The Midwinter Witch is the third installment in Molly Knox Ostertag’s graphic novel series about Aster Vanissen. In a magical family where boys are always shapeshifters and girls are always witches, Aster has no ability to shift but a strong proclivity for magic. Aster’s quest for acceptance by his friends and immediate family has so far been chronicled in The Witch Boy and The Hidden Witch. Now, in The Midwinter Witch, Aster must face the ridicule of his extended family if he competes as a witch in the Jolrun, the clan’s midwinter gathering.
The Vanissen family belief that only boys can be shapeshifters and only girls can be witches has been at the heart of Aster’s story from the beginning, but in this third installment Ostertag drives home both how hard and how important it is to challenge outdated societal norms and, if they are found lacking, to change them. What Aster is trying to do by being true to himself and his inherent skills flies in the face of tradition and exposes him to everything from outright ridicule (from his uber-jock cousin Flint) to quiet derision (most of the adults in the family) to simple lack of public support (Aster’s mother). While no one in the book explicitly states that things must stay the way they’ve always been, the murmurings and facial expressions in the crowd scenes are all variations on that theme. When a younger cousin is excited to see Aster compete as a witch, her parents exchange worried looks. It’s clear they consider Aster, or anyone who bucks tradition, as a bad influence.
It is quite telling that the two times Flint berates Aster in front of a crowd, none of the adults—not even Aster’s own parents—step up to chastise Flint. The “boys shapeshift, girls do magic” tradition is so entrenched that the adults see nothing wrong with Flint’s bullying behavior—and any kids that do are either already in Aster’s support circle (and thus equally deserving of Flint’s bullying) or too young/shy to speak up. The scenes with Flint, and those scenes where Aster’s mother tries to convince him not to compete in the Jolrun because the family just isn’t ready for a boy witch, are painful for anyone who has ever been bullied for being different. These types of scenes play out for gender-nonconforming and other LGBTQIA youth on a regular basis, and Ostertag captures the pain and humiliation, along with the urge to fight back.
Yet Aster, unlike so many queer kids in real life, is not completely alone. Friends Charlie and Ariel, cousin Sedge, older sister Juniper, and even Aster’s father all stand up for him. A scene of Juniper magically shocking Flint elicited a very loud “yes!” from this reader. The scene where Aster’s dad gives him a pre-Jolrun pep talk (“Does Mom know you’re down here?” “We have a difference of opinion.”) is subtly played and heartwarming. But the people who openly support Aster are a small, vocally outmatched, portion of a very large and tradition-bound family.
Whether or not the majority of the family likes it, Aster is a harbinger of needed change. Near the end of the book, that younger female cousin finally hugs Aster and blurts out “I think you’re cool and I wanna be a shifter when I grow up!” It’s a small but vital moment for Aster (who realizes he’s truly not alone), for the younger cousin (who sees she’s not trapped by tradition), and even for Sedge (who, after the events of The Witch Boy, never wants to shape-shift again and has started attending “normal” school alongside the boys’ friend Charlie). While it’s never made explicit in the text, Sedge is fighting family tradition as strongly, if not as publicly, as Aster is. And I think the boys are drawing more strength from each other than they realize.
The other main storyline of the book has Aster’s immediate family taking on a mentorship role for Ariel. Throughout the book, Aster’s status as an outsider within his own family is juxtaposed with the family’s easy acceptance of his new friend Ariel, a true outsider given her birth family has always been ideologically opposed to the Vanissens. Ostertag plays not just with the concepts of birth vs. found family but also the way traditions and reputation can ossify into forms of control. Ariel has bounced from foster home to foster home since the death of her mother and doesn’t know much about her family or her strength as a witch. At the start of The Midwinter Witch Ariel is struggling to fit into her new “home-schooling” norm alongside Aster. She likes the Vanissens well enough but has trust issues after losing enough foster families already. Practicing magic and getting stronger has an unexpected side effect for Ariel: her Aunt Isabel is able to reach her through dreams. Isabel tries to convince her to leave the Vanissens, because someone as powerful as Ariel shouldn’t be hampered by the rules of traditional witches. (This is our first, chilling hint that Isabel is not a very nice person. Later in the book, she more than proves that first impressions are often accurate.) Ariel doesn’t want anything to do with a family that abandoned her but she also can’t quite believe the Vanissens want someone so “damaged” living among them. Her journey into a found family composed of friends who believe in her even when she doesn’t believe herself is one of the many aspects of this book that I love: it’s messy, it’s complicated (made extra so by the fact that Ariel’s current foster family genuinely seems to want what’s best for her, even allowing her to switch out of public school to attend the Vanissens’ home school without knowing about Ariel’s magic), it has its dark moments, but it’s ultimately, like Aster’s, a hopeful one.
Hopeful in part because, as noted, the family Ariel comes from is … not nice. Previous books have mentioned the existence of other magical families, but here we finally get a sense (and an expansion in the worldbuilding) that not every magical family operates the same way. The Vanissens have been set up, from the first book, as the “good guys” (despite their inherent gender stereotypes and bullying). They are a willing line of defense between the normal world and whatever dangers magic possesses. It’s implicit in The Hidden Witch and made explicit in this book that Ariel’s birth family is one of those dangers. Whereas the Vanissens are painted as accepting, loving, and heroic (if flawed), the Torres are presented as elitist, abusive, and villainous. For the Vanissens, family is everything, provided you stay in your lane and don’t fight tradition. For the Torres, family only matters if they can do something for you or can preserve the bloodline. There’s also the lingering mystery of what really happened to Ariel’s mother and how Ariel ended up in the foster care system. Isabel says of Ariel’s mom, “She got sick. She got weak.” But does that mean an actual illness? Or is it possible Ariel’s mom realized how bad her family was and took Ariel into seclusion to set her on a different path?
Ostertag’s pacing of the reveal about the Torres family is perfect. Pages 137 to 154 alternate between Aster’s mother Holly finally telling him what she knows about the Torres clan, what she’s kept hidden even from Ariel, and Ariel summoning Aunt Isabel to take her away from the Vanissens before Ariel can do more harm, even while Charlie tries to convince her to stay. The tension in each situation is palpable and leads to the aerial chase scene that provides the book’s denouement. The transition from talk to action is smooth and balanced.
Those scenes also provide a chance for Charlie to take center stage. Before these scenes, Charlie’s role in The Midwinter Witch has largely been comic relief (her father teases her in an early scene that she’s working hard to impress someone—the lingering question being who: Aster, Ariel, or Sedge?) and as the audience representative when magical worldbuilding needs to be explained. But here, she gets to do what she does best: inspire, encourage, and accept the other characters for who they are. Aster and Ariel need Charlie to remind them that they are not damaged and disposable, that they can be the change they want to see in the world. She is just as much a part of the family as Aster, Ariel, Juniper, and Sedge despite having no magical ability. Although we’re not shown it, we have to wonder how the rest of the Vanissens felt about this non-magical outsider crashing their magical gathering.
Over the course of three graphic novels, Molly Knox Ostertag has used the fantasy elements of Aster’s world to touch on real-world issues of acceptance, friendship, self-awareness, and tradition. Kids who feel like they don’t fit in need to see their experiences replicated on the page. I hope there are many more novels set in Aster’s world in our near future.