Staff Review: The Witch’s Boy

The Witch’s Boy

Kelly Barnhill

Algonquin Young Readers

The Witch’s Boy, by Kelly Barnhill, is a unique fantasy story that is as much about family and friendship as it is about magic and heroism. Although the witch, or medicine woman figure is often represented as solitary, living on the outer edges of the community, in Barnhill’s story the witch has a husband, two sons, and lives in town. She is, as might be expected, both feared and revered by her neighbors, but The Witch’s Boy isn’t about her relationship with the town, it’s about the struggle between power and love. The witch must chose between the magic she has been entrusted to guard, and the motherly love she feels for her two sons Ned and Tam when an accident puts both of their lives at risk. Unable to loose them, she chooses love, saving the soul of one son, by sewing it the body of the other. Ned, the surviving son is left practically mute, leaving the townspeople to speculate that the wrong boy lived.

In the woods, Aine lives with her father, a different type of outcast. He is a bandit, made cruel by the small bit of magic that he possesses, and desperate to steal the jar of magic left to the witch’s care. With the magic comes power, but Aine knows that the magic is corrupting her father and, like the witch, she would do anything to protect her family.

When Aine and the witch’s boy find themselves thrown together on a dangerous journey, each is determined to save the thing they care about most, despite the cost to each other. In this story, however, the most fascinating character is the magic, which is almost anthropomorphic. It thinks, talks, and attempts to manipulate everyone around it. Does the magic tell the truth or does it lie? The magic itself doesn’t even seem to know as it fractures into multiple and conflicting voices. As the magic tries to pull their world apart, Aine and Ned slowly discover that friendship might be stronger than magic and family is more important than power.


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