The Real Boy
Walden Pond Press, 2013
I haven't had the privilege of reading Ursu's highly regarded Breadcrumbs, but I'm going to make sure I track that one down soon! The Real Boy was a delight to read, pure and simple. I went into it one idea and one only: a particular legendary children's story, the title of which shouldn't be hard to figure out if you ponder the title of this book long. I also knew folks liked this book; in addition to appearing on mock Newberys (like that on Heavy Medal), it also made the National Book Award long list.
Ursu's writing itself is sheer pleasure to read. I'm a words girl, and I love to read well crafted sentences and the like. Nerdy, huh? I enjoy a well plotted novel, good characters endear themselves to me like real life friends, and musing over a deep theme with a good (real life) friend--lovely. But the words themselves are first and foremost what I notice. I'd wager that it's folks like me who enjoy the likes of Hokey Pokey and other titles that play with language. One of my favorite lines in The Real Boy reads, "And the people were the same way: gilded with plenty, unsullied by suffering." Ursu packs a punch with a succinct prose that will be just as easily read and relished by her target audience (middle grades) as it is by the likes of me. It's not perfect throughout, but there are moments of brilliance.
Thankfully, though, Ursu's prose isn't the only great thing about this novel. I hesitate to write too much about the characters and the plot because so much of the pleasure of reading this book is in the discovery of all that lies beneath the surface. Ursu gives us a wonderful character in Oscar, the real boy, and his friend Callie. I love their growing relationship, the ways they learn to read each other like any two people who are growing closer. Ursu does a great job of showing us this process, not telling. And she does a great job of showing us, not telling us, some of the quirks that any person has--but which Oscar seems to possess in greater abundance. There's no need to label him (finally!) because so many of us have strange little quirks. I'd bet there are lots of (unlabeled) kids who find elements of Oscar's character resonate within their own selves, even if they aren't as extreme in any given area. Callie is a born nurturer, but she's never saccharine about it. I love that. One important note: because the book is told from Oscar's perspective (although in 3rd person), there is lots that the reader must infer. I think this worked well although not everyone agrees with me.
The plot: it's well paced for the most part. Solid world building in the background informs lots of key decisions and moments, and it all hangs together. But the best part: the open ending! Enough is resolved for readers to close the book happily, but there are enough what ifs that we will spend the rest of the day (week) thinking on and musing over them.
Go get a copy and read it for yourself! Do NOT read my questions below unless you have read the book or don't care if you find out "stuff" before reading....
This book brings up great thematic material which would be worth discussing. The biggest issue is greed--and not just greed for more money or material goods. The parents in the Shining City want perfect children because they don't want to see their children suffer. Interesting, isn't it? Sort of a twisted desire to make everything in life perfect--so perfect for your children that, though they look and feel and sound real, they're actually artificial in an attempt to protect them. And don't we want that, too? Don't we go to great lengths to avoid suffering? Aren't we greedy for an easy life, an untroubled one, one that's "unsullied by suffering"?
My biggest question from this book, though: I totally thought the trees being cut down were the reason the children made from them were suddenly failing. I guess I get the idea of a "hole" in the world where Magic used to bind it together, but to me it made more sense to directly connect each particular tree with the children who were made from its wood. Anyone else?
Book from local library; cover image from publisher's site