Alex, Janelle and Marzie Buddy Read Seanan McGuire's Wayward Children, Book 1: Every Heart a Doorway

In celebration of the forthcoming release of Book 4 in the Wayward Children series, In an Absent Dream on January 8, 2019, Alex of Alex Can Read, our friend Janelle, and I are doing a Buddy Read of the Wayward Children books. We'll tell you what we liked about them, and why these books have become so beloved by young adults who may feel marginalized or in the minority when it comes to story representation. I've heard Seanan McGuire say that these are some of the most pirated of her works. And while piracy is bad, and robs her of royalties, Seanan considers it a measure of how much some young people need a book just like this one.

Every Heart a Doorway
The first installment of Seanan McGuire's Wayward Children portal fantasy series is the Hugo, Locus, Alex, and Nebula-Award-winning Every Heart a Doorway, which introduces us to an Earth quite a bit like ours, but with the twist of having a multiverse of portals leading young people to unique worlds. The various worlds often beckon to them. And by that I mean these worlds and their denizens can crave these young people as if they were born destined to enter these worlds, and the worlds want to keep them there. (Unless, for instance, a person makes a too big a mistake, like growing up or killing the wrong person, and gets asked to leave or booted out.)

So let's back up a bit, to be sure we're on the same page. What's a portal fantasy? Portal fantasies feature a magical doorway that connects our world to another realm that is often different in spacetime. The rules of the portal world, especially when it comes to time, may run differently than they do in ours. An example being that what feels like a day in a portal world could be years in our world or vice-versa. Children could enter a portal only to find upon their return to our world that they have been gone for an hour, a day, a month or... four or five years and their parents built a whole new family, assuming they were dead. The children may not even have aged at all during their time away, leaving parents shocked and confused. "How could they have been gone for years but still be only twelve?" And that's only one of the potential complications of returning from your portal world. While some might have wanted to go home, what if you felt your portal was a doorway to your true home and all you want to do is go back? What if you are left looking for that doorway, seemingly forever? When we think of portal fantasies, a wealth of children's stories like Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, Lewis's The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, Barrie's Peter Pan, Rowling's Harry Potter, or Valente's Fairyland series come to mind. We know the mechanics of entering a portal, but we don't usually hear much about what it might be like to have to come home and wistfully live all the rest of your life here, in this hot, crowded, bustling, often disappointing, unaccepting, and un-magical world we call Earth. We don't hear about Alice's big depression, or the Pevensie children having big adjustment issues, being put on anti-psychotic medications because of their talking incessantly about their Narnia experience, or acting out because they miss Aslan and Mr. Tumnus so very much. (We won't get into Susan not going back to Narnia because she wears makeup and pantyhose right now, okay? I will have that tantrum at a later date, maybe if I review Neil Gaiman's Fragile Things.)

In Every Heart a Doorway, Seanan McGuire gives us Nancy Whitman, a girl who was sent out of her portal world and back to ours, so she can "be sure" she knows what she wants. Home from the "Hall of the Dead," Nancy struggles, trying to cope with a loud, fast, brightly-colored world that is the antithesis of the place she thinks of as her proper home. In the "Hall of the Dead," she practiced being still as a statue, hardly even breathing, and she wore diaphanous, shadow-colored clothing. Her parents, much as they love her, don't understand where their daughter went (literally and figuratively), why she doesn't love bright colors, dancing, and being social like a "regular" teen. (They also probably aren't going to understand a few other things, like Nancy's not having any feelings of physical attraction for boys, or girls, or anyone.) Nancy's parents send her off to Eleanor West's "Home for Wayward Children," a special school for "special" children who are lost, troubled, or downright delusional *cough*, all of whom seem to believe they have visited some other world and despair that they can't find their way back. As Nancy soon discovers, her world, an Underworld of Nonsense and Wickedness, is one of many. And all the many worlds can be described according to their alignment on a different sort of compass, where the cardinal directions are Logic, Nonsense, Virtue, and Wickedness. Most of all, Nancy finds she is not alone. She is surrounded by those who share her sense of loss and disorientation. They are all waiting for their doorway to come back for them. 

And so, with no further adieu...

Alex, Janelle and Marzie Read Wayward Children

Every Heart a Doorway

Discussion, Part 1

Marzie: I have to say that this novella feels quite different from what Seanan McGuire has written as Seanan. Frankly, some of it reminds me more of her Mira Grant books, and for some reason it reminds me of the children’s poem woven into her Parasitology series, “Don’t Go Out Alone.”

Janelle: I can see that. I think because they are novellas, the writing is tighter, like Mira Grant’s. It doesn’t have the verbosity of the October Daye series, that’s for sure.

