The Witch's Boy

by Kelly Barnhill (Author)

Reading Level: 4th – 5th Grade

The wrong boy will save your life, and you will save his.

When Ned and his identical twin brother tumble from their raft into a raging river, only Ned survives. Villagers are convinced the wrong boy lived. But when a Bandit King comes to steal the magic Ned's mother, a witch, is meant to protect, it's Ned who safeguards the magic and summons the strength to protect his family and community.

Meanwhile, across the enchanted forest that borders Ned's village lives Áine, the resourceful and pragmatic daughter of the Bandit King, who is haunted by her mother's last words to her:  "The wrong boy will save your life and you will save his."  When Áine's and Ned's paths cross, can they trust each other long enough to stop the war that's about to boil over between their two kingdoms?

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review
The third-person narration switches perspective smoothly, and it's all related in a precise, flowing prose that easily places readers into the fantastic setting and catches them up in the story. The classic fantasy elements are all there, richly reimagined, with a vivid setting, a page-turning adventure of a plot, and compelling, timeless themes.

Horn Book Magazine

Barnhill tells a complex story, one that sustains and subverts the usual fairy-tale tropes. Through the eyes of the brave and increasingly shrewd Ned and Áine, young readers consider the complications of magic, the corrupting desire for power, and the conflicting natures of good and evil in this atmospheric and elegantly told literary fairy tale.

School Library Journal

Starred Review

Gr 4-6--When Ned was young, he and his twin brother built a raft and tried to sail to the sea. The raft sank, and one boy survived-the wrong boy, if you ask the villagers in Ned's tiny town. Alternately whispered about, teased, and outright ignored, Ned survives his brother's death with a stutter and an air of palpable sadness that seems to weigh down his weak frame. Meanwhile, in the middle of a formidable forest the villagers claim used to be home to nine stone giants, a young girl named Aine lives a fractured life with her father, who leads a horde of bloodthirsty bandits. When the raiders attempt to steal the magic Ned's mother guards so faithfully, Ned and Aine end up as unlikely allies on a journey to right an ancient wrong. Careful, confident Aine; whose skills, both domestic and wild, make her a formidable ally (and excellent heroine), is a studied contrast to the weaker, shy Ned. The boy's growing confidence and ability to wield and protect his mother's magic adds elements of a classic origin-quest tale to a story that's already brimming with a well-drawn, colorful supporting cast, a strong sense of place, and an enchanted forest with a personality to rival some of the best depictions of magical woods.--Elisabeth Gattullo Marrocolla, Darien Library, CT

Copyright 2014 School Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review

In a story of an unexpected hero, a thief's daughter, and some very tricky magic, Barnhill weaves a powerful narrative about the small tragedies that happen when parents fail their children, even with the best intentions. After Ned's twin brother, Tam, drowns, his mother, the village's Sister Witch, binds Tam's soul to Ned, who grows up as an awkward, stuttering boy ostracized by the rest of his village. Aine's widower father loves her, but he loves his life as a Bandit King more. The magic that touches both Ned and Aine draws their lives inexorably together as they are caught up in the machinations of King Ott's selfish empire-building. Barnhill (The Mostly True Story of Jack) makes bold character choices: Ned is soft, but never weak, while Aine is tough, prickly, yet sympathetic. Peripheral adults are well fleshed out, from Ned's father, devastated by the loss of one child and afraid to show his love for the other, to a sensible queen who knows the value of a good witch. Barnhill elegantly joins the story's diverse threads in a complex tale whose poignancy never turns sentimental. Ages 9-up. Agent: Steven Malk, Writer's House. (Sept.)

Copyright 2014 Publishers Weekly, LLC Used with permission.

Review quotes

"Warring nations, mysterious stone figures, and the running thread that magic is alive and dangerous all add to the gripping core narrative of two children who find wells of strength and ingenuity from being pushed out of their comfort zones. The setting is exceptional: lush descriptions are flawlessly integrated, conveying a deep understanding of the natural world and the people, flawed and complex, who populate it . . . Offer this to Gaiman and Wynne-Jones fans, and to realistic fiction buffs who are open to brilliant coming-of-age stories sharing space with touches of magic." —The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, starred review

"Barnhill . . . is an eloquent writer who spins beautiful lines . . . This spellbinding fantasy begs for a cozy chair, a stash of Halloween candy and several hours of uninterrupted reading time." —The Washington Post

"A story with many alluring elements . . . Barnhill creates an absorbing world of kingdoms and prophecies in which transformation comes through language, and through courage and self-awareness as well . . . [The Witch's Boy] should open young readers' eyes to something that is all around them in the very world we live in: the magic of words." —

"The characters are vivid and well developed . . . The writing is beautiful and lyrical, but keeps pace with an action-packed story . . . Recommend this title to those who like retellings and strong, narrative fantasy." —VOYA

"Kelly Barnhill is deft at crafting strong characters, and this classic fairy tale is filled with otherworldly beasties and plenty of magic." —San Antonio Express-News

"In [this] gorgeously written and fast-paced adventure through forest and flood, bandits and courtiers, wolves and queens and witches, the boy and the girl must stop a war, restore magic to its rightful place, and find their own places in a world they've helped to make bigger. Barnhill is a fantasist on the order of Neil Gaiman, and this story feels fully inhabited." —Minneapolis Star Tribune

"Fiercely original and uncommonly lovely, The Witch's Boy is equal parts enchanting and haunting. Kelly Barnhill is master of truly potent and unruly magic; luckily for readers, she chooses to use her powers for good." —Anne Ursu
Kelly Barnhill
Kelly Barnhill lives in Minnesota with her husband and three children. She is the author of four novels, most recently The Girl Who Drank the Moon, winner of the Newbery Medal. The Witch's Boy received four starred reviews and was a finalist for the Min­nesota Book Awards. Kelly Barnhill has been awarded writing fellowships from the Jerome Foundation, the Minnesota State Arts Board, and the McKnight Foundation. Visit her online at or on Twitter: @kellybarnhill.
Lexile Measure
Guided Reading Level
Algonquin Young Readers
Publication date
September 20, 2014
BISAC categories
JUV039060 - Juvenile Fiction | Social Themes | Friendship
JUV037000 - Juvenile Fiction | Fantasy & Magic
JUV001000 - Juvenile Fiction | Action & Adventure
Library of Congress categories
Minnesota Book Award
Finalist 2015 - 2015
Capitol Choices: Noteworthy Books for Children and Teens
Recommended 2015 - 2015
Literary Award
Finalist 2015 - 2015

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