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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
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Boy / Monster / Angel / Boy

When Heavy Mbookofboyedal readers gave monthly “Suggestions” of likely Newbery contenders from March through August, Catherine Gilbert Murdock’s THE BOOK OF BOY was at the top of the list (tied with THE JOURNEY OF LITTLE CHARLIE) with eight suggestions.  It was an early 2018 publication, which is obviously an advantage in that process…but also: a pretty amazing book.

If you’re new to Heavy Medal, here’s a warning that we often reveal endings and surprises. And THE BOOK OF BOY has a pretty big surprise about halfway through, which I’m about to spoil if you haven’t read it yet. The surprise is that Boy’s “hump,” which causes him to be ridiculed, ignored, and teased by many (but not all) is actually the beginning of wings. Because he’s an angel. Murdock gives small hints about this along the way: Boy has the “face of an angel” (5), tells us that “naught in the world is so joyous as the feeling of flight,” (2) and never eats. But it’s not revealed for sure, and also not realized by Boy, until halfway through the book when he sees a painting and recognizes himself:

Not humps.
Wings.
Faded though this image might be, there was not a shred of doubt ‘twas an angel. (136).

Some readers may guess the truth before I did, but I don’t think it matters that much. For me, this surprise worked like the one in Megan Whalen Turner’s THE THIEF: Even if you don’t realize the whole truth until the last moment, you still know there’s something special and different about this character. And also like THE THIEF, once you know the secret, there’s still much more to come.

The different reactions people have to Boy’s revealed identity impel the second half of the plot. The swordsman is awed. The steward is greedy and vengeful  (“The thing is mine!” (134)). Secundus is kind of bitterly amused, at least at first: “An angel. Just my luck.” (142). And Boy is even more confused than before:

I’m not an angel, I wanted to shout. I’m a monster who wants to be a boy. (144)

There’s much more to this book than that plot twist, and I believe I believe we can “find excellence” in all of the literary elements listed in the Newbery Criteria. The 14th century setting is vivid and distinct. We don’t get many dates or broad context; instead we get a feel for the churches, fields, roads, and for the way religion played such a large and varied role in everyone’s daily lives. Boy is a compelling and thoroughly original character. He has the goodness of an angel in many ways, but also real human wishes, and struggles with choices as much as anyone.  Secundus is also fascinating, and he has his own mysterious quest. His interactions with Boy, who doesn’t really get his sardonic humor (or maybe he does a little), provide some light moments:

“You can read, milord?”
“Ah. Yes. ‘Tis a liability of my occupation.”
“Of pilgrimming?”
He barked a laugh. “I was once a lawyer.”
I did not say anything because I was so amazed to meet a man who could read, which even Father Petrus could not do, and also I did not know that word. (23)

Secundus changes in the reader’s view as Boy’s perceptions and understandings widen. That’s also true of minor characters that figure mainly in Boy’s memories, like Cook and Sir Jacques. Boy’s language suggest the historic era (“I was feared to approach” (22)), but unfamiliar usages are used judiciously, so most readers won’t struggle. His words are eloquent in a simple way that feels right for his character:

A notion sprouted like a weed inside my head: how fine ‘twould be if my hump were gone, so that I could know more smiles and comfort and safety. If I could live as something other than a hunchback or monster.
Stop, I ordered myself. You should not think so, Boy. ‘Tis not right.
But the weed would not stop growing, no matter how I tried to pluck it. (50-51)

Several plot threads intertwine seamlessly, including the secret of Boy’s condition, the search for the seven relics, and the wild pursuit of Boy once his angelic nature is known. And all contribute the themes of kindness and forgiveness.

In a Newbery year, it’s nice to have one book early in the year that rises pretty high. That can be sort of a measuring stick as you read other strong contenders. THE BOOK OF BOY has fit that role for me this year, and although there are still many unread books on my list, so far I don’t think I’ve read one that has matched it.

 

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Steven Engelfried About Steven Engelfried

Steven Engelfried is the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at sengelfried@yahoo.com.

Comments

  1. I could not stop reading THE BOOK OF BOY. Fast-paced with fascinating characters, it kept pulling me along with the story. When the book morphed from historical fiction (which I like) to religion and fantasy (which is not my thing), I was already completely engaged. It is still one of my top picks for the year.

