this book. I was absorbed by the first 3/4 of this book even as I was aware of “chinks” in writing and characterization. I didn’t even mind the second Big Reveal so much (actually I was pleased because I sensed it coming.)

    (SPOILERS) Where the book lost me was when Oscar announced he wanted to make the magic go away. My immediate, gut reaction was a horrified, “all the city kids are going to die!” When it became clear that wasn’t the case, my next reaction was a disgruntled, “I don’t know how anything in this world works.” Having been thus failed by the world-building, which till then had carried me past other issues, the whole thing just sort of deflated for me.

    (What I had thought was — the land isn’t inherently magic; it comes from the wizard trees. I thought the reason why the city kids were mysteriously failing was because the trees were secretly being cut down–even though it was to make them–weakening the land’s magic which had been animating them. Therefore, if Oscar shuts down the magic, all the kids would shut down as well. Clearly I was completely off-base, but is that really my fault? Or insufficiently consistent world-building? Was the only consequence of Caleb’s cutting down the trees really just the birth of the earth monster? Is the only consequence of Oscar’s shutting down the magic really just that the city folks don’t get their lame trinkets?)

    • Leonard, you worked it out better than me. My reaction at the end was that I wasn’t exactly sure *what* Oscar had done and how the city would continue to function.

    • This gives me comfort. I kinda felt like maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention to the end to “get it”. I sunk into the beginning wonderfully, it felt very Diana Wynn-Jonesy to me, but by the end I was left scratching my head.

  3. Eric Carpenter says:

    My biggest problem with THE REAL BOY was the pacing. It took an awfully long time for the menacing “thing” (been a while since i read this sorry) finally made its appearance and once it did, it was dealt with so quickly that it didn’t seem so menacing after all. Maybe I’m mis-remembering that boring chapter but wasn’t it just Oscar running for a long time?
    Also if there is a bag with a body in it….open the bag!! I stopped believing in Oscar as an authentic kid when he didn’t open the sack and look at the gore.

  4. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    This has the second highest number of October mock nominations. Is there really no one who will rise to its defense?

  5. Don’t rush me, Jonathan – I’m thinking.

    OK – I’ll defend it. I think THE REAL BOY is by far the best MG novel of the year (that I’ve read).

    I can’t really speak to the issue of magic because it’s been too long and I don’t recall the specifics–all I can say is that I remember it all making a lot of sense at the time. But I’ll reread and see if I can get some specifics

    As for the double reveal – for me, it worked perfectly. Perhaps this has to do with expectations, but Nina says after the second reveal it went “where I assumed it was going all along”. For me, the first reveal (Oscar might be made of wood) was the much more obvious solution, and I was therefore greatly relieved, and quite surprised when the second reveal came. The larger issue, with the double reveal is the characterization of Oscar. It would have been overly obviously and, I think, a bit of a cop-out for Oscar to be Pinocchio–making him a “real boy” made his disaffection and feelings of otherness much more poignant. Though, again, if that’s where you always thought the story was going (as Nina says) then perhaps the twists don’t matter there. But either way, we are left with a very affecing portrait of a boy who feels lonely and out of place, and (depending on how you read it) a touching portrayal of someone with asperger’s or autism.

    I very much disagree that the children being made of wood was un-foreshadowed. Although it was a surprising twist for me, it made perfect sense of everything that had come before.

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      On a second reading, the children being made of wood is clearly foreshadowed. For example, on page 73, we read this description, “His black hair lay perfectly flat on his head, and he stood up so straight, like he had been posed, like his whole skeleton was made of different stuff from Oscar’s.” That’s not my issue with the children being made of wood. It’s that I do not believe in any way whatsoever that any parents anywhere for whatever reason would prefer wooden children to the real thing; it’s asking an awful lot from a reader to swallow that one.

      • It’s possible that I’m a deeply, deeply cynical person who spends too much time reading the more depressing parts of various news sources, but that, sadly, required less suspension of disbelief than any other part of the story for me. :(

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        But, Sam, we’re not talking about isolated incidents that make the news, but rather an entire group of people who clearly love their children very much, who hate to see them suffer and who have repeatedly sent for the healer and the magician.

