One of my favorite ways to spend time as a kid was to play pretend. Sometimes, I would pretend to fight with lightsabers with my brother — as the oldest sister, I had the natural right to decide who would be who, and, of course, I always got to be the Jedi. On other days, we would invite our two best friends over, and we’d run around the house, which had become Hogwarts Castle in the blink of an eye, casting spells with our wands and hiding in secret tunnels that would open whenever we wanted them to. The door to the kitchen was, in fact, the wardrobe to Narnia, and the garden, to the dogs’ despair, was our own private fantasy land that we could build with the tips of our fingers and the mere power of our imagination.
As a kid, too, I was quite lonely. I had a couple of imaginary friends with whom I’d spend break. My favorite stuffed toys had their birthdays written down on my school agenda, and I’d take them to class with me when we were allowed to bring things to play with from home — until the other kids started to make fun of me for still liking plushies. When I came home, I’d spread all of my Littlest Pet Shop animals — most of them gifts from my dad from when he travelled to work — on my bedroom floor. I filled a notebook with the imaginary town’s rules: there was something about elections, a fair income distribution, and a Supreme Leader (my favorite pet, a brown dog with glittery ears). Sometimes one of the pets would make their way into my school pencil case, where they’d hide during the day, keeping me company and reminding me that, somewhere, there was a magical town where I made the rules, and where I’d always, always be welcome.
An accurate portrait of 10-year-old me
I can’t pinpoint when I grew out of it, but there must have been a day when I packed all of the pets and didn’t pick them up again, and there was also a day when my brother and I decided that, this time, we wouldn’t pretend we were Jedi or X-Wing pilots. But I still liked stories; I still made them up in my mind, and sometimes jotted them down on paper. And, most importantly, I still loved to read them. One day, while searching for a fun book in the middle of the craziness of life — the real life, where we can’t run away to fantasy lands when we want to —I came across Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway — and, oh, boy.
The premise is simple, yet it made me wonder how no one thought about this before? Speculative literature is filled with stories about kids who find a magic portal into another world, where they live great adventures. But what happens with them when they come back? When they’re too old and have to face real life in the world from where they escaped, a world where they didn’t fit in?
That’s what Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children is all about. It’s a home for all of the kids who had strange experiences their families and friends can’t understand, and who suddenly can’t fit into the real world anymore. Each one of them went to different places, different worlds which suited their personalities — but those worlds grew tired of them, and now they have nowhere else to go.
I won’t review the plot in depth, but it follows the story of Nancy, who has just been admitted to Eleanor’s school, as she and her newfound friends unravel a dark secret that has begun to terrorize the other students. The mystery was compelling, there was great representation (take that, old white men who say we can’t write diverse fantasy!), but what I liked most were the characters, and their relationships with each other as they (re)learned what home meant.
This book wasn’t my best read that year, and I didn’t really like the ending, but the story stuck with me so much, and now I can see why. Deep down, we’re those children, aren’t we? We have stories, fantastic lands which felt like home, but there is a day when we don’t quite fit in anymore, and reality’s pull is stronger. Which doesn’t mean we have to leave it all behind. It does not do well to dwell on dreams and forget to live, but I argue that a little bit of dreaming is key — even if it’s for us to learn how to build our new homes in a world well-known for being hostile towards the smallest difference.
I still like stuffed toys, and when I travelled to other places (oh!), it wasn’t rare for me to bring one home as a reminder of those experiences. I still treasure my Littlest Pet Shop collection. They’re a part of who I am today, a reminder of the magical portals I built for myself. And, sometimes, when I’m reading, writing, or maybe listening to a podcast while I do dishes, or when a crazy idea comes to my mind right before I fall asleep, I get a glimpse at those doorways, my good old friends, and they never fail at making me smile.
No Solicitations. No Visitors. No Questions.
Children have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and into old wells, and emerging somewhere… else.
But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children.
Nancy tumbled once, but now she’s back. The things she’s experienced… they change a person. The children under Miss West’s care understand all too well. And each of them is seeking a way back to their own fantasy world.
But Nancy’s arrival marks a change at the Home. There’s a darkness just around each corner, and when tragedy strikes, it’s up to Nancy and her new-found schoolmates to get to the heart of the matter.