  2. I loved this one too. I thought the spare but evocative text was an excellent fit with the story. The medieval setting, slowly flowing into a more fantastical setting, also felt natural. The medieval world was filled with superstition and magical thinking, and so the transition from what appeared at first to be grounded in historical reality to something that is more magical seemed “right” for this book.

    I liked that Secundus was a complicated character, both sympathetic and not.

    Because there always has to be one nitpick: there’s a running thread where Boy keeps remembering the litany as ending with “home” instead of “tomb” which kind of works in English (though I personally think it’s a bit of a stretch) because he could conceivably have misheard those words or their slight similarity helps contribute to his misremembering, but in French the word tomb (which according to Google translate is tombeau or tombe) doesn’t sound anything like the word home (maison or habitacion or domicile). But then again, I’m not a French speaker, I’m just using Google Translate. And I can also see the argument that it’s not the similarity of the words that’s causing the problem, it’s Boy’s desire for home, so it doesn’t matter. But I still noticed it and wondered about it.

  3. This is a title I keep returning to in my thoughts, though I think it may be a dark horse this season (though that’s exactly what I said about GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON, so what do I know)? A lot of the reviews I’ve read favorably compare it to INQUISITOR’S TALE, but I liked this one much more than that title. As I stated in my review of NIGHT DIARY, I love “journey narratives” (and there were a few this year – yay!), and where DIARY failed, this one succeeded again and again. For one thing, Boy’s voice was so fresh and gentle and even slightly sad. Though I initially disliked Secundus, Murdock masterfully reveals his true nature gradually and I began to like him even more than Boy. But this was Boy’s tale, and what a marvelous one it was: the reveal knocked me off my feet entirely without sacrificing any kind of believability. I loved his preserved innocence even after he learns he’s an angel.

    Alys’ comments about boy/tomb is beyond interesting. I forgot dozens of times that the book was initially taking place in France. I kept thinking it was England, but I don’t know how much of that is a failure on Murdock’s part to create a palpable setting and how much of it was me stubbornly wanting it to be England. At any rate, my interpretation of Boy’s inability to distinguish between the words was more him just being so wrapped up in the events that he can’t move past facts that are tirelessly repeated to him. Hey! Kinda like me thinking England when I should be thinking France!

    The one part of this book that didn’t work for me was the climax. I found the sequence inside the tomb to be incredibly confusing, and even re-reading passages didn’t clear up the murkiness of the writing. I simply couldn’t picture the events clearly in my head. This didn’t lessen the over-all impact of the book for me. I loved it so.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

      I’m glad you mentioned that tomb part, Joe. It didn’t really hit me until I read your post, but yes, I did feel a little lost during that part, in a way I hadn’t felt up until then. And it happened with the second read too. I think I followed it well enough to get the idea of what was happening, but there was something unclear about it….Will have to look at that part again.

  4. Julie Corsaro says:

    I agree with Steve’s assessment, and was delighted to be surprised. Having been raised as a Catholic, I was also intrigued by the idea of relics; i.e. saints’ body parts. I was reminded of this collection practice when I saw Spike Lee’s Black KKKlansmen, andthe Harry Belafonte character talks about the murder of his friend and how his body parts (fingers and so on) were taken as souvenirs. I think in the end this book may be about healing, both of the body and spirit, with a large dose of adventure for good measure.

  5. This one is on my tippy-tippy-top of the Newbery Winner 2019 pile. Am I alone in guessing that Boy is a Girl? I didn’t make the angel connection until much later.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

      Yes, I wondered if Boy could be a girl for at least a moment.

      • Yes, I also thought Boy might be a Girl – the description of his/her curly locks in particular made me think, “Hmm” – but! I also think it’s intentional on Murdock’s part to blend/dispel the gender binary for Boy’s character.

        After all, do angels – if such things exist – actually have a gender? I doubt it. Boy, after all, never eats and therefore would not need to relieve him/herself. So. No sex organs either. It’d be pretty awesome if a book with a genderless character won the Newbery.

