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The book of Boy
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Trade Reviews

  New York Times Review

SNEAKING LESSONS AND MORALS into children's stories might seem like trying to con a picky eater by discreetly tucking spinach into a meatball, but it's a tradition as old as fairy tales themselves. Back in the day, the Brothers Grimm used their stories to warn us against going into the woods alone, talking to strangers and eating at random people's houses - at least two of which were legitimate dangers at the time. So it's no surprise that, beneath the magic, monsters and miracles, today's kid lit authors seem to have something to say about discrimination, tribalism and fear of the "other." Eliot Schrefer's new Lost Rainforest series casts sunset as nature's own MasonDixon line, dividing animal kind into daywalkers and nightwalkers - two factions with a xenophobic fear of one another. It's a prejudice that, like many in the real world, is born of ignorance, since the two groups never cross paths. And Mez, the young panther protagonist of "Mez's Magic," is not immune to it. She professes her pride in being a denizen of the darkness - "the time for the proper creatures of the world to thrive" - and shudders at the thought of the "monsters" that walk by day. And she does so even while harboring a secret: She goes both ways. Mez is a shadowwalker - an animal that stalks under both sun and moon. And like many closeted children, she fears losing her tradition-minded family if she is ever outed. Because the one thing nightwalkers and daywalkers agree on is that shadowwalkers are an abomination of nature. But being a shadowwalker means more than just glitchy circadian rhythms; it also means magical powers. Things change for Mez when she meets Auriei the boa constrictor, a sort of serpentine Professor X who recruits her for his anthropomorphic superteam. These "gifted" animals from both the nocturnal and diurnal worlds must learn to trust one another and work together to prevent the resurrection of the legendarily dangerous Ant Queen. But like the X-Men, they must battle not only the villains, but a hateful and distrustful populace as well. "Mez's Magic" is packed with as many jokes as fast-paced fight scenes (some of which can get a bit graphic - claws and fangs are brutal weapons, after all). And Schrefer ("Rescued," "Endangered") has created a stock of memorable characters - including Gogi, a monkey with self-esteem issues; Rumi, a delightfully urbane tree frog; and a manic, pixiedream bat named Lima - that bodes well for a series in which each consecutive volume will be told from the perspective of a different animal. Kamilla Benko's debut, "The Unicorn Quest," another first-in-series novel, sneaks a tribalism parable into a Narniaesque story structure. The book begins with two sisters, Claire and Sophie, exploring the eerie old mansion of their recently deceased great-aunt, so you know it's only a matter of time before they discover a portal to another world. The fantasy kingdom of Arden is a place where magic is intrinsically tied to art, but rather than its citizens finding unity in their shared abilities, they have segregated themselves, geographically and culturally, into four different mini-nations: Forgers (who sculpt mystical metals), Spinners (who can weave threads into man-eating carpets and such), Tillers (who would all score an A+ on a Hogwarts herbology exam) and Gemmers (who have power over rocks and jewels). And it's more extreme than just Blue State-Red State rancor. The Ardenites are hard core about these divisions: One young character's father was executed because of her parents' mixed marriage. Some of the groups will grudgingly do business with one another, but for the most part, Arden is isolationism run amok. And no group is more universally reviled than the Gemmers, the former ruling class who infamously committed atrocities against their own people. When one character discovers ancestors in the Gemmer bloodline, the reaction has the horror of a progressive activist who learns there are slave owners in his family tree. It's the appearance of Claire and Sophie that serves as a catalyst for change in Arden. When the girls uncover a dangerous conspiracy, it will once again take members from different magical guilds to unite as a team and prevent the resurrection of a legendary queen. (Different queen, this time - no ants.) Benko does a stellar job of painting Arden for the reader (the battlements on a castle are "cut like jack-o'lantern teeth," for instance) and clearly delineates the distinct cultural elements of the different guilds, like the smoke-scented streets of a Forger town and the vinecoated walls of a Tiller home. Also clear is how much more wonderful this world would be if these cultures were ever allowed to mingle. The true heart of this book, though, is the relationship between Sophie and Claire. Sophie, the older and bolder of the two sisters, has recently recovered from a mysterious illness and lengthy hospital stay, leaving Claire to both hero-worship her older sibling and fret about her like a helicopter parent. And when the sisters find themselves separated, it is Claire's dedication to and need for her older sibling that drives her on her quest. Rather than pitting groups against one another, Catherine Gilbert Murdock ("Dairy Queen," "Princess Ben") presents an anti-discrimination tale with a much more individual focus in her Dark Ages fable, "The Book of Boy." The central character, known only as Boy, lives a life harder than most, which is saying a lot, since the story is set during the Black Death. In addition to all the standard hardships you'd expect for an impoverished medieval orphan, Boy must also endure being the constant target of rage, ridicule and fear. Terms like "thing," "fiend," "monster" and "hunchback" are thrown at him regularly. Saddest of all, Boy takes these insults to heart. Despite the sweetness and selflessness that is so obvious to the reader, Boy thinks of himself as a mistake - something made "wrong" - and wishes for nothing more than to be a "real boy." Then along comes Secundus, an ersatz pilgrim with a mysterious past who recruits the naive and overly trusting Boy to assist him in liberating (i.e., "stealing") holy relics so he can use them as a bargaining chip to get into heaven. (The book is firmly rooted in Christian lore.) Secundus is the first person to recognize that there's more to Boy than the hump between his shoulders - like preternatural agility and the apparent ability to communicate with animals. The adventure the two embark on features thrilling chases, many comic observations from Boy (a sheep, for instance, described as a "wet, smelly cloud"), and more fart references than one might expect in a religious allegory. And the climactic revelation of Boy's true nature is a genuinely surprising twist. But "The Book of Boy" runs into pitfalls. Readers who feel bullied or excluded for being "different" may heavily invest in Boy's internal debate over whether to hide his true self. This goes double for kids with disabilities or those who are gender nonconforming, as those are two specific points about which Boy is taunted. Unfortunately, the artistically ambiguous ending gives no explicit answer to the question. While Boy ultimately learns to love himself for who he is, we never quite get the assurance that anyone else in his cruel world will. Will Boy have to be content with a future in which he can be his real self only in private? It's open to interpretation. Yet surely many kids could benefit from having this answer spelled out for them. Perhaps the main lesson here is to remember that one person's uplifting finale can be a major downer to someone else. CHRISTOPHER HEALY is the author of the "Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom," its sequels and the upcoming middle grade series Perilous Journey.

