Pull List: The Witch Boy, M.F.K., and the Magic of Middle Grade Fantasy

It’s not often I dedicate an edition of Pull List to graphic novels or middle grade SFF, but lucky you I get to do both this month. Molly Ostertag’s The Witch Boy is a delightful, charming story of a kid accepting himself for who he really is, while Nilah Magruder’s M.F.K. is a quirky adventure tale of two kids exploring a dangerous world. While these graphic novels are perfect for tweens, there’s a lot for adults to love in them as well. And we all need a little joy in our lives, don’t you think?

 

The Witch Boy

Thirteen-year-old Aster grows up in a magical family where women are witches and men become animal shapeshifters. In his world, gender-based roles are clearly defined, and anyone who crosses the line is cast out. Unlucky for Aster, then, that he’s much more drawn to witchcraft than shifting. The women in the family refuse to teach him spells, and he has little interest in the boys’ rough-housing. So he ventures beyond the confines of his commune, where he meets Charlie, a neighborhood girl charmed by him and his magic. When an evil force kidnaps Aster’s male cousins, he and Charlie join forces to protect his family, even when it means using witchcraft against his family’s wishes.

Molly Ostertag, for those who don’t know, is an illustrator and cartoonist known especially for her excellent webcomic work. Her and Brennan Lee Mulligan’s Strong Female Protagonist series has been running for five years now and only gets better with age. (Plus, she’s the girlfriend of the inimitable Noelle Stevenson, creator/illustrator of Nimona and Lumberjanes.) The Witch Boy is Ostertag’s first middle grade graphic novel, and what a start!

Ostertag has her own particular art style, one that translates well from computer screen to printed page. There’s a depth to it that’s unexpected and refreshing, with a light and open color palette. She captures emotions well, from tween frustrations to teenage overzealousness to adult muleheadedness.

It’s not hard to feel an instant bond with Aster, and I love that Ostertag told this particular story with a boy Aster’s age. The Witch Boy functions as an allegory for coming out, and I’d argue more specifically about coming out as trans or gender nonconforming. Aster’s old enough to have already had years of gender stereotypes hurled at him and rigid gender roles forced on him, yet also old enough to know he doesn’t want to—and can’t—conform. To be the truest version of himself, he must go against everything his family believes is “right.” His only other choice is to sacrifice who he is by conforming to harmful rules. The allegory isn’t explicit, and some kids might not pick up on it, however all readers will recognize what it’s like to feel othered for one reason or another. But for those that do find the heart of the allegory–i.e.: the kids that need it the most–it will mean the world to them. And as far as I’m concerned, that makes The Witch Boy pretty much perfect.

Writer/illustrator: Molly Ostertag. Published October 31, 2017, by Scholastic.

 

M.F.K.

Abbie, a deaf teen girl with an attitude as hard-hitting as her magic, stumbles through a desert with her mother’s ashes and a dying moa when she’s rescued by eager, adventurous Jaime and his family. They take her back to their hamlet in the back of beyond where she confronts injustice and prejudice. You see, Abbie is a Parasai, a being capable of powerful magic. Where larger cities are protected by a Parasai, the helpless townlet of Marigold is plagued by them. Jaime and Abbie head out on an adventure across the desert. Book One, published in a lovely oversized hardcover, covers the first three chapters, while the fourth is up on creator/writer/illustrator Nilah Magruder’s webcomic, where the series first got its start. Magruder, you may remember, was the first Black woman to write for Marvel (beating out Roxane Gay by a few months).

Like Molly Ostertag, Nilah Magruder handles every role from writer to illustrator to colorist to letterer. And also like The Witch Boy, you can see the roots of a creator with a history of webcomics peeking through. I mean that as a compliment. There’s a flexibility to webcomics that you don’t get in traditionally published print ones, an air of “anything goes” and “rules are meant to be broken.” Magruder avoids the traditional 9-panel page, opting instead for overlapping and angled panels of varying sizes and shapes. Her style has a strong manga influence in terms of the characters’ expressions and appearances and in the level of detail in the backgrounds, but with a western flair, a trend not uncommon in webcomics. It’s also a trend I’ve come to appreciate, for it’s harder than you think to do it well and creatively.

The plot in Book One is light and unhurried, and, again, very much in the vein of a story that started as a webcomic with endless bounds and no end in sight. Readers not used to that format may find the plot too spacious, but it works for me. I highly recommend reading chapter four online if you’re still on the fence after the first volume. Magruder definitely knows where she’s going with this story, and there’s a lot more worldbuilding and character development in the fourth chapter. But mostly I just loved spending time with Abbie and Jaime. It’s more about the characters interacting with each other than anything else. The long-awaited fifth chapter can’t come soon enough, as far as I’m concerned.

Artist: Nilah Magruder. Book one was published September 26, 2017, by Insight Comics. Chapter 4 is available on her website.

Alex Brown is a teen librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.

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