  6. I enjoyed the search for the relics. The sense of time and place made the setting very realistic. I actually liked the story better with the child simply being a hunchback who was bullied which is what would have happened in the time period. The first part of the book had me really enjoying it. When the big reveal happened is when the story lost me. In Middle English an angel is a messenger of God. I had trouble believing that the angel would not know their purpose. I know that many children would not know or notice.

    • This seems to be a slightly “different” kind of angel? As in, they is perhaps a lost/unaware one? At least that’s what the author designed for them to be. (Using “they” since it is genderless.) I found the whole story mesmerizing and BOY’s connection with animals is so childlike and child-pleasing that it is just the right kind of presentation to make this a truly distinguished children’s book.

  7. This one is easily in my top 5 and I really don’t have much to add that others haven’t already, execpt I do want to throw out my one nit-pick about it and see if a) anyone can help clear up my understanding or b) I can make sense at all in trying to explain my one nit-pick.

    The ending of the story was very blah to me. I know Boy feels at peace at the end, but I don’t really understand how or why. Or what his overall purpose is. To ‘work’? For a “journey” story to end in this way, especially about an angel who one could assume, was put on earth for some higher purpose, was just sort of anti-climactic. We’re provided full closure on Secundus’ journey yet Boy, I just don’t really know what we’re supposed to think in the end about Boy and what will happen with him now. And since some have accurately described this as a “journey” story, which I would agree with, I just felt a little let down and confused.

    Does any of that make sense?

    • steven engelfried says:

      Good questions, Mr. H. For me the ending was satisfying. Boy got to be the boy he had wished to be, in a way. He could fold his wings up, be perceived as a boy, and do good works. In his journey home, he did kind things that a human could have done…but the humans we saw in the book weren’t doing much of that. Either because they were not at all kind (the steward), or because most of their kindness was buried by the harshness of their lives (Cook). So I see him doing small, but important good works on earth in human guise. And as an angel…well, we don’t know what he’ll do, but we know he’s embraced that part of his being and will figure it out. He did wind up where he started, but it seems like he’s ready to do many wonderful, if undefined, things. Towards the end he’s about to fly up the tree, and the way he describes it has a larger meaning too, I think, about the unlimited, positive possibilities of the future: “Each night as I stretched my wings, I’d think of the place I must start from. The tree that had once seemed so high, and the view from its top so vast. How vast were my horizons now.” (273)

  8. And perhaps we as readers are made to consider the possibility that someone we encounter could be an angel in human guise… Or that ourselves could be the kind angel without having the outward features like Boy has.

  9. I’ll just chime in with a kid assessment, since I agree with a lot of what’s been said. I found that I could not hand sell Inquisitor’s Tale for love or money, and I thought this book would also have limited kid appeal. My Mock Newbery club, however, all agree, “This book is SO WEIRD and we LIKE IT A LOT.”

    It’s not their top fave, but, they’re 10. I know Newbery doesn’t look at kid appeal, but I always wonder about it with certain titles, as I know we all do.

  10. steven engelfried says:

    Thanks for the kid assessment, Cory. I haven’t talked to any kids who have read this yet, and have been wondering if they would go for it. I’m glad to hear some have liked it. It’s true that the Newbery Terms and Criteria directly state that “the award is not for…popularity.” (sorry, DOG MAN AND CAT KID). But they also say that “committee members must consider excellence of presentation for a child audience.” So the award isn’t given to the most popular book, and books shouldn’t be compared on the basis of mass popularity. But at the same time, the book that gets the award does have toresonate with child readers…just not necessarily the most child readers. Or even a broad range of readers. I thought that Murdock did an excellent job of making the time and place, and yes, the weirdness, of the book accessible to kids.

  11. I was delighted by this book! When Boy turned out to be an angel, I was surprised in the happiest of ways. I have never read anything like it.

    I know we are supposed to stick to comparing with books from this year – it really is fascinating to read this one after The Inquisitor’s Tale. I do also agree that this one is better than The Inquisitor’s Tale for students. The Inquisitor’s Tale definitely had its charms but I could never figure out how to get a student to read it without a lot of work explaining The Canterbury Tales). This one is a much easier sell. Another thing I have noted with my students is that other recent books like The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl and Wonder and Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus have primed the kids to read more about disabilities so the hunchback aspect of the story is an interesting hook for them.

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