Marzie: The writing is tighter but I also find it more explicitly gory than the Toby or InCryptid books. Even considering all of Toby’s continual bleeding all over the place. It’s more Mira in feel because of that goriness, to me.

Alex: The writing is definitely tighter, and a lot more lyrical. I think Every Heart a Doorway showcases her poetry skills in ways that we only really see in the Parasite books.

Marzie: I agree. And that may be why I link it to “Don’t Go Out Alone.” They're her only books that have used poetry or lyrical language so extensively.

Alex: I actually like EHAD more than “Don’t Go Out Alone.”  DGOA is SO childish that it grates on me, where EHAD fills me with wistful light.

Marzie: But I think that (the childish nature of that poem) was the goal in the Parasitology trilogy- it was a children’s poem because “they” were so young. (“They” being spoilers I won’t go into here.)

Janelle: “Wistful light” is the perfect descriptor. I wanted to find my own portal and see where I belong. I still think about that.

Marzie: Oh, wistful is a very good word for this first book in the Wayward Children series, isn’t it, Janelle?

Alex:I think it’s hard NOT to read EHAD and come away wishing for your own door to open. Even as an adult I find myself in situations day to day where something just feels so wrong and I desperately wish that I could have found my door and been living a more meaningful life in a world more suited to me.

Marzie: Hey, I’m still waiting for my letter to Hogwarts to arrive!

Janelle: Yes! Me, too!

Marzie: So let’s look at the characters Seanan’s given us...

Alex: Nancy and Jack and Kade and Christopher and just... I can’t choose a favorite! I love them all so much.

Marzie: I love Eleanor, too. That she is willing to help these kids is a powerful thing I identify with.

Janelle: Nancy is one of my favorite characters from any book that came out in recent years. I kept fearing that she would somehow find meaning in the “real” world, and stop needing or desiring her real home. So many portal fantasies end with the platitude that… no, people ought to be happy where they are, and people need to put away the “childish” longings to be somewhere else. I mean, that’s what almost every other portal fantasy tries to teach us, and it’s stupid. If I were Alice, I’d never leave Wonderland.

Marzie: I was actually sad at the thought of Nancy not being in the other books. (Pssst! You will see her again! Don't tell!) I loved her, too. And I totally agree that too many portal fantasies have underlying messages I just can’t abide. Aspects of the Narnia books utterly infuriated me.

Alex: Janelle, have you read In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan? That’s one that doesn’t end like that.

Marzie: OMG, so much love for In Other Lands!

Janelle: I haven’t! Sounds like I need to!

Alex: You so do. It’s so good. It’s hard to talk about the characters in EHAD without talking about the diversity of representation that’s included. There’s such a spectrum and it makes me so happy.

Marzie: You mean the normality of the diversity? The fact that just like Mary Robinette Kowal says, Seanan has removed the homogeneity because the real world isn't homogeneous? I can’t tell you how much this book meant to a friend’s daughter. She’s Ace and to have an asexual character as a central protagonist is something that truly rocked her world.

Janelle: It is so very important to have characters like Nancy. I think Ace people especially don’t find a lot of representation in literature, because it is an easy way to evoke (or try) emotion, or create emotion by having a character fall in love, or lust with another. Nancy being Ace opens up new story opportunities, simply by having Nancy not fall in love with anyone.

Marzie: I definitely think writing an asexual character is more challenging for the author because many people don’t understand asexuality going in. I think Nancy’s emotions and thoughts are wonderfully conveyed here. Likewise, Kade’s understanding her, liking her authenticity, was a lovely thing. Alex, what did you love about Kade? I know you’ve said he’s one of your favorite characters.

Alex: I just love Kade as Kade. The fact that Kade is excellent trans representation is part of that, but I just love how he is so caring about his fellow students, and even though he’s a trans guy, he doesn’t feel forced to perform masculinity and reject femininity. He operates the school’s wardrobe and sews custom clothing - a traditionally feminine activity, but he just performs it as a service to the school. Kade just feels like the friend I always wanted to be. He accepts people as they are.

Marzie: I wish I had a friend like Kade growing up. Actually, your remarking on the sewing bit makes me realize I DID have a friend who was a bit like Kade when I was in high school. He loved fashion and would sew and took a sewing class that was part of Home Economics. The only guy. Though I guess he had a very nonbinary feel. He was a very kind kid. And he didn’t seem like he felt awkward or seem like he was anything other than at ease with himself. I really should have appreciated him more! I think that aspect of just being yourself makes it so much easier for others to be themselves, too. That's what makes Kade the perfect successor for when Eleanor is ready to go home.

You can read Part 2 of our Discussion over on Alex Can Read's blog...

Later this month look for our discussion of Book 2, Down Among the Sticks and Bones.

If you want to read along with us, you can check out the all the Wayward Children books here.


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