Thursday, November 7, 2013

A Job Well Done

Anne Ursu

In The Real Boy by Anne Ursu, Oscar has a talent he does not wish to trumpet. He is very good at mixing healing herbs and potions for his guardian, Master Caleb, "the first magician in a generation." Oscar loves working away in the lab with his many cats for company. He loves gathering the herbs in the magical forest where he can feel the presence of the ancient wizards. He has no interest in accolades; he just wants to know that his remedies work.

But when circumstances change--when the magician must travel and Oscar must come out into the shop and deal with customers who wish to purchase the fruits of his labors--he freezes. Luckily, Callie, an apprentice to a healer with a gift for communicating with others, befriends Oscar. She trades him some coaching on his people skills for his talent for concocting just the right remedies for her patients.

Oscar is the perfect example of so many people--child or adult--whose skill is working alone or with equally focused peers on projects--and then when they are pressured to come out into the world and talk about what they've done, they are terrified, even paralyzed. Such radically different skills are involved. The ability to focus inwardly and give one's full attention to a painting or a novel or a scientific experiment or math formula is one thing, and then to have it be seen by others outside yourself or to feel compelled to show or explain it--how rattling that can be.

The Real Boy, in addition to building suspense and creating a complete world, and turning readers' assumptions on their ears, also allows young people to examine these conflicting impulses--to create something and to just be pleased by its creation--and the implicit pressure to tell the world about it. Master Caleb loves to flaunt, so readers see that contrast between the magician and Oscar. But they will also discover a champion for Oscar in the baker, who finds contentment in nourishing others with his well-made bread, and who looks out for Oscar.

With all the emphasis on Tweeting and posting on Facebook and blogging for all manner of accomplishments--from choosing a good restaurant to winning an accolade--Oscar presents a fascinating contrast as someone who takes his sense of self-worth from a job well done. 

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