Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children: No Solicitations. No Visitors. No Quests. 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.
Let me first say that Seanan McGuire is currently one of my favorite authors of all time. While I can never reduce my list of “favorite authors” or “favorite books” to anything less unwieldy than an assortment of “Top 10” type lists, McGuire consistently remains at the top of any ranking I can imagine. From her Toby Daye series, whose first book I reviewed here, to her pseudonym-published horror series under Mira Grant, McGuire crafts incredible stories in a variety of fantasy subgenres.
The Wayward Children series is a fantastic entry point into the worlds of Seanan McGuire. As of the writing of this blog, the series stands at 8 published novellas, with one new title set for release in early 2024. The series has also won many fantasy genre literature awards, including the Hugo Award for Best Series, and the Hugo, Nebula and Locus Awards for Best Novella.
Recommended Reading Order
There are a couple of paths you can take to make your way through the interconnected worlds of Wayward Children. You could read the series in publication order. However, because many of the titles are stand-alone in terms of plot, or go back in time to show a character’s journey to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, I think you could approach the series in a slightly different way. Here’s my suggested order:
- Every Heart a Doorway
- In an Absent Dream
- Beneath the Sugar Sky
- Down Among the Sticks and Bones
- Come Tumbling Down
- Where the Drowned Girls Go
- Across the Green Grass Fields
- Lost in the Moment and Found
Start your journey into the worlds of Wayward Children with Every Heart a Doorway. The first title opens the series, provides the necessary context and background and introduces the core cast of characters that will appear throughout the series. We first arrive at Miss Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children through the eyes of Nancy, who recently returned from a stint in the Halls of the Dead. All the children at Miss West’s boarding school have returned from fantastical journeys in unique fairy tale worlds, ranging from the candy-sweet world of Confection, where everything is baked to sugary perfection, to the Red-Mooned horror film that is the Moors, which pits Vampire Lord against Mad Scientist to maintain balance.
What do all these worlds hold in common? They are discovered through the unexpected appearance of mysterious doors, each entreating the child to Be Sure. And while all these unimaginable worlds range from Nonsense to Logic, from Virtue to Wickedness, the majority of these worlds provide purpose and belonging to these children who, for one reason or another, don’t quite fit in “the real world.” After Every Heart a Doorway, the books in the series will do one of two things: they either advance the overarching plot that flows chronologically in our own world, or they tell the story of a different supporting character.
The Jack & Jill Sequence
The second book in the series, Down Among the Sticks and Bones, backtracks from the endpoint of Every Heart A Doorway to show how the twins Jacqueline and Jillian found themselves at Miss West’s boarding school. Since this book takes place before the first book, you could read Sticks and Bones first. But meeting Jack and Jill through Nancy’s eyes in Every Heart first will change the impact of what we discover about their childhood in Sticks and Bones.
There are more titles in the Jack-and-Jill sequence, so you should read this title before moving on both in the chronological reading order and in the series itself. The Jack-and-Jill sequence begins in Every Heart a Doorway, then provides context for the twins’ door in Down Among the Sticks and Bones and concludes with Come Tumbling Down.
Jack and Jill were essentially raised to be perfect dolls for their parents, one a princess and one a tomboy. They travel through their doorway to the Moors, a land straight out of a B-list horror film, complete with a large, red moon hanging in the sky. The girls are each apprenticed to a monster; one to become the Vampire Lord’s perfect and beautiful daughter, a horror to behold, the other learning to use lightning to resurrect the dead. They each find what they never knew they needed, and have the opportunity to choose, for the first time, what path their futures may take.
As a bonus, if you listen to the audio version of any Jack-and-Jill-centric title, you get to hear the story as read by the author Seanan McGuire herself. She does not narrate all the titles in the series, just the ones that seem to focus on Jack, which leads me to believe Jack is her favorite character in the series.
