This article was originally published March 17, 2016.
Falling down a rabbit hole, stepping into a wardrobe: you never know where you’ll find adventure in the pages of a children’s fantasy story. But when it comes to Seanan McGuire’s new novella, Every Heart a Doorway, finding the location to those special entrances to wonder is exactly the point.
“Every Heart a Doorway is set after these kids have gone to their magical worlds, been chosen, had their adventures, and eventually been rejected by their own escapes,” said McGuire. “Imagine being pulled out of your normal world for a special task…and then, when it’s over, being thrown back into your normal life, and told that you’re never going to be able to go back to the place where you were special, accepted, happy, and whole.”
Doesn’t sound fair, does it? The novella’s subject matter will be very familiar to anyone who enjoyed stories like Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or Neil Gaiman’s Coraline but in those cases, we never found out what happened to the protagonists when they had to adjust back to normal life. Was the transition as simple as settling back into their favorite chair, or did it mean heartache, doubt, and therapy sessions?
Lee Harris, Senior Editor at Tor.com Publishing, said we can’t be sure because we’re not always told what the “happily” in “happily ever after” means.
“In some cases, I doubt it means what the word suggests. Imagine you’ve discovered the existence of magic, that you’ve been thrust into a fantastical adventure and been instrumental in saving an entire realm from a prophesied catastrophe,” said Harris. “Imagine, then, that once you’ve come to terms with your fate you’re forced back into our world—the ‘real world’—where no-one believes your story, and where your only adventures lie in learning the rudiments of algebra and basic chemistry. How’s that going to feel? What happens after Ever After?”
“Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children” is what happens after in Every Heart a Doorway. It’s a school, but also a refuge, for those who’ve been cast out of their special worlds. Many there are coming to grips with the realization that they will never get a second chance, while others are hell-bent on finding a way back at any cost.
“I also really wanted to tap into the idea of isolation that I think we all live with every day, but so strongly during our teenage years, when we’re isolated from our parents and each other and we’re not just living out our own stories, we’re living out our own genres,” said McGuire. “So these are kids who’ve fallen into every kind of portal world, into horror and fantasy and science fiction, and now they’re back, and they’re stranded, and they’re alone in the middle of a crowd.”
That’s where we pick up with our protagonist, Nancy, the latest in a series of cast-offs who’ve been collected by Miss Eleanor West, a cast-off herself, in a home where they’re allowed to be themselves. Far away from doubting loved ones, Nancy learns that the inhabitants of the manor are free to share stories of the lands they visited and intense fears that they’ll never return.
Most of the time, portal stories focus on young girls and McGuire said she had “no idea” why so many authors choose that particular focus.
“I do think that the absence of boys is often remarked upon when the absence of girls is not, because boys are encouraged to take up space and be seen more than girls are, but I’ve got no clue what motivated the authors of many of my favorite books,” she said. McGuire also mentioned this trend isn’t one we see on the big screen. “Ever notice how when a female-led property is adapted for the screen, her male sidekicks somehow become much more central, sometimes to the point of the female lead becoming secondary to her own story? The Avengers were named by a woman in the comics. Yet somehow, when the franchise launched, Janet Van Dyne was nowhere to be seen.”
McGuire went on to explain why this might be. “People start second-guessing, start trying to play to the mainstream, and go, over and over, ‘oh, boys don’t want to see stories about girls,’ while assuming that all girls want is stories about boys.”
While McGuire’s protagonist is female, the group of characters Nancy finds at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children is as diverse as the realms they visited. The author wanted to make sure all the characters in Every Heart a Doorway read true.
“I am a cisgender woman who has always had a lot of female friends. While many of us have traits in common,” she said, “none of us will ever be exactly the same. So it’s enormously important to me that my female characters be people, and be allowed to be whatever they need to be.”
McGuire went on to say, “I think part of the pressure put on ‘strong female characters’ comes from the fact that there is so often ‘the team girl,’ who must be all things to all people. Part of avoiding that is having as many female characters as I can, and allowing them to thrive in their own right, not inside a framework they didn’t ask for and don’t want.”
To wit, while Every Heart a Doorway may be Nancy’s story, it includes perspectives of different races and sexual and gender identities. And McGuire and her editor agree, diversity in fiction is extremely vital—to both them and their readership. Harris said his whole team feels the need to ensure their books represent the real world.
“We have a mix of authors from all over the world: different genders, different races, different nationalities, different religions, different sexual orientation, and the characters in our books reflect that diversity, too,” he said. “But it isn’t born simply of a desire to embrace diversity for diversity’s sake; it’s born of a desire to ensure that our books are accessible and relevant to everyone, everywhere. We live in a diverse world—it would be dishonest and disrespectful to deny that fact, and to publish a list that wasn’t representative of that fact.”
McGuire followed that train of thought by saying “diversity for diversity’s sake” is most often said by those who are used to seeing themselves in stories already.
“I can pick up a hundred books and tell you, without any concern of being wrong, that I will be able to find certain types of people in them—and those are often the people who go ‘well, why is that character something other than straight, and white, and exactly like me?’ It’s very important to me that people get to see themselves in stories. When someone tells me they’ve never seen themselves, I have a new goal.”
Harris said they know a “vast majority” of their readers appreciate what they’re doing.
“Gone are the days when it was acceptable to publish books by a very narrow subset of humanity; readers are responsive to new voices and stories about and inspired by different cultures—after all, isn’t that what our genre has always been about at its very heart?”
Jill Pantozzi is a pop culture writer and host who reports on all things nerdy and beyond! Her blog The Nerdy Bird was recently relaunched with Patreon support and she’s formerly Editor in Chief of The Mary Sue. She’s written for MTV, Publishers Weekly, IGN & more. You can keep up with Jill, and her cats, on Twitter at @JillPantozzi and “like” her on Facebook.