Book cover: Every Heart a Doorway - Seanan McGuire (a door opening in a wood)Children go missing all the time. Sometimes, there is a fuss. Sometimes, they come home. Sometimes, they’ve been much further than you’d think. Welcome to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. Leave your disbelief at the door. Open your heart wide. Bring tissues.

It’s taken me a while to get round to reading this now award-winning novella, and I made the mistake of reading it overtired on an aeroplane whilst already very emotional (because reasons). Don’t be me, readers. Unless you’re very comfortable crying in public.

Every Heart a Doorway casually wraps up more themes than some books care to shake a stick at, and for all its limited length, never feels rushed or like it’s skimming the surface. I’ve enjoyed Seanan McGuire’s Incryptid books as urban fantasy romps; with Wayward Children I’ve gained a new appreciation for her understanding of the human heart and her depths of compassion. This is heart-rending stuff, handled delicately and with care.

Nancy – quiet, dressed sombrely, suitcase in hand – is brought to Eleanor West by parents who are delighted to get their lost daughter back and distraught that she doesn’t seem like the daughter they lost. Caring, loving parents who just can’t accept the way she now is (yes, the narrative works on many levels, skewering you with each one). Parents who know best. Parents who ignore her desire to dress in black and white, and swap out the clothes in her suitcase for the bright hues they would feel better if she wore again. Surely, if she just gets the help she needs, they reason, she’ll go back to being the happy teenager she used to be.

Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children is full of children and teenagers whose parents can’t accept or understand what they have become. Some do learn to engage with the world on their parents’ terms and go home; others look set to stay for life; a few – a very few – find their way back to the worlds that have become their hearts’ homes.

All of these children have crossed over to other worlds; most did not come home by choice. Nancy is an exception – she has a choice to make, but she was assured that she would be welcomed back to the Lord of the Dead’s side once she made it. Even the other children – even Eleanor herself – doesn’t believe this. Few people get to go through their doors more than once.

McGuire understands fairytales and their rules; the glimpses of the other worlds range from candy-coloured computer games to Gothic melancholy to blood-soaked horror. Realities exist along axes that determine their kindness or cruelty, their whimsy or logic, with other nuances shading in details. The children never judge their worlds: Eleanor runs a Home for those who loved where they went (there are other Homes for those who would rather forget). The results are eye-opening in terms of the character clashes and the sometimes horrifying details the children miss.

At heart this is a story about the lost reaching out to forge new connections with other outsiders as lonely as they are. It has the wisdom to acknowledge that being different doesn’t make all those who are different the same. It is clear-eyed that however different anyone may be, we can still all be cruel; that everyone sees someone else as ‘other’.

Add in a tense storyline as the school reels under a series of deaths and this is both gripping and an emotional rollercoaster. I’ve got a newfound respect for Ms MsGuire’s writing and (the best kind of) a big sore spot in my heart. Highly recommended.

*****