Note: This series is ongoing, and there is another book scheduled for release in 2021 (Across the Green Grass fields). I’ll be covering only the first 5 books here: Every heart a doorway (2016), Down among the sticks and bones (2017), Beneath the sugar sky (2018), In an absent dream (2019), Come tumbling down (2020).
I’ve been reading a lot of ‘literary’ books recently. Mostly because they’re my favorite genre of fiction. They can be a little pretentious, but I think they speak to the part of me which wants to read about the underbelly of society and ‘real’ people, rather than magic and unicorns. Still, you read too many of them and you start craving a bit more light.
I asked a good friend who absorbs books at the rate of knots (she’s read 100 books so far in 2020 – whut) to recommend a YA series I could try. And, in the spirit of complete non-acceptance of Rowling’s transphobic tweets last week (fight me Jo) and generally empty virtue-signalling from other authors, she suggested a series which was truly thoughtful, forward-thinking and diverse.
I started reading the Wayward Children series on Monday, only intending to read the first one because, well, money. By Friday evening I’d dropped £35 on all five and read them all.
This book series stood out for three very important reasons, and so instead of going through each book one by one, let’s focus on the elements that elevated all of them to such fantastic heights (oh, and the illustrations were beautiful too so I’m going to pop those in here).
We start the series with Nancy, who has just arrived, dark clothes but garish pink suitcase in hand, at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children.
All Nancy’s parents know is that their daughter went missing and has returned, changed. They don’t know that Nancy fell through a door, into another world, the Halls of the Dead, where she felt finally and truly herself. But Eleanor West does – the same way she knows that the rest of her students have all visited another world at some point. A world they were perfectly suited for. Like the world she went to as a child.
We’re introduced to a motley of students, a cohort which grows with every book – but let’s concentrate for now on the worlds. There are an endless number of worlds, not just Earth. Through the students and their experiences, we learn that every world exists somewhere on the World Compass which has four main points: Virtue x Wicked, and Nonsense x Logical. Here’s a very fancy-schmancy graph which shows where worlds sit alongside other fantasy worlds by different authors.
Each world is an escape for the children who are ill-at-ease on Earth (which is a moderate-logic, low-wicked world), and it calls out to the ones that are born different, born right for their alternate reality, by making a door appear to the traveler. They might have one ideal world, or they may be able to access a number that are more suitable for them than Earth. Through the first five books, we learn that there are vast differences between worlds.
For example, Nancy has The Halls of the Dead, where complete stillness is revered and required. Jack and Jill have The Moors, dark and terrible, ruled in a delicate balance by The Master (vampire) and Dr Bleak (the mad scientist). Sumi and Rini have Confection, which is made of sweets. Kade has Prism, a fairyland where ‘pretty girls’ fight the Goblin King. Christopher has Mariposa, the sunshine-y country of bones. Lundy had The Goblin Market, a world which enforces an idea of ‘fair value’ rather than monetary exchange for goods.
Each of these worlds have their own rules and canon, but one thing in common. They opened a door to allow a child to come through, and kept them safe for a while, showed them what it was like to suit your surroundings and then lost them again. Each child is desperate to go back.
My favorite world was The Moors, which opened a door to twin sisters Jacqueline (Jack) and Jillian (Jill), who had been born to serve as a ticked box on their parent’s Lifescript, and were manipulated into false identities their whole childhood: “They [parents] never discussed whether they were hoping for a boy or a girl; both of them knew, so completely, what they were going to have that it seemed unnecessary. So Chester went to bed each night dreaming of his son, while Serena dreamt of her daughter, and for a time, they both believed that parenthood was perfect.”
At the bottom of a dress-up chest left behind by their beloved grandmother, they found a door to The Moors (high-logic, high-wicked) and were missing for years before returning to Earth after an uprising by the villagers against one twin.
The Moors exist in eternal twilight and there are monsters in all directions – in the mountains, in the ocean, in The Master’s castle and Dr Bleak’s windmill. However, once the girls pick their direction (separate from each other), they each find happiness and security in their respective homes until the culmination of one of the sister’s dreams would destroy the other. It is revisited in numerous books, which is likely why it feels much more ‘real’ than the others.
In every way, the diversity shown in this series is stunning. With a rainbow of worlds available to them, these children understand that everyone is perfect for someplace. While there is a bit of judgement shown by the kids for those coming back from a high-wicked world – generally the message and reality of these worlds are based on acceptance and celebration.
“For us, places we went were home. We didn’t care if they were good or evil or neutral or what. We cared about the fact that for the first time, we didn’t have to pretend to be something we weren’t. We just got to be. That made all the difference in the world.”From ‘Every heart a doorway’
These books really made me think back to the fiction I was reading as I grew up, and how it was all so much more limiting than I realised at the time. My go-to fiction as a child was Enid Blyton, Lewis Carroll, Stephanie Meyer (much to my chagrin), J.K.Rowling, Suzanne Collins, Jacqueline Wilson, Roald Dahl and many others which I read obsessively. I never saw myself, my sexuality, my thoughts or fears really reflected in those books, but I wanted so desperately to. Somehow the stories and worlds could be as fantastical as you like, and yet it was too unbelievable to have the characters be anything but white, straight, thin and mostly male.
I’m making an active effort as an adult to read the works of more diverse authors (and am a hell of a lot better for it), but even within some of these fantastic novels, I’ve realised that I’m still mostly only reading about a single kind of community i.e. the Black community, the LGBTQIA+ community, the Indian community. Very rarely have those communities intersected in literature for me – and even rarer, I think, in a children’s or YA book. According to the Independent, only 1% of children’s books have a BAME main character which is an absolutely shocking figure.
