Oscar is a young shop boy who works for Caleb, the most powerful wizard in the village. He is ridiculed by Caleb’s apprentice, Wolf, but otherwise, Oscar lives a very quiet and content life, taking care of Caleb’s plants and herbs, collecting them and preparing them for the great wizard. Oscar has a fabulous memory and is an expert with herbs, but when it comes to people, he doesn’t know what to do or say and doesn’t understand normal human interactions.
Oscar is perfectly happy with his quiet, sheltered life, but it doesn’t last. Some sort of mysterious and violent force is at work in the village, and all of the wealthy, perfect children from the nearby city are getting sick. Suddenly, Oscar needs to step outside of his comfort zone and take on a larger role. Fortunately, he’s got a new friend, Callie, who is the Healer’s apprentice, by his side.
Ursu has created a unique, magical world in this novel, one with a frightening and mysterious past and an uncertain future. She has also created a unique and sympathetic character in Oscar, who would probably be diagnosed with autism in our world. Oscar’s insecurities and difficulties make him more endearing to readers, especially children. I thought it was very clever how Ursu took a young character with autistic characteristics and dropped him into a magical, fantasy world. Seeing Oscar struggle with his challenges and grow as the story moves forward can perhaps give real-life children some insight into their classmates or neighbors who seem “different.”
Beyond that, though, The Real Boy is simply a great story, well told. It will certainly appeal to children who enjoy magic and fantasy and is perfect for the middle-grade age group, with just the right amount of intrigue and suspense to engage them without scaring them. Children are always empowered to read about characters their own age who take control of their lives (and their fears), and Oscar and Callie make a wonderful pair of heroes. It’s also a story about friendship and finding your place in the wider world. I can’t wait to see what Ursu comes up with next!
For more information about Anne Ursu and her books, check out her website.