The Real Boy is fundamentally about magic: how it protects, how it destroys, and what happens when the magic is exhausted.
Anne Ursu’s previous books involve portals between the real world and magical worlds, but The Real Boy is a straight-up fairy tale, and a dark one (as fairy tales ought to be). If there is source material, like the Greek myths that inform The Cronos Chronicles, or the Hans Christen Andersen story that inspired Breadcrumbs, I don’t recognize it. There is a magical city, a massive wood, a dire place called the plaguelands, and a hierarchy of magical elite and “muggle” peasantry. If it wasn’t for the name on the cover and all the kitties, I might have guessed it was by Philip Pullman or Jonathan Stroud.
The hero of the story is Oscar, a low-ranking assistant to a highly-regarded magician named Caleb. Oscar has trouble with faces and grasping the unwritten rules of social interaction, and he feels more kinship with the shop’s cats than its customers. He has a knack for recalling the uses of various herbs, and has read extensively on their properties — talents he keeps secret — but he has no people skills.
In a contemporary/realistic book, Oscar would clearly be labeled as having Asperger Syndrome, but because he lives in a world without such labels and taxonomies, the story deals directly with his experience, and not the metadata of the experience. He isn’t a kid with a disability, he is just a kid with peculiarities — a weird kid. He is bullied and teased a bit, but is more importantly, casually dismissed as a marginal person. He doesn’t feel like a “real boy,” and few people treat him like one. It’s no easy thing to work a kid built from modern understanding of autism spectrum disorders into a fairy tale world. There must have been a million ways to get it wrong, but Ursu gets it right. Oscar’s nature is recognizable, but it’s not self-conscious.
I don’t like reviews that rehash the plot and I won’t do it here. Bad stuff happens, and there is an adventure. There’s magic, monsters, sleuthing, and heroism. There’s a sympathetic healer’s apprentice named Callie and some sick kids and some trees and a small army of cats and a goat. It’s a great story, layered and moving and occasionally shocking. What impresses me is how well integrated everything is: character and setting, inner and outer narrative arcs. It’s a book I’m eager to use in a class on writing middle grade fiction, because it does everything good books do.
I think what everybody will talk about is Oscar, and the deft magic Ursu pulls off herself in making a book like this work. I hope teachers, librarians and reviewers recognize this book as one that “embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience,” (as the Schneider Family Award puts it), without labeling and filing it away as such. Oscar doesn’t need a label, and neither does The Real Boy.