Kelly Barnhill's 'The Witch's Boy' blends adventure with intense themes

Kelly Barnhill
Twin Cities writer Kelly Barnhill's new book began as a story she told her young son to keep his mind off an arduous hike.
Bruce Silcox / Courtesy Algonquin Books

"It was generally agreed that one was slightly quicker, slightly cleverer, slightly more wonderful than the other, no one could tell the boys apart and even when they thought they could, they were usually wrong."

In the opening pages of her new novel "The Witch's Boy," Twin Cities writer Kelly Barnhill, introduces two mischievous twins, Ned and Tam, and quickly sets the stage for tragedy.

The brothers decide to build a raft and launch it on the fast-flowing river running through their village, and it almost immediately falls apart. When the boys plunge into the water, villagers gather on the shore and shout advice. But only their father jumps in to save them. He can only get to one son though, and the other is swept away and drowns.

"People gathered around the small dead child and they shook their heads," Barnhill writes. "'We should have known he'd bungle it,' they said. 'He saved the wrong one. The wrong boy lived.'"

Barnhill will read from "The Witch's Boy" tonight at the Red Balloon bookshop in St Paul. She believes young readers are tough, particularly when it comes to reading stories.

Barnhill is true to form in the book, a rollicking adventure aimed at middle schoolers.

It deals with some tough issues, acknowledges Barnhill, who has a cheery disposition for someone who writes such somber material.

The Witch's Boy
Twin Cities writer Kelly Barnhill's new book is "The Witch's Boy."
Courtesy Algonquin Books

Although on its face the book is about a boy who steals his mother's magic to protect it from bandits, she said, "really it's a story about grief and loss and survivor's guilt, and how we move forward despite having these, sort of, holes in the universe in the shape of the people we love."

Barnhill, who grew up in a large extended family, remembers how it felt when a beloved relative died when she was young. She now believes that loss is part of human love, and said youngsters should know that.

"If we are going to tell stories we have to tell all the bits," she said. "The good parts and the bad parts."

In her book, the surviving twin, Ned, is the son of the local witch, who keeps a store of magic in their cellar. But one day when Ned is left alone in the house, bandits come to steal the magic, and he has to grab it and run. He meets Aine, a girl who has heard a prophecy that the wrong boy will save her life and she will save his.

Aine's mother has died, leaving her with her grieving father, who becomes an absent parent. He reverts to his former life as a bandit king, and becomes obsessed with finding the witch's magic, which leave little time for Aine.

"She copes with that by becoming intensely practical," Barnhill said.

Aine realizes the magic will destroy her father. So she teams up with Ned to try to return the magic to his mother.

Barnhill likens the bandit king's obsession with magic and banditry to addiction. As she wrote the character, she drew on her experiences working with at-risk students in Minneapolis where she met parents "whose first love was addiction and not their child."

She weaves intense themes together as an adventure story. There are likable heroes, bumbling villains, friendly wolves, mysterious ancient stones, a bunch of laughs and a lot of action.

She tested the book's passages in an intense way too, reading the work in progress to students.

"You know your soul is bare, when you're standing in front of a group of kids," Barnhill said. "They can spot a phony from a mile away, number one," she said. "Number two, they are hungry for stories. And number three, they really kind of demand that they are good."

As a writer, Barnhill likes to create the kind of stories that make people cry. While writing "The Witch's Boy," she admits to having had a sniffle or two.

But typically, she said, "it's grown-ups who cry and not the kids."

If you go
Book launch for Kelly Barnhill's novel 'The Witch's Boy'
Where: Red Balloon bookshop, 891 Grand Avenue, St Paul
When: 6:30 p.m., Tuesday
Check the Red Balloon website for more information.

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