A few years ago, I taught a class at The Loft on common elements of Middle Grade fantasy fiction. I had a lot of fun teaching that class, and I’d like to periodically revisit some of the things we looked at. So, today, I’m going to introduce you to one of my favorite devices (or tropes, for all you writerly types) of the classic Middle Grade coming-of-age fantasy story: The Door.
Yes, the door! That age-old device of drama of all types. Also known as the gate, the tunnel, the bridge, the portal, the twisty hole in the fabric of reality – the door serves an important function in any story telling, but most especially in Middle Grade fantasy. The door is almost always a passageway to a magical world that normal people can’t see. A world where everything you know is flipped on its head, and where the way the world works is totally different: magic is real, animals can talk, all sorts of terrible things can happen to kids who don’t follow the rules. You might, perhaps, come across one of these doors at the back of the wardrobe, behind a bricked-up space in an old attic, in the middle of a wall in London, or at the top of a tornado in Kansas.
See, as I noted before, I clearly believe that MG fantasy’s appeal is that middle and high school aged children are going through tremendous changes in their lives. They are quite literally waking up to the world of adulthood, which was kind of outside everything that they used to know. Children typically have very limited responsibilities. But as adults, they’ll have much different things that are expected of them: the specifics of which, to this point, they’ve mostly been kept in the dark about.
And so, as our fictional heroes need to go through some sort of passageway to get to their own magical other-worlds, so too do children in the real world undergo a more metaphorical passage as they move towards adulthood. Specifically, adolescence. Adolescence is a time in everyone’s life when they need to learn an entirely different set of rules for operating in the world of adults: What will you do about your body getting all weird and hairy and gangly? What about a boyfriend/girlfriend? What do you want to do with the rest of your life? Most importantly, who exactly are you?
So when Lucy steps into Narnia, or Harry Potter into Diagon Alley, or Dorothy into Oz, they are confronted with worlds that have entirely different sets of rules than the ones they used to know. And what will determine their success or failure is how they learn those rules, and how they adhere to them. And it’s this similarity to our own experiences, as we cross the thresh-hold from childhood to adulthood, that makes Middle Grade Fantasy fiction so endearing and enduring.