In The Midwinter Witch, the third entry in The Witch Boy trilogy by Molly Knox Ostertag, Aster and his friends face new challenges when the extended Vanissen family meets up to take part in the Jolrun, an annual competition that concludes with the crowning of the Midwinter Witch.  The Beat caught up with Molly by email to find out about the process of developing Aster’s magical world, what goes into planning the character’s seasonal wardrobe changes, and what kind of snacks she considers absolutely necessary for a camping trip!

Note: this interview references plot details from the entirety of The Midwinter Witch, which is now available online or at local stores and libraries.

AVERY KAPLAN: Runes play a key role in the magic of The Witch Boy books. What was the inspiration behind the runes? How did you develop the magical system?

MOLLY KNOX OSTERTAG: The short answer is that I wanted a magical language, but I didn’t want it to feel drawn from any existing language (like how Harry Potter spells are faux-Latin). I realized that one of the unique aspects of comics is that I could put something in a speech bubble that wasn’t technically speech. Now I love seeing how readers interpret the runes and when they make up their own!

The slightly longer answer is that I used to LARP (live-action role-play, very nerdy) as a character who cast magic by writing runes on things with chalk and sharpies. I came up with an entire spellcasting system for her because I was fourteen and had nothing to do except for obsess over a character I’d made up. I didn’t use it exactly for the Witch Boy books, but the runes Aster uses have a lot of visual similarities to the ones I used when I LARPed!

KAPLAN: In The Midwinter Witch, the scope of the magical world is expanded and we begin to learn about magical families beyond the Vanissens. Was there an example of mythology or fantasy (or something else entirely) that was particularly influential for you in developing and building Aster’s magical world?

OSTERTAG: I’m afraid to say the world was built a bit piecemeal, since I didn’t plan out the entire series when I wrote the first book. It started to come together by The Hidden Witch, though, when I considered magical families outside of Aster’s. My goal was for the magic and mythology to feel pretty universal, since I wanted these families to exist all over the world – most folklore has stories about people with witchcraft, people who can turn into animals, and otherworldly spirits. 

I also was very inspired by the place I grew up, Upstate New York. There are tons of New Age crystal shops, Wiccan harvest celebrations, big families getting homeschooled in the woods, all that good stuff. I wanted to capture the feeling of a family culture that is largely positive, but insular, and unwilling to change.

KAPLAN: In addition to other magical families, we meet more members of the Vanissen clan in The Midwinter Witch, including cousin Flint, who is less than receptive of the idea of Aster performing magic. Why is it important to show that while some members of the Vanissen family have accepted Aster for who he is, others have not?

OSTERTAG: Aster’s story in these books is about being gender nonconforming, which can take a lot of different forms for different people, but generally involves not looking or acting how others think you should, based on their perception of your gender. 

I wanted to show how rewarding and beautiful it is to be true to yourself; how when you follow your heart, you can find community and be happy and get to be a hero. But it can be hard too, and I wanted to be honest about that. Not everyone will see you as you are. Sometimes their minds will change – like Aster’s dad, Tohor. But sometimes they won’t, like Flint. That sucks, but Aster learns over the course of the book that it’s not worth caring about those peoples’ opinions.  

KAPLAN: During a sleepover at Charlie’s house, Ariel helps Aster paint his nails, which can be seen throughout the rest of the book (including in the panels of the climactic faceoff against Isabel). Was it important to you to include a non-magical example of Aster defying “expected” gender roles?

OSTERTAG: I think I just drew a picture of Aster with painted nails at some point and thought it was cute! But yes, painted nails felt like something he would like that’s less taboo than studying witchery. And I wanted to show that Ariel – who struggles through this book with being a good friend – always affirms Aster in his identity. 

KAPLAN: Speaking of the sleepover at Charlie’s house, Charlie insists they get all kinds of junk food for Aster and Sedge to sample. What junk food would you consider to be a sleepover necessity?

OSTERTAG: The adult form of sleepovers is camping (you know it’s for grown-ups because it’s less pleasant and you have to buy a lot of expensive equipment). So in that case: I’m partial to chex mix, s’mores for dessert, and canned wine or other age-appropriate beverage. 

KAPLAN: In The Midwinter Witch, the cast gets a new winter wardrobe. Do you like designing new outfits for your characters as they grow and the seasons change? Is a particular character’s sense of style your favorite?

OSTERTAG: I love it! It’s a fun challenge to find new looks for the characters that they would realistically wear, that fit within their color and design palette, and that I want to draw for 200 pages. I had the most fun with Aster’s looks in this book – he has a similar style to me, except that I live in Los Angeles and can rarely wear chunky sweaters. 

I also adore Isabel’s fashion – I don’t think I’ve ever drawn such a femme character before and it was fun looking up inspiration.  

KAPLAN: Both Aster and Ariel have faced family members who did not have their best interests at heart. What makes family members such compelling villains for the protagonists?

OSTERTAG: That’s a great question. The conflict in both of those stories deals with family members who think that they know what’s best for Aster and Ariel. Maybe they’re projecting on their younger relatives, or using them to achieve a goal, or misguidedly trying to help them. I’m never interested in villains who just want to do evil for evil’s sake; I want to write about villains who could be exaggerated reflections of real people, villains that you might recognize. I want to understand where my villains are coming from, even when I don’t agree with them. 

Isabel was interesting to write, because in my opinion she’s the most outright “evil” person in the series. But she wouldn’t think of herself that way…she just doesn’t see why caring for others is important.  

The Midwinter Witch is available now at a store near you or at your local library.