Title: The Door in the Forest
Author: Roderick Townley
Genre: Middle-grade Fiction (Children’s fantasy novels)
Age Category: 8 years +
Children’s Fantasy Novel: The Door in the Forest
Daniel Crowley cannot tell a lie. For most of his life, this inability has been a fairly manageable annoyance. Now, as soldiers move into the small town of Everwood, it’s become downright dangerous. There’s a rebellion in the City, and the soldiers—especially the unsettling and erratic Captain Sloper—are determined to root out any sympathizers.
This is particularly bad news for Daniel’s friend Emily Byrdsong, a newcomer to Everwood and granddaughter of the town witch. There’s something mysterious about the Byrdsong family—Emily’s parents haven’t been seen since their arrest for participating in the rebellion, Grandma Byrdsong has a curious fondness for bubble baths, and they live in a house where the rules of time and space don’t seem to work quite the way they do in the rest of Everwood. Captain Sloper is suspicious of the Byrdsongs, and is determined to use Daniel’s honesty to expose them . . . and the rest of the town.
But the Byrdsongs aren’t the only mystery in Everwood. There is an island on the edge of town where no one ever goes. Indeed, no one has ever been there. Not that people haven’t tried. The waters teem with venomous snakes . . . snakes with faces eerily reminiscent of those who tried to breach the island’s barriers. Some say it is protected. But by what? And against whom? Armed with a cryptic, ancient map, Daniel, Emily, and Wesley—Daniel’s kid brother—are determined to explore the island. Will they be able to solve the mystery before Captain Sloper destroys the island—and the town—in his crazed quest?
Subjective Appeal: Magic, Magic Everywhere
When it comes to fantasy literature, the charm is in often in the details, and Townley fills this tale right to the brim: an obese old woman who reads the future in bath bubbles, a magic pearl necklace, windows to the past and future, a boy who cannot lie, snow leopards you can ride, cryptic maps, riddles, a mustachioed villain, the aforementioned human-faced snakes, and a seemingly impregnable island . . . this book is a veritable cornucopia of precisely the sort of delightful touches that are relished by lovers of fantasy, whether young or old.
As you can see, there’s kind of a lot going on here. At times, the story feels a bit scattered, as if Townley had difficulty weaving all these admittedly wonderful elements into a unified whole. But then, the plot isn’t really the point—it’s just a vehicle for showcasing the glittering gems of Townley’s creativity. While this book does not rise to the level of a literary masterpiece by any stretch, Townley has still created an interesting and appealing work of fantasy that manages to be fairly original. He builds on the foundation so ably solidified and expanded by Rowling without creating a mere imitation or knock off. The story is unique enough to avoid direct comparison with the great Harry Potter, but fans of the series will find much to enjoy here.
Developmental Value: Death, Heaven, and the Third Amendment
In the course of their explorations, Daniel, Emily, and Wesley discover that the island is a sort of earthly paradise. Not really earth, yet not quite heaven, it is a land where anything is possible. Here Emily is temporarily reunited with her dead mother, and here she learns the importance of returning to the real world to live her life and carry on the secret family legacy. This treatment of death as separation and of the afterlife as a place of wonder and joy paints a comforting picture for young readers who may be all-too-familiar with the reality of death. Whatever the reader’s own experiences of loss may be, this book undoubtedly addresses some very difficult issues with tact and sensitivity, and could be a springboard for important discussions on the subject of What Happens When You Die.
In a rather surprising twist, Townley alternates between the ethereal mystery of the otherworldly island and the real-world dangers of military occupation and gives equal weight to both. He does an excellent job highlighting the many evils of quartering troops: the effect on the town’s supplies, the risk of theft and violence, and the constant fear of retaliation at the slightest hint of resistance. Let’s be frank—the Third Amendment isn’t exactly front page news these days, and kids and adults alike may have difficulty even remembering which essential right this oft-overlooked amendment preserves. For a generation functionally ignorant of this particular peril (and I include my own generation in this category), it’s quite a worthwhile reminder. And kudos to the Third Amendment for doing such an effective job all these years!
The blend between the political and the fantastic is not always seamless—the juxtaposition of tanks and magic pearls can be a bit jarring. Even more irksome is Townley’s refusal to clearly identify his setting. Are we in America? Some other country? A fictional land? Is it the past? The future? We get enough familiar detail to imply some semblance of modern Western culture, but the details don’t quite match up. There are contradictory hints all over the place, and I for one found myself distracted by the desire to figure out where (and when) this story is supposed to take place. But then, younger readers may not be so driven to nail down details of setting, and so are likely to simply enjoy this children’s fantasy novel for what it is: a fun and fantastic romp through a mysterious and exciting world. Wherever it may be.
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