  6. Cherylynn says:

    I thought this book was very distinguished too. I do want to address the comment about not well developed side characters. The story is from Oscar’s point of view so why would he know more about the character of the great magician his master. Oscar did not understand people well and Caleb would not explain himself to his hand. The same is true of Malcolm as well. Oscar only knew what Malcolm would tell him. I think it would have distracted from the story for Malcolm to go into a lot of detail about why he was no longer a magician. It was not needed for the story to continue. Oscar is just one of the better portrayals of autism or Asperger’s I have read in recent years.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      Without re-opening the Navigating Early discussion, didn’t anyone else feel that Oscar as a character seemed not much more than multiple cyclings through a checklist of classic Asperger’s traits? Lack of eye contact. Check. Inability to pick up on social cues. Check. Literal understanding of language. Check. Perseverative interests. Check. I agree with Destinee’s comment in her October nominations, “Oscar is similar to characters we’ve seen before, but never in this kind of setting and never with these kinds of twists in the plot.” I think that’s the real novelty here, not the character itself, who I felt could’ve been more individualized.

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        I think the key words here are “multiple cyclings” because I definitely felt that on the first reading the autistic characterization of Oscar was extremely heavy-handed. That’s bothering me a bit less on the second reading. My other big characterization issue is that I didn’t understand Callie’s motivation for befriending Oscar, seeing as how she’s a couple years older than him. Once she does, however, it’s a very symbiotic relationship: he helps her with plants, she helps him with people. This, too, is bothering me less on a second reading, largely because the third person limited viewpoint hews so closely to Oscar. The other characters are flatter, but since there is a quasi-fairy tale feeling to the novel, and since we made similar allowances for Grace Lin’s work, I’m okay with the minor characters not being as fully rounded.

  7. What Mark said, basically, with a side helping of what Cherylynn said.

    Seriously, I was going to launch my spirited defense of this one, but at the moment at least, everything I have to say is either in my review or in what the two commenters above me said. But then again, I was the guy who argued that the bugs in BREADCRUMBS were actually features, and I feel the same way about this one. Maybe I’m too much the right reader for Ursu’s books…

  8. I’ll jump in to defend this, too, particularly Jonathan’s criticism that people would never choose magical children over real children. One of the themes explored in THE REAL BOY is greed and its consequences. Caleb is greedy for wealth and the City people are greedy for magic. Combine these two, and you end up with a city full of wooden children. Do I find it hard to believe that a whole town would trade the fragility of real human children for the perfection of magical wooden ones? Not at all. In fact, I think it’s analogous to our increasingly invasive relationship with technology. Think of how our world has changed in terms of real, face-to-face human contact being traded in for safer, more controlled online contact. (I’m thinking particularly of a TED talk by Sherry Turkle based on her book ALONE TOGETHER.) I would even go so far as to say the the environmental degradation of Aletheia being caused by greed for magic is similar to our real environmental woes caused by greed for energy to fuel our dependence on machines. Clearly, I found this allegorical aspect of the fantasy world compelling, but I think it works really well on that level, which isn’t even getting into the other levels in which it succeeds, namely as a character study and as a mystery.

    I do agree that the end of the book is deeply unsettling. The death of magic to save the world? Major bummer. But this is not a book that scores big points in the fun department. This is a serious thinker.

  9. I had high hopes for this book, based on what I liked about Breadcrumbs and on all the Newbery buzz/love it’s getting (not to mention that my general taste runs to this kind of folkloric/magic-based fantasy), but in the end I was . . . underwhelmed. Definitely some nice line-level writing at times, but not consistently throughout, and I felt there really wasn’t any depth to the Pinocchio allusions (was I the only one who thought that of course Oscar wasn’t made of wood, he was just jumping to the wrong conclusion?) or the autism angle (what Leonard said about the multiple cyclings/checklist) and, as others have said, that the worldbuilding felt rather shaky.

    I was especially frustrated by the very light exploration of what was presented as one of the main themes: whether it’s better for people individually and society in general to use magic to solve all of life’s problems while possibly creating new problems of a different kind, or to live with things as they are, warts and all, which a) felt like an awfully familiar trope (whether the panacea in question is magic, technology, or medicine) and b) was treated very much at the surface level and not explored very deeply or thoughtfully.

    Overall the book felt far longer than the story called for (everything Eric said, and oh, how that unlooked-in bag haunted me!), which made much of the middle section feel flabby to me, with noticeable repetition of words and phrases, particularly descriptions of body language. etc. I didn’t hate Real Boy, but I was hoping and to some degree expecting to be more impressed with it, since Anne Ursu clearly has a lot of talent.

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