After reading many disappointing portrayals of autism, I truly wanted The Real Boy to be good.
To my ever-lasting relief, it is. It’s now my go-to recommendation when people ask me for books with autistic protagonists.
The Real Boy, a middle grade secondary-world fantasy novel, features an eleven-year-old boy named Oscar who works as a hand to his town’s most powerful magician. Although the townspeople call Oscar simple and not quite right, he has a comfortable routine, living in the basement of the magician’s store and gathering and cutting all kinds of herbs for use in decoctions. Secretly, however, Oscar can read, and sneaks to the library at night to learn more about the herbs he works with.
Due to the book’s fantasy setting, Oscar is never called autistic, but it’s confirmed by the author and, well, really obvious. Oscar avoids eye contact, doesn’t understand social niceties, is bluntly honest, has an extremely limited diet, values routine, infodumps about his special interests, goes non-verbal when stressed, and more. Refreshingly, however, the book is written solidly from Oscar’s perspective; rather than gawking at his oddities from an outside viewpoint or using a detached narrative voice to indicate “the autistic mind,” the book lets us in on Oscar’s thought processes and emotions, thoroughly normalizing his behavior.
One example of this is that Oscar often isn’t aware that he stands out. For example, his avoidance of eye contact is questioned by other characters even when the narrative hasn’t yet told us about it. This rang wonderfully true to me. While many autistic people become extra aware of their behaviors given other people’s focus on said behaviors, at that point, Oscar hasn’t had many interactions with other people. It makes complete sense he wouldn’t notice—this is his normal, after all. Another example: throughout the book Oscar is often mentioned as eating bread, but only toward the end does it become explicit that he barely eats anything but bread, and struggles with other foods and structures. Before that, it’s not relevant. Similarly, the way he lives through routine is sometimes highlighted, and sometimes subtly indicated through the use of repeated phrases, such as Oscar dusting the shelves each morning “in case any dirt had accumulated overnight,” then surveying the store and “restocking whatever needed restocking.”
For years, Oscar has lived in the store’s basement and interacted with few people aside from the magician and the magician’s apprentice. As the plot kicks in, Oscar is put in charge of the store. With the new people he now interacts with pointing out his strangeness, Oscar becomes increasingly, uncomfortably aware of being different—something he knew before, but which never affected him as it does now. A new friend, Callie, helps him by teaching him stock phrases to use in the store. While this proves helpful, it isn’t portrayed as a cure-all, a fabulous improvement, or the book’s end goal; it’s a practical tool, nothing more, and Oscar is shown as reaching for these phrases even in situations where they don’t apply. I found this last part particularly recognizable, and an element of learning scripts that I’ve rarely seen in books.
I was intrigued by Oscar using certain coping mechanisms despite not understanding his condition. When he wakes from a dream, he “had to talk himself slowly back into this world, counting its structures and boundaries and steady, sure things.” He tries to identify footsteps as he approaches a room “so he could prepare himself.” When Callie takes him to an unfamiliar place, he asks, “Can you tell me what’s going to happen?” It’s nice seeing an autistic character who has picked up these slight bits of self-knowledge/agency over time, even if it’s subconscious. There were also elements, such as Oscar talking to his cats, which could be interpreted in multiple ways. Is he lonely? Is he processing information? Both?
Another intriguing element was Oscar’s past. Oscar doesn’t remember much of his life before the magician’s shop, and we only see it in flashes—severely discomforting ones, hinting at abuse. “Bodiless hands grabbed his chin and forced it up: Look me in the eye, boy.” This is reminiscent of dodgy real-life attitudes to and treatments of people with autism, and I was glad to see the narrative strongly disapproving. There’s little doubt in my mind Ursu knew exactly what she was doing here.
I bookmarked dozens of passages that struck me: things like Oscar’s interaction with people negatively affecting his functioning—“they said the strangest things, and the words jumbled up in Oscar’s head and he couldn’t put them in the right order. They asked for things, and Oscar dropped vials and tore the packets he’d so carefully prepared. His hands had turned into bread loaves.” Things like Oscar knowing when he’s right and relentlessly correcting people. Answering sarcastic questions in all seriousness. Noticing patterns in square tiles and a pile of wood scraps; tapping his foot in a steady rhythm; tensing up in new environments with lots of sensory input. (“There were so many sounds; he had no attention left for anything else.”) How Oscar gets absorbed in his work and longs for its comfort when stressed—and how this is portrayed as positive coping/soothing method, rather than a crutch or a way for him to hide. How Oscar is sometimes so overloaded that he becomes non-verbal, or can take hours to process new information. Once, Oscar is so focused on details that he can’t see the bigger picture. This was a consistent problem for me as a child and teenager, and I was delighted to see it mentioned—it’s the kind of lesser-known symptom that many people miss.
I also really enjoyed the book’s humor, which was never at Oscar’s expense but still acknowledges that autism can be funny. After Callie teaches Oscar the polite way to correct someone, he can’t help but emphasize just how incorrect it was. (I feel you, Oscar. People being wrong is the worst.)
Or this exchange, in which Oscar is inflexible, but so is the person he’s conversing with:
“I need Caleb,” said the healer.
“He’s not here,” Oscar said.
“But I need him,” she said.
“But he’s not here,” Oscar repeated.
“But I need him.”
“But … he’s not here.” Oscar frowned. This seemed like it could go on for some time.
This following bit, which takes place early in the book, made me gasp in recognition and filled me with hope that I was in good hands with Ursu:
“She won’t know the difference.”
“But … what if she does?” The words popped out of Oscar’s mouth before he could stop them. He could not help it—they were fluttering around his head and needed to get out.
The way he can’t just let it rest, won’t accept empty reassurances, how he has to know what will or might happen in all possible circumstances—yes, yes, yes.
