The Real Boy

The Real BoyAnne Ursu, author of The Real Boy, doesn’t write happy books with neatly tied up endings, but she does write beautiful and evocative books. (If this sounds appealing and you haven’t yet read Breadcrumbs, go change that.)

The Real Boy takes place on an island where magic is strong. It’s the story of Oscar, an orphan who works as a hand for Caleb, a magician. In this world, a magician isn’t a stage magician, but rather someone who has access to the magic in the world, but not at the same level as the wizards who used to live here. Generations before there had been a plague and the wizards found a way to protect the people with magic, then all the wizards died off. But now the magic seems to be fading. Some kind of monster is attacking people. A mysterious illness is targeting the children of the perfect and beautiful Shining People who live in the city.

Oscar has always felt like an outsider. He has no memories of his life before Caleb took him in. Wolf, Caleb’s apprentice, bullies Oscar. (My favorite line: Wolf is so named because “sometimes the universe is an unsubtle place.”) Oscar doesn’t really know how to interact with people, feeling much more comfortable with cats and plants. As tragedies start to strike, though, someone has to step up. Oscar doesn’t really want to be the one to step up—he’s much more comfortable doing as he’s told and keeping to himself—but it feels like there’s no one else, so he does the best he can.

Through the course of the book he becomes friends with Callie, the apprentice healer who doesn’t actually have any skill in magic and therefore is only a mundane healer. She, too, doesn’t quite know how she fits in, but feels that she needs to step up.

And the more I try to explain the book, the more I think I just need to tell you to go read it for yourself!

Because of the title, I (and my daughter) thought perhaps The Real Boy would be a retelling of Pinocchio. Although there are some very minor similarities, The Real Boy is very much its own original story.

SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid

Death and Loss

Several gruesome deaths occur. Early on (much earlier than I expected), Wolf is killed by the monster. It happens off screen, but someone brings the body back for Oscar to deal with—it’s a sight that haunts him for the rest of the book.

Caleb’s magical garden and greenhouse are destroyed—this is like a death to Oscar because it’s one of the few places he felt happy and safe.

Caleb fights the monster and tries to protect Oscar, and he’s killed right in front of the boy.


Wolf was pretty awful to Oscar, which is part of why his death surprised me—he seemed like an antagonist who would stick around longer. However, even after his death, Oscar can hear his voice in his head, reminding the boy how useless and incompetent he is. It’s a reminder of how being bullied can become part of you.

Useless Adults

The adults in this book vary from cruel to uncaring to selfish to afraid to incapable of acting. The one thing they all have in common is that they’re rarely of any help to Oscar or Callie, even when they should be. Most of the time it’s simple neglect, rather than actively harming any of the kids in the story. The adults worry about what they want, not realizing the price the kids in the story will pay for it.


Oscar and Callie forge a friendship of necessity, but it’s a real friendship all the same. They each have things they can teach the other. They have a fight and say hurtful things, but then they make up, too. There is absolutely no romantic subtext in their relationship at all. Nor is it Callie feeling maternal for a younger child. They see each other as equals and they’re good friends. Both my kids would really appreciate this because they get tired of romance being shoehorned into stories with male and female protagonists.

Not Fitting In

Oscar has no idea how to interact with people. Caleb is a master of it—he can convince people to buy anything, to trust him about anything. Callie is pretty good because she can read people and understands social conventions. Oscar, however, is clueless about people. He freezes up in social situations. He frequently doesn’t understand what other people are saying to him, and he’s totally floored by nonverbal communication. He doesn’t understand his own emotions, let alone predicting and dealing with the emotions of others. His inclination is to run away and hide.

He sees patterns and maps things out in his mind—his schedule for the day, the way to have proper conversations with people, the forest. These help him survive day by day.

Between the title and the magic wood in the story, Oscar and the reader (or at least this reader) both start to think that he’s actually made of wood which is why human interaction is so opaque to him. However, that turns out not to be the case. He’s just a boy with little memory of his past and trouble interacting with people in his present. But he’s learning.

Note: After I wrote this review, I decided to do a little research (usually I avoid that so as not to influence my own impressions) and I now feel pretty secure in saying that Oscar seems like he’s on the autism spectrum—although neither of my children is, I have enough second hand experience from friends that I suspected this was the case, and now I’m pretty sure that it is in fact the case.


Is magic something at the core of things or is it little tricks and charms that people will pay you for? It’s clear that most of the adults view magic as a means to making money, but Oscar begins to see that magic has been corrupted from what it was originally meant to be. Saving everyone will mean setting that balance straight again.

It’s Complicated

Oscar discovers that Caleb was doing really shady things. Before he can really deal with that, Caleb sacrifices himself to the monster so Oscar can escape. Oscar realizes that Caleb was a complex person who did good things and bad things. As such, it’s ok to mourn him, even if he is at least partially responsible for the mess they’re all in.


When Wolf gets killed, he was spending the day in the woods with a female apprentice. I know what I assumed they were up to, but it’s at best implied and not at all spelled out. Everyone agrees that whatever they were up to, it was no good. It’s generally assumed that they were trying out magic beyond their skills and experience.


I don’t feel like my review can do this book justice. Even the spoilers barely scratch the surface of what’s going on. If your kids need neatly tied up endings, they’ll be disappointed by The Real Boy, which leaves lots of things unresolved without any hint of a possible sequel (Callie and Oscar think they’ve solved the current problem, but they’re not positive and they’re fairly certain it’s not a long term fix). But it’s a truly original story of friendship and learning to step up. Oscar is easy to sympathize with, and since we see everything through his eyes the world takes a while to come into focus. Callie and Oscar are both complex characters and several minor characters add depth to the story as well.

Because there’s so much to think about, I’d recommend this for precocious 10 year olds and up or as a book to read with your precocious 8 or 9 year old. And it’s a book that many adults would enjoy.

There are simple and evocative drawings throughout the book. My ARC doesn’t have all the art—I may need to find the final book to check out what’s missing.


The Real Boy by Anne Ursu
Published in 2013 by Walden Pond Press
Read an ARC provided by the publisher



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