Weaving in and out of the Jack-and-Jill sequence, some of the titles operate in a chronological progression. After the events of Every Heart a Doorway, a new student named Cora joins the series. Cora has returned from a water world called the Trenches, where she had been a Mermaid, and her hair still maintains an unnatural color without the assistance of cosmetics or dyes. She is also fat, something which caused her intense harm in the human world, and mattered hardly at all in the Trenches, where her strong body was an asset. When a naked girl appears from the sky to tumble into Miss West’s turtle pond right in front of Cora in Beneath the Sugar Sky, Cora journeys with her classmates to worlds not their own in order to right a grievous wrong.
Cora returns as a main protagonist in my favorite of the series thus far, Where the Drowned Girls Go. A darker title within the series, Cora is trying desperately to recover from her traumatic second journey in Come Tumbling Down (third, if we count her journey to the Trenches, which takes place before we meet her in the series). She transfers to a different boarding school, the Whitethorn Institute, the opposite of Miss West’s in every way. Where Miss West, once a child with a door of her own, helps students who desperately need to return through their doors to find the places where they truly belong, the Whitethorn Institute tries to sever any remaining connection between students and their doors.
Many of the students at Whitethorn seem to be there because of the negative experiences in their worlds. They want to forget, to never go back through their doors for one reason or another, and the Headmaster sees it as his duty to remove the doors’ ability to find lonely children. Cora, traumatized by her adventures, soon learns that not all is quite what it seems in the halls of Whitethorn.
Stand Alone Titles
There are also a handful of titles that don’t fit (yet?) into the series order as a whole, and can largely be read whenever you want. They provide the background for secondary characters, as a whole.
In an Absent Dream
The first of these, In an Absent Dream, shows how Miss Lundy, the school’s psychologist in Every Heart a Doorway, ended up at Miss West’s, trapped inside a child’s body, aging in reverse. Her tale is heartbreaking, not least of which because we know how it ends, but because we can see in real-time how she gets to that point. Her world is a Goblin Market, inspired by Christina Rosetti’s 19th-century poem of the same name:
We must not look at goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits:
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry thirsty roots?”
“Come buy,” call the goblins
Hobbling down the glen.
The title can be read at nearly any point in the series, but because Lundy only appears in Every Heart a Doorway, I suggest reading it either immediately after the first title and before moving on to the Jack-and-Jill sequence, or saving it for the end to read all the stand-alone titles together.
Across the Green Grass Fields
Across the Green Grass Fields is another stand-alone title that can be read in nearly any order. The protagonist, Regan, appears briefly in Where the Drowned Girls Go but is largely disconnected from the series as a whole in terms of the overarching plot. Her story, however, is incredible. From the harsh cruelty of young girls’ friendships to the magical world of the Hooflands where centaurs roam, Regan’s story is one of identity and acceptance, just like all the other Wayward Children.
Lost in the Moment and Found
Finally, meet Antsy in Lost in the Moment and Found. Mentioned a handful of times in the series as Cora’s roommate at Miss West’s, Antsy’s story comes with an author’s note:
While all the Wayward Children books have dealt with heavy themes and childhood traumas, this one addresses an all-too-familiar monster: the one that lives in your own home. Themes of grooming and adult gaslighting are present in the early text. As a survivor of something very similar, I would not want to be surprised by these elements where I didn’t expect them.
I just want to offer you this reassurance: Anysy runs. Before anything can actually happen, Antsy runs.
-Seanan McGuire, Lost in the Moment and Found
I suggest finishing with Antsy’s tale in part because the heavy themes are more prevalent than in the other stories, but also because the forthcoming title in the series, Mislaid in Parts Half-Known, returns to Antsy within the chronology of the series as a whole. This title is set to release in early 2024.
The series, as a whole, offers a unique portrayal of fairy tales and portal fantasy. Each character has their own journey, and the themes of childhood, growing up, finding yourself and being true to your identity remain clear and strong in each novella. The cast of characters is diverse, realistic and important. Through their stories, we experience realistic portrayals of OCD, limb differences, intersex conditions, transgender identities and abuse. We also get to bask in the joyful portrayal of friendship, love, found family and finding the place where you truly belong.
Each wayward child feels as though they don’t belong in the world as it is, and yet each of them finds a door to a world where they could be truly happy, if only they remember to Be Sure.