I can honestly say that as a twenty-nine year old, I don’t think I’ve read a truly diverse cast of characters in any book, until now. Which is shameful, and I think that it is something which could have reshaped my whole world-view if books like this had existed in the nineties.
I’m going to include the list to show the wonderful representation, though of course I understand that the characters are so much more than these labels. In the Wayward Children series, we have characters who range in:
Sexuality – asexual, lesbian, bisexual, in love with a skeleton girl
Gender expression – transgender, Genderqueer, tomboy
Race – Black, White, Japanese descent, unspecified
Religion – Islamic, unspecified
Body ‘type’ – Mermaid, ‘fat’, amputee, ghost, God, skeletal, bird-girl hybrid etc.
The last body-type section might seem weird to include but it is a condition of my socially-conditioned mind that even my imagination didn’t allow me to imagine that any of the protagonists might be fat until it was mentioned. Pretty disgusting, and something I didn’t even realise I was doing unconsciously.
All these children have experienced issues at home because of who they are. They’ve all ended up at Eleanor West’s Home because their parents want them to be ‘fixed’. Nancy’s parents believe her to be depressed and anorexic, unable to understand that her ideal world is being a living statue in The Halls of the Dead, employed by the Lord of the Dead and moving so little that calories are almost redundant. And while she should be free to be who she wants, we can’t expect her parents to understand.
Even here McGuire is kind and empathetic in her presentation of the family who can’t accept their children: “Their love wanted to fix her, and refused to see that she wasn’t broken”, “because they care so damn much, and they’re so completely wrong about everything, you know?”, and “His mother loved him. He’d never been able to convince himself otherwise, even when it would have been so much easier to believe she didn’t. But she couldn’t—wouldn’t—understand why he needed her to accept him as her son, when she’d loved him so completely as her daughter.”
McGuire has managed to construct a world which gives her total creative freedom, and she seems to take that responsibility very seriously. All of the states of being, all of the points of diversity, are accepted and embraced without fanfare from the author – with only a realistic dose of curiosity from the other kids. And how sad that this is notable, but how wonderful that it exists.
With doors opening for unusual children from all over Earth, McGuire rightly shows the true rainbow of identities that would be represented, and in turn gives us a mirror to hold up to ourselves.
She extends Eleanor West’s Home, and the promise of better worlds, to everyone who feels that they don’t belong.
McGuire has a way of writing which makes you feel like you’re sitting around a campfire, listening to her spin the story right there, on the spot.
She’s not just a storyteller, she’s a teacher. She leads by example, using the right pronouns and sticking to them, giving every character a voice, promoting understanding and preaching kindness even when showing the meanest characters: “Jack runs and Jill follows. Both of them are weeping […] If our sympathy is more for the first of them, well, we are only human; we can only look on the scene with human eyes, and judge in our own ways.”
I could feel my heart filling up with goodness the more I read. I bought the Kindle version of them all, and exported 12 A4 pages of highlights from them, no joke.
Similarly the language she uses is beautiful, “his voice ached around that single syllable like flesh aches around a knife”, often playful, and doesn’t adhere to any big literary ‘norms’. Sometimes she’ll break the fourth wall and guide you along as a reader, telling you why she’s slowing down or revisiting a story. She’ll even point out which bits to pay particular attention to, and reassure you that she understands how you might be feeling: “so it shall not be our focus, for we are not here for dullness, are we? No. We are here for a story, whether it be wild adventure or cautionary tale, and we do not have the time to waste on mundane things. And yet.”
Here is some of the glorious, gentle wisdom McGuire threads through the series:
“Because ‘boys will be boys’ is a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Lundy. “They’re too loud, on the whole, to be easily misplaced or overlooked; when they disappear from the home, parents send search parties to dredge them out of swamps and drag them away from frog ponds. It’s not innate. It’s learned. But it protects them from the doors, keeps them safe at home. Call it irony, if you like, but we spend so much time waiting for our boys to stray that they never have the opportunity. We notice the silence of men. We depend upon the silence of women.”
“Parents don’t always like to admit that things have changed. They want the world to be exactly the way it was before their children went away on these life-changing adventures, and when the world doesn’t oblige, they try to force it into the boxes they build for us.”
“Remember, only by learning about the journeys of others can we truly understand our own.”
“This, you see, is the true danger of children: they are ambushes, each and every one of them.”
“They were starting to feel, in a vague, unformed way, as if their parents were doing something wrong […] It was an uncomfortable thing, feeling like their parents weren’t doing what was best for them.”
“The butterfly may never again become a caterpillar.”
On going back to a Nonsense world: “She’d got her head straight enough to know that she wanted it to be crooked!”
“A single pebble in the road can go unnoticed until it becomes stuck inside a horse’s hoof, and then oh, the damage it can do. This was a pebble; this was where things began the slow, stony process of changing.”
“Parents lied to children when they thought it was necessary, or when they thought that it would somehow make things better. It only made sense that children should lie to parents in the same way.”
“Following the rules didn’t make you a good person, just like breaking them didn’t make you a bad one, but it could make you an invisible person, and invisible people got to do as they liked.”
““People always mean something. Sometimes what they mean is ‘you can’t be trusted to remember to be kind,’”
“Sometimes heroism is pressing on when the ending is already preordained.”
And finally, “That’s because Narnia was a Christian allegory pretending to be a fantasy series, you asshole.”
Aside from all of that, Seanan kind of blows me away. This woman is an absolute MACHINE. She’s written more novels and short stories than I could read in a year, and her productivity ratio is enough to tip the ratio of twenty other authors.
She’s got a lifelong fan out of me now. Please go and read the series, it’s such an experience and I promise, I haven’t included spoilers!