  Booklist Review

*Starred Review* It is 1350, the pope has fled from Rome to France, plague has ravished Europe, and Boy is sitting in an apple tree when a mysterious traveler approaches. So begins the marvelously rich tale of Boy, who has a secret; Secundus, who has many secrets; and the journey they undertake to find seven relics: rib, tooth, thumb, toe, dust, skull, and tomb. Murdock uses the conventions of the pilgrim's journey and adds enticing details that will draw in a young audience. Boy, an orphan and servant in a manor house, was told by the village priest he is a miracle, but he doesn't feel like one. He has a hump on his back, which makes him an object of derision, and he must hide his ability to speak with and understand animals. Secundus, meanwhile, is a man of mystery who stinks of brimstone, but as he warms to Boy, he also exhibits kindness and loyalty. Their epic adventures take them to Rome, where Secundus is determined to present his relics at the tomb of St. Peter. Scuffles and sacrifices, ferocious animals, and dastardly thieves abound as Boy and Secundus are slowly revealed to readers and each other. This is also a beautiful piece of bookmaking, from the woodblock-style design elements to the manuscript-like paper. A vivid, not-to-be-missed story, part The Inquisitor's Tale (2016), part Skellig (1998), but wholly its own.--Cooper, Ilene Copyright 2018 Booklist

  Kirkus Review

Light and darkness have never clashed with such fierce majesty and eloquent damnation.Murdock weaves an engrossing tale set in medieval France, filled with charismatic characters, daring deeds, and more sinister duplicity than a certain serpent in the Garden of Eden. The titular Boy is thought a simpleton, a disfigured child who has lived a life of ridicule. Accepting of his sorry lot in life, the humble servant wants nothing more than to live in the shadows and avoid the ill-tempered attention of the likes of town bully Ox. That is, he accepts it until the arrival of the shadowy pilgrim, Secundus, enlarges Boy's world beyond the small boundaries of his village and introduces him to a world filled with greed, hunger, joy, deceit, and victory. Along with a story that unravels to reveal that not everything in the world is as it appears, Murdock delivers a wickedly fun-filled quest that twists and turns with lyrical fire. Boy ponders: "Pilgrim he might be but this man has sin stitched into his soul." The story is, among other things, an exploration of religion, Secundus' thieving quest for relics a counterpoint to Boy's stalwart faith.Blend epic adventure with gothic good and evil, and add a dash of sly wit for a tale that keeps readers turning the page, shaking their heads, and feeling the power of choice. (Historical fiction. 8-12) Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
<p>A Newbery Honor Book * Booklist Editors' Choice * BookPage Best Books * Chicago Public Library Best Fiction * Horn Book Fanfare * Kirkus Reviews Best Books * Publishers Weekly Best Books * Wall Street Journal Best of the Year * An ALA Notable Book</p> <p>A young outcast is swept up into a thrilling and perilous medieval treasure hunt in this award-winning literary page-turner by acclaimed bestselling author Catherine Gilbert Murdock. The Book of Boy was awarded a Newbery Honor. "A treat from start to finish."--Wall Street Journal</p> <p>Boy has always been relegated to the outskirts of his small village. With a hump on his back, a mysterious past, and a tendency to talk to animals, he is often mocked by others in his town--until the arrival of a shadowy pilgrim named Secondus. Impressed with Boy's climbing and jumping abilities, Secondus engages Boy as his servant, pulling him into an action-packed and suspenseful expedition across Europe to gather seven precious relics of Saint Peter.</p> <p>Boy quickly realizes this journey is not an innocent one. They are stealing the relics and accumulating dangerous enemies in the process. But Boy is determined to see this pilgrimage through until the end--for what if St. Peter has the power to make him the same as the other boys?</p> <p>This epic and engrossing quest story by Newbery Honor author Catherine Gilbert Murdock is for fans of Adam Gidwitz's The Inquisitor's Tale and Grace Lin's Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, and for readers of all ages. Features a map and black-and-white art by Ian Schoenherr throughout.</p>
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