Another element that struck me is this next passage. After Oscar is driven to desperation about how different he is, someone responds:
“… you’ll find that no one is quite right. But we all do the best we can.”
Oscar looked down. He was not like everyone else. And the more that people did not see him for what he was, the more alone he was.
People regularly think the solution to problems with autism is to dismiss it, to set us at ease by saying that everyone is a little different. I loved that it was acknowledged that this doesn’t work.
I can go on with these details, but what it comes down to is that I love that Oscar is neither a “TV autistic” with one or two popular symptoms and no understanding of how far-ranging autism can be, nor a checklist of symptoms. The latter is a criticism I’ve seen in other reviews of The Real Boy that, after some thought, I disagree with. The problem with the “checklist approach” is that those traits are often superficially tacked on. In my opinion, the above elements are simply woven in as part of Oscar’s personality and perceptions. It feels nuanced, authentic, and three-dimensional.
I do see where the criticism comes from, and it brings up an interesting question: when dealing with a condition that touches so much of our lives, where do we draw that line? It’s true that most of Oscar’s prominent traits can be traced back to his autism. At the same time, autism isn’t something separable—and how we react to our autism is part of our personality as much as anything else. A dozen autistic kids in Oscar’s situation would react a dozen different ways. While Oscar responds to his situation with agonizing self-doubt, someone else might overcompensate. Oscar leaps to action when there are injuries he may be able to treat, while others might freeze up from terror. Oscar goes non-verbal after stressful discoveries, while someone else might react via screaming or aggression. The criticism also skips over elements that didn’t feel particularly easy to relate to his autism—such as his sense of humor (rare in autistic characters), his love of cats, and how he sneaks out at night because he wants to learn.
Much of Oscar’s narrative arc concerns his autism—specifically, his insecurity over being different. Although it was painful to read, it felt true to his situation, and I liked that the effects of not being understood and not understanding oneself were shown with brutal honesty. Additionally, Oscar’s insecurity seems more about this lack of (self and outside) understanding than about the immediate effects of his autism, which I love. Autism is often portrayed as non-stop, inherent suffering, but for many people, our difficulties come from all kinds of “secondary sources.” In Oscar’s case, he compares himself to other people and ends up feeling different and lacking, like he’s “not a person.” This matches ableist ideas of autism—our humanity is often questioned—and unfortunately probably matches many autistic people’s fears, particularly pre-diagnosis. (Important is that the narrative never agrees with Oscar’s self-assessment.)
Near the end, Oscar muses on wanting to embrace Callie and look her in the eye the way others can, but only touches her arm with his index finger. It’s not seen as a sign of him “improving” or being “less autistic,” nor as a tragic show of Oscar’s inability to connect, nor is it gawked at as incredibly touching (which people often do to me when I’m more affectionate than usual, and which reeks of inspiration porn). Personally, I spent years pinky hugging my best friend because I couldn’t handle a proper hug, and I liked it for exactly what it was: a simple, small gesture of affection that’s within Oscar’s abilities. Furthermore, he’s genuinely kind and empathetic—toward his cats, toward sick children—which I was particularly glad to see because autistic people are so often assumed to lack empathy. Heck, many of us are extra sensitive. This seems to be true for Oscar at times, too: one act of cruelty shocks him so much he finds himself in tears.
After all this raving, there are some elements that gave me pause, in particular a plot element that occurs about halfway through.
Spoilers to follow.
At this point, Oscar is increasingly uncertain about why he is the way he is. He stumbles on a wooden doll hidden in the magician’s home. Putting together several bits of information he found earlier in the book, he comes to the conclusion that the magician is animating wooden dolls—and that Oscar is the result of this, created to serve the magician and thus not human.
From the beginning, I suspected this assumption was false, largely because I’m certain I would’ve seen more troubled reviews otherwise. And, yes, after several dozen pages of angst, Oscar is proven to be fully human and simply different. I let out a breath of relief and went back to loving the book. Had I been reading for fun, though, without having the information that I did, I worry I might have put the book down.
On one hand, this element fits the world, the plot, and Oscar’s situation. It shows the despair undiagnosed autistic people can feel from never fitting in and never understanding why. On the other hand, several dozen pages of stomach-twisting unease left me with a bad aftertaste. Autism is so often associated with being not quite human, with being magical and otherworldly, that this explicit comparison to a magical, inhuman being leaves me worried that readers less knowledgeable about autism and disability representation might not grasp the way Ursu played with this trope. I can easily imagine people taking it at face value and being in complete agreement that Oscar is, indeed, not quite human, and that his suspicions were perfectly understandable despite being proven incorrect.
In other words, I’m conflicted. I’d love to hear from other autistic people how they felt about this element.
Another element that bugged me was the line “so this was what it felt like to be angry,” which reminded me of other autistic characters introduced to certain negative emotions at a later age (such as seventeen-year-old Marcelo in Marcelo in the Real World having never known confusion before). There’s a difference between naiveté and simplifying a character’s emotional landscape. The latter bothers me immensely given how often disabled people are infantilized.
There were other details I wasn’t quite sure about, largely relating to consistency in terms of his presentation, but those are minor quibbles. The book did so much else right that I’m happy to either feel like I missed something or to take those potential inconsistencies as simply part and parcel of human fickleness.
Overall, I loved this book. Since Oscar’s emotional arc is at the heart of the story, The Real Boy feels to me like an “autism book” in some ways—even if it never says the word, and even if the external plot is about wizard trees and disappearing magic and sick kids and a boy learning to tend a shop. While “autism books” are often maligned, I think they’re still necessary. We have very few that get it this right, after all.
On top of that, The Real Boy is beautifully written, with a wonderfully thoughtful plot. Give this book a try; you won’t regret it.