Over the Woodward Wall began as a book within a book. In Seanan McGuire’s 2019 novel Middlegame, rogue alchemist Asphodel D. Baker wrote a children’s book about Avery and Zib, two children as different as can be who tumble over a wall into a strange world. In Middlegame, readers only saw snippets of the children’s tale, and now McGuire (writing as Baker) has gifted us with the first installment of their incredible adventure.
Two ordinary children live in an ordinary town and lead ordinary lives. Zib and Avery have parents who love them; they go to school, they play, they explore their small worlds. In short, they do what most children do, no more and no less. And then they find the wall. The wall isn’t supposed to be there. School is supposed to be there, and houses and shops and the whole rest of the town. But there it looms, a large stone line cutting through yards and streets as if it had always been there. Like bees to flowers, the children are drawn to it, Avery in horror and Zib in fascination. They climb the wall because what else do you do when a wall appears where it shouldn’t be? For Zib, an adventure might wait and she scrambles over full of excitement. For Avery, the wall is an aberration and he hopes school and the rest of his ordinary life is just on the other side. Both are wrong.
Over the wall is the land of Up-and-Under, a magical kingdom where tricksters and secret-keepers abound. There, nothing is what it seems yet everything is also exactly what it seems. A series of strange creatures—a girl made of crows, several oversized talking owls, cruel kings and mad queens, beings that want to capture them and beings who try to help them—mark the miles as the children wander on and off the glittering and improbable road that will eventually take them home. Their journey is just beginning and the ending is farther away than they realize.
If you’ve read a lot of classic children’s books, Over the Woodward Wall will feel very familiar. Sprinkled throughout are hints of the Chronicles of Narnia, the Oz books, Alice in Wonderland, and others, even McGuire’s own Wayward Children series. As short as it is, it rambles in the way the best classic children’s portal stories do, where it’s more about the experience than the plot. Lessons are learned through sorrow and suffering as much as through joy and excitement. Darkness dogs the pages, chasing the children from thorny bramble to muddy river to ice slides to rocky outcrops. To get home they must walk the improbable world to the Impossible City, but the closer they get to the city, the farther away home seems to get.
Avery and Zib are “ordinary, average, wildly unique, as all children are.” Their sheer ordinariness is what makes them so special and what puts them in the same category as the best heroes of the classics. The Pevensies aren’t brave or strategic or trained to fight. They’re just four children very far from home during a seemingly endless war. No bombs threaten Zib or Avery except the metaphorical kind, the kind that will come with adulthood as their innocence is lost or stolen and the world wears their bright, sharp edges dull.
Zib is the kind of girl who, when she stumbles upon an impossible wall and thrills at the chance for an adventure; Avery, on the other hand, “stood looking at the wall with wide, offended eyes, waiting for it to go away…still it did not go away, and still it was between him and the school.” Being opposites can mean being contrary or opposing forces, and for a time that’s how the two kids feel about each other. But like all good children’s stories, their differences become complements, two halves of a whole, the necessary balance to survive when an adventure becomes an undertaking. To make it through the Up-and-Under, they must learn from each other. Avery will need some of Zib’s wild abandon and eager recklessness and she will need his abundance of caution and pensive pragmatism.
It’s hard to review Seanan McGuire. Her bibliography is long enough that I’ve completely lost count of how many books she’s written, and nearly all of them are excellent. How many times can I write “this book is awesome, it’s beautifully written and broke my heart into a million pieces, OMG go read it right now”? Because all of those things are true about Over the Woodward Wall. It is as wonderful and charming as you expect a Seanan McGuire book to be, yet straightforward enough to appeal to middle grade readers. This is the perfect book to read to a child right before bed, a chapter a night to keep the thrill going. And older readers will delight in it as well, even without having read Middlegame first. Honestly, what more is there to say? This book is awesome. OMG go read it right now!
Over the Woodward Wall is available from Tordotcom Publishing.