I’m as happy as the next person to enthusiastically recommend THE REAL BOY to adults and children for pleasure reading, but like Nina I have grave reservations about it as a Newbery book. I’m hesitant to follow her mixed review with one of my own, especially because not many people have spoken up in favor of the book despite a strong showing during our October Nominations. I do hope that people will add their voice in support because we are on the fence about whether or not to include it on the shortlist, and your comments could make all the difference. As for me, I have reread the book, and taking Vicky Smith’s advice to heart, I’m going to try to make a fair and balanced assessment.
To my mind, the theme of this book is the most distinguished part of it. It’s simple, but universal. I love how the title alludes to PINOCCHIO, and the flip-flop narrative twist worked beautifully for me on both readings. We don’t all have autism like Oscar, but we have all felt inadequate, abnormal, or unreal–and this book speaks powerfully to those fears and insecurities. The sentence level writing is quite good, although I felt like it was superb in the beginning, and gradually petered out. I’m not sure whether it actually did that, or whether I just became accustomed to the beautiful writing, or became so engrossed in the story that I stopped noticing the prose–but I had a similar experience with BREADCRUMBS. If I felt like this book was slightly overwritten on the scene level, it’s such a prevalent problem that I sort of feel like the traffic cop who capriciously gives out tickets on a California highway during rush hour: everybody’s speeding, so what’s the big deal? I’m not sure that you can convince me that the style is as distinguished as the theme, but if we discussed it long enough it would help me understand why you find the book most distinguished in this regard. Moreover, I will add that, being a fantasy fan, I’m acutely aware that many a good fantasy is a quality piece of storytelling, but falls short in the areas of style and theme, so I can definitely appreciate how this one sets itself apart from other fantasies in these respects.
And there are some admirable storytelling qualities here–plot, character, and setting–that we will discuss momentarily, but first I must play Amy Farrah Fowler to your Sheldon Cooper and disabuse you of the notion that INDIANA JONES AND THE RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is the masterpiece that you think it is. Among other things, the opening chapters lay out several mysteries that readers will track throughout the narrative: How does the magic work? What happened to Wolf? Where did Caleb go? What is Oscar’s story? These mysteries will yield to new ones: What kind of monster destroyed the glass house? What plagues the City children? In due time, all of these questions (and more) will be satisfactorily resolved–all, that is, but that very first one. The system of magic in this book, as Nina mentioned already, remains vague, ambiguous, contradictory, and extremely frustrating for many seasoned genre readers. The contract with the reader in this kind of fantasy/mystery book states that we will live with this confusion at the beginning of the story so long as the author gradually enlightens us by the end of it.
- Why does the magic dwindle from wizards to sorcerers to magicians to magic smiths, and how is it that Caleb worked his way back up the ladder when others did not or could not? Did he have more latent power, or was he just more clever and/or more skilled in his use of it? And what exactly was his magic, anyway?
- What is the duke’s role in perpetrating the system of apprentices? Does he himself have magic? If not, then how can he ascertain whether apprentices have magic, and what is it that apprentices do to demonstrate their abilities? How did Callie slip past him?
- Is magic fickle–or human nature? The wizards seemed to use magic for good, but Oscar and Callie ultimately decide to destroy it because it’s bad. Does the magic reside in people–or in the soil? I understand how it goes from the wizard trees back into the soil, but why does it appear in new generations of people (and appear in a weakened form)? If the root cause of the childrens’ sickness is the same then why are the symptoms so different?
These questions–and I took a whole page of notes; this is just a sample–make the world-building feel casual and sloppy, but for me the most egregious fault lies in Lord Cooper’s justification for wooden children.
“Caleb promised children who would never get sick,” he said, voice quiet. ”Never suffer, never have any problems at all. A boy got sick and died a few years ago. It was horrible. That wasn’t supposed to happen!” Even at the words, his face darkened. ”And this way, we could have what we wanted. A boy and a girl, three years apart in age, and nothing could go wrong with them.” He looked at Oscar and Callie, as if for approval. ”We’d never have to see them suffer at all. You want your children to have the best of everything–”
So . . . You love children and want them, but you also want to avoid suffering–so you opt for fake children? R-i-i-i-i-g-h-t. I could belabor all the absurd implications of this logic (Oscar and Callie find it quite puzzling, too), but . . . you will be hard pressed to find a more specious piece of reasoning–except that there’s another doozy on the next page, one that explains why you, too, should get fake children.
“You see,” the lord explained, “everyone else has them. You wouldn’t want your child to be the only one who had flaws. What would it be like for them?”
Now, as I mentioned previously, this book has some real strengths when it comes to plot, character, and setting–and I’m not surprised that some people will find that the strengths of this book overcome its weaknesses, and I welcome those arguments in the comments below. For me, however, these kinds of flaws are probably irredeemable. I mentioned that one of the unofficial things that I look for in a Newbery book is being in the hands of a master storyteller. When I get that sense, I can be persuaded to get behind a book, even if it’s not my cup of tea, and indeed that very thing happened last year with SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS. But I’m afraid that’s not the case with this book.