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I’m writing this review of The Witch Boy by Molly Knox Ostertag in the middle of the night on the floor of my mom’s living room. The country is in day three of nationwide protests against racial injustice after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. I’ve been in a dark mood all day and experiencing a range of emotions. I’ve shared my voice and donated, but it doesn’t feel like enough. I’ve been plagued by insomnia, and I decided writing a review would be a welcome distraction from the bombardment of horrifying news on social media. So here is my first book review and seltzer pairing.
Tonight, I’m reviewing The Witch Boy by Molly Knox Ostertag and pairing it with an AHA Apple + Ginger sparkling water. I decided on this flavor, because it is a mix of two flavors, which you will see parallels a major plot point in the book. Furthermore, the opening scene has the witches learning to magically request apples off a tree. Finally, there is something just so witchy about ginger! I’ll be drinking this seltzer while I write, and you can read my thoughts about it at the end of the review.
The Witch Boy by Molly Knox Ostertag
The Witch Boy is a Middle Grades graphic novel published in 2017. It is the first book in The Witch Boy Series, which is followed up by The Hidden Witch and The Midwinter Witch. This book popped up on my radar a few weeks ago while perusing Goodreads, and the cover art really struck me. I wanted to know more about this boy and the shadowy monster encircling him.
After a few weeks waiting on Hold on Libby, I finally received the book and consumed it in two sittings: the first while on break from dissertation writing and the second while in the thirty car deep drive-thru line at Braum’s waiting for frozen yogurt.
The story is highly allegorical and symbolic, with its crux on gender roles, gender identity, and the generational burdens of nonacceptance. 13-year-old Aster lives in a house with all of his family, thoughtfully laid out in a beautiful family tree by Ostertag in the beginning of the book. The house is crammed full of children and women, though the adult men are absent (they are off fighting demons).
The book starts with the girls in witch lessons, learning nature magic — and I loved the visualization of the magical spells. Meanwhile the boys are organizing a game of capture the flag to learn bravery for a future of demon fighting. See in Aster’s world, girls become witches and boys become shapeshifters, whose main role is demon-hunting. Aster has a natural affinity to witchcraft and takes every opportunity to spy on his girl-cousins as they learn the basics of their craft. However, this is disallowed in his family — only girls can learn to be witches.
The story picks up as one of the boy-cousins goes missing during the family’s annual shifter-puberty rite. Soon more boys are missing, and Aster must use his arcane knowledge with the assistance of his new, spunky, sports-loving “normal” friend Charlie (short for Charlotte). I won’t spoil the rest of the book, but some great adventures are had and some family secrets are revealed.
Speaking of family, this must be one of the most diverse families I’ve ever encountered! The family represents a range of skin colors, sexual orientations, and (presumably) gender identities. It’s particularly interesting that even a family as diverse as this struggles with issues of acceptance and misunderstanding. I appreciate that Ostertag didn’t encourage any hostile feelings towards the family from their treatment of Aster. Instead, she allows space for growth, understanding, and acceptance.
Aster’s mom, Holly, is the quintessential witch. She’s fair-skinned, red-headed, like a young
Holly *ahem* I mean Molly Weasley in a petticoat! (Honestly, she IS wearing a petticoat like a witch Stepford wife; it made me uneasy). Holly seems like a loving mother but also really conservative in her values. She wants the best for her son but also wants him to conform to the family’s expectations.
Aster’s dad is the shapeshifter Tohor. He’s dark skinned, muscular and the quintessential shapeshifter. He’s brave and courageous but still loving, even returning to help Aster in his transition to shifter. He shows real concern for his son not having yet received an animal form.
I’m delighted to find such diversity in children’s books, and I think more representation and normalization of such representation is important. For instance, Aster also has a gay aunt Iris, who is married to a dark-skinned partner, Jade. They have three adopted children, seemingly of Asian descent.
I do worry that certain tropes and stereotypes may have inadvertently found their way into this text. Having the perfect representation of witchy femininity be a lily-white red-headed woman and the perfect representation of the masculine, animalistic shifter be a dark-skinned man reinforces rather pervasive racial stereotypes. I don’t think this was the intent of the author at all, but it bothered me while I was reading.
Aster is a mixture of the femininity of his mom and the masculinity of his dad, which is paralleled by his appearance — he looks to be a perfect mixture of his parents. I’ve fretted over whether I’m over-reading this, but it truly seems to me that this adds yet another layer of visual cue of the parallelism between gender and skin color. I think why this was so striking to me is that we don’t get to know very many other characters in depth, so maybe this will be corrected in further books in the series.
Nevertheless, I wouldn’t discourage anyone from reading this book. If you were to read it with a child, it might be something to discuss with them.
Although the book is now a trilogy, it reads as a stand-alone, which I love. I probably wouldn’t have picked up the book, if I had known it was a trilogy (I HATE a cliffhanger). But, I‘m so glad that I did! I will definitely be checking out the rest of the series. The art is also fantastic. I love the use of colors and the simple, clean lines of the art.
I mentioned I borrowed this from Libby. I’ve started reading more graphic novels after reading The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui, which was the Common reading selection for my university last year. I never liked to buy graphic novels, because they are expensive, and I read through them so quickly. But I’ve been really enjoying getting to experience more of the genre through the Libby app. Sometimes it doesn’t work that well reading them on my phone screen, but actually The Witch Boy was great on the phone (except some awkwardness with the title page and family tree). There isn’t much dialogue, the lettering is large, and the artwork style is very clean and deliberate, so it scales down remarkably well.
Finally, let’s turn to the AHA apple + ginger sparkling water. AHA sparkling water is a new Coca-Cola line of seltzers, which pairs classic and unexpected flavors. While flavor pairings have been done before (e.g. LaCroix’s Peach-Pear flavor), this is an entire line devoted to pairings. I really like the innovation, and the fact that some of the pairings have caffeine. I was especially excited to try the apple + ginger flavor, because I’m a huge ginger fan.
I’m going to start with the can. It’s so cool. Like all AHA cans, the apple + ginger can is divided in two visual layers, each featuring a color of one of the flavors, in this case a dark metallic red and a light silvery-gold. The red half has these hilarious ginger slices and the gold half has slices of apple. The can is further decorated with delightful bubble graphics.
The first taste is exactly what I was hoping for! It tastes just like sparkling apple juice with a nice hit of ginger. The ginger isn’t too strong (though I could always have more). The pairing really works and is refreshing, interesting, and tasty. I could definitely see myself reaching for this seltzer regularly.
Now for a quick story time. This flavor tastes so much like one of my favorite seltzer cocktails. My first real experience drinking seltzer was when I studied abroad in Weimar, Germany for the summer. I drank so much sparkling water during my time in Weimar. I had a complex about paying for water at a restaurant but felt fine about paying for carbonated water (Wasser mit Gas!), so on principle I only ordered carbonated water at restaurants. My German professor noticed and suggested I try an Apfelschorle, which is a popular soft drink in Germany — just apple juice and carbonated water. I was hooked. I love apple juice, and we already watered it down at home anyway. The bubbles just released the flavor even more! It’s basically like a spritzer cocktail that everyone can enjoy! I 10/10 recommend trying one.
This seltzer tastes just like an Apfelschorle with a few slices of ginger thrown in for a bit of excitement. The ginger just elevates the experience, so I’m perfectly content (even if I could always use more ginger!). This is a great new addition to my seltzer repertoire, and I think everyone should try it out!