The Witch’s Boy by Kelly Barnhill – Review by Katherine Sokolowski
When trying to describe The Witch’s Boy to my students, I was at a loss for words. I finally said, “Sometimes I don’t know how to describe the books that I love to read, but I know they will be magical from the moment I open them.” The Witch’s Boy was just that type of book, magical from the very first page.
Book talking this beautiful book for our Mock Newbery unit was easy. First, I held it up. Immediately students were drawn to the cover and recognized the illustrations as the work of Jon Klassen’s. Their first connection and already they were excited. Then, I began…
This is a hard book to describe. Kelly Barnhill has packed so much into this book. It is, at once, a fairy tale, a story of friendship, family, and coming of age. It is a hero’s journey, a quest, a battle between good and evil. All of these things, and more, are delicately woven into one fabulous novel.
You have multiple storylines. The book begins with Ned and Tam, twin boys who have made an unfortunate decision to build a raft and attempt to sail to the ocean. They fall from the raft and their father rushes to their rescue. He is only able to save one boy, Ned. Immediately, the villagers begin to whisper that “the wrong boy” was the one saved.
Ned’s mother is both revered and feared among the villagers – she is the local witch, called Sister Witch. A kind witch, she tries to help her neighbors through the magic that lives in a pot in their home. Sister Witch is the guardian of the magic and works hard to keep it good, to keep it in control. This magic, of course, will be vital to the story – to all parts of the story.
Another storyline follows a girl in a village on the other side of the forest – a village that the people of Ned’s village don’t even realize exists. Here we meet Áine, just as her mother is passing on from this world. Her last words to Áine are, “The wrong boy will save your life, and you will save his.” Hmm, the wrong boy, seems I have heard that phrase before. And then, with her last breath she gets out, “The wolf –“ and then, passes on. Of course there is a wolf.
Áine is left in this world with her father. He is both a wonderful man who loved her mother desperately, and also a man with a past, a past that Áine knows nothing about. He grieves her mother and Áine is left to pick up the pieces for their small family.
There is also the matter of the stones in the forest – the magical forest, the evil forest, or simply the forest, depending on your point of view. There is also the beloved old queen with the untrustworthy family. There is the spoiled young king with the greedy soul. There are the bandits and the Bandit King – selfish beyond all measure and evil to their very core.
While sharing this book with my students, we discussed the idea of multiple storylines. How knowing they will always come together makes us read a book and feel compelled to figure out how the storylines will intersect. Sometimes I guess right, and sometimes the author took us in an entirely different direction.
Somehow Barnhill mixed all of these ingredients and put them into this one novel. She has created a book I didn’t want to put down, that I could not put down. Even at 372 pages, I was left wanting more. Not, I should note, because the ending was not satisfying, but because I was not ready to leave this magical world she had created.
My students and I look to books to escape. We also look to books to entertain us, to keep us company, to make us laugh, to make us cry. We look to books to teach us empathy. We look to books to see others. We look to books to see ourselves. The Witch’s Boy does all of that and more. Ned and Áine’s story will be one that you will return to again and again. This is a book to treasure.
Katherine Sokolowski has taught for fifteen years and currently teaches fifth grade in Monticello, Illinois. She is passionate about reading both in her classroom and also with her two sons. You can find her online at http://readwriteandreflect.blogspot.com/ and on Twitter as @katsok.