Friday, November 19, 2021

Introducing: Critical Conversations in Children's Literature - A Web Series

Critical Conversations in Children’s Literature is a web series developed by Dr. Lashon Daley to bring together children’s literature authors and scholars to discuss critical topics brewing within the field. 

The first episode features a conversation between Tae Keller, the 2021 Newbery Award winner, and Dr. Daley, an assistant professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature, discussing the representations of girlhood presented in Keller's novel, When You Trap A Tiger. Their conversation provides new insights into representations of girlhood as it intersects with concepts of postmodern girlhood, decolonizing girlhood, and the impact of trauma on girlhood. 

Watch it here:

The second episode, part two to Dr. Daley's conversation with middle-grade author Tae Keller, features Dr. Charlene Tung sharing her insights on the historical and theoretical context of When You Trap a Tiger. Tung, a professor of Women's and Gender Studies at Sonoma State University, specializes in gender and globalization, Asian American women's history/contemporary (im)migration, and gender and race-ethnicity in popular culture.

Watch it here:

Critical Conversations in Children’s Literature is funded by the Department of English and Comparative Literature at San Diego State University and is in collaboration with the National Center for the Study of Children's Literature.

We hope you enjoy the series! 

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Monday, November 8, 2021

A Discussion of The Witch Boy by Molly Ostertag

Molly Ostertag’s debut middle-grade graphic novel The Witch Boy was first published in 2017. The graphic novel was written and illustrated by Ostertag, and it follows Aster, a boy who wishes to practice witchcraft despite it being forbidden for boys. He lives in a magical community with his family, which is separated from human society and the only contact they have is with other magical families around the area. Each member of the community contributes to sustaining the way of life. The men in the community become shapeshifters whereas the women learn about witchcraft and perform spells. Aster has no interest in shapeshifting or physical fighting, instead, he wants to learn spells and the ways of the witches. Men and boys are forbidden from learning witchcraft since the community adheres to strict gender roles. There is only one man in the community who attempted to learn witchcraft before and it did not go well. Besides the challenges Aster faces due to his gender-nonconforming identity, his cousins are mysteriously going missing.  

While reading this graphic novel, I could not help but pay attention to the representation of girlhood and how the novel constructs it. Currently, I am taking a class with Professor Lashon Daley in which we look at representations of girlhood in Middle-Grade and YA novels. The Witch Boy is a graphic novel that interacts heavily with gender roles and how girlhood has been constructed in a magical society. 

The Witch Boy does not waste any time in depicting girlhood. The graphic novel's construction of girlhood mirrors our society’s image of girlhood. For example, Aster is caught spying on the girls’ magical lesson, and an elder scolds him by saying: “Aster! This lesson isn’t for you -- these girls are learning secrets!” (Ostertag 5). Aster, as a boy, is berated for trying to learn girls’ “secrets.” While reading this, I could not help but think about how girls and boys are separated for sex education in middle school. Boys are not allowed to learn about girls’ bodily changes. The boys in the graphic novel do not have lessons like the girls’; they just play around and sometimes practice their shapeshifting. We learn quickly how gender roles are strictly upheld in this world, which very much mirrors our own. I enjoyed how this is how we are introduced to Aster. Immediately, we know that he does not fully fit into his community because of what is being said to him and where he is on the page (up on a tree at a distance).

In Dr. Daley’s course, we read Megan Henesy’s article ‘Leaving My Girlhood Behind’: Woke Witches and Feminist Liminality in Chilling Adventures of Sabrina,” which centers Sabrina as the gothic figure due to how she navigates two worlds (2). In class, we discussed how Sabrina, as the “woke witch,” embodies the following characteristics: liminality, activism, being 16 years old, being a virgin, encountering a dark wizard, feeling out of place, choosing her place in society, and having a sidekick. I believe that The Witch Boy is a great book to read through this lens. 

Many of the elements of Henesy’s “woke witch” framework are present in The Witch Boy. First we have liminality. Aster exists in two spaces, boyhood and girlhood, and because of this he does not fit into his culture. The second characteristic is “activism,” which Aster engages in due to questioning why boys cannot perform witchcraft. Once Aster is caught spying on the girls’ magic lesson he has a conversation with his mother about not being able to perform witchcraft: “I don’t understand why Juniper and Hazel and them can all learn how to talk to trees and make potions and do spells and I can’t...It’s not fair” (7). After this he goes on to perform magic on his own, challenging the system in place. Furthermore, Aster does not meet the age requirement for the “woke witch.” The Witch Boy is a middle-grade text, and his age is not specified. Aster can be presumed to be an older tween (10-12) or a young teen (13-14). As for the virginal state, The Witch Boy does not engage with sexuality, and due to his age Aster mostly likely fits this criteria of the “woke witch.” Aster does have an encounter with a dark wizard, which in this case is the villain of the narrative. The villain in this text is a dragon-like creature who wants Aster to join him in his dark magic endeavors. The “dark wizard” is similar to Aster, but he has embraced the “dark side” of magic.

The next characteristics of the “woke witch” framework are feeling out of place, choosing your place, and having a sidekick. Aster’s family constantly reminds him that witchcraft is solely for girls. For example, his mom explains to him: “But, Aster, that magic is for you...Women and men have different types of magic” (8). She then tells the story of Mikasi, Aster’s great uncle, who did not adhere to the gender roles and was ostracized in the community, “[h]e was cast out for he was a danger to himself and the family” (11). Aster’s mother lets him know that if he were to practice magic openly he could be banished from the community. This serves as a warning and solidifies how out of place he is within the place he calls home and the people who are supposed to love him unconditionally, his family. Moreover, Aster is able to choose his place when he meets Charlie. She is a human he meets while walking outside his community. They share the same feelings of not belonging in their communities. Charlie is a girl who loves sports and has two dads. As the story progresses she becomes Aster’s sidekick, encouraging him to perform magic. She eventually asks him to heal her injured leg (75-76). 

Aster’s journey in The Witch Boy follows the dynamics of Henesy’s “woke witch,” except for the age. Reading this graphic novel and looking at it through this framework was a fun exercise! I wanted to showcase how children’s literature scholarship can be applied widely and the type of exercises graduate students like me engage in.

I hope you will pick up The Witch Boy by Molly Ostertag because it is truly a wonderful graphic novel. I know I will be reading the following volumes in this trilogy (Hidden Witch and The Midwinter Witch). Also, it is being adapted into a Netflix animated musical, so why not get ahead of the movie release?


Henesy, Megan. “‘Leaving My Girlhood behind’: Woke Witches and Feminist Liminality in Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.” Feminist Media Studies, 2020, pp. 1–15. Crossref, doi:10.1080/14680777.2020.1791929.

Ostertag, Molly. The Witch Boy: A Graphic Novel (The Witch Boy Trilogy #1). Illustrated, e-book, Graphix, 2017.

- (NA)