Stay Outta the Wardrobe

In reading for an agent as well as slush for a publisher, it was just a normal day to find a handful of submissions that listed The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe as a comp title. Without having ever read it, I saw this as indication that the author did not have much contemporary kids’ lit reading under their belt. And now, having read it, I’d love to communicate what will likely be read as a screed, that will serve as my argument never to use this as a comp title ever again. I hope it will help aspiring kids’ writers maybe look elsewhere for foundational texts on which to base their work.

It is worth noting: I was warned before reading it that this was a very Christian book, and I should say here, none of that bothers me. I am not a Christian, and I am not opposed to Christian literature. I love Harry Potter. I don’t mind the notion of a hero dying for the sins of others. As a Jew, often I find deeply Christian media passes right by me, since I’m likely to catch only the loudest of references. So none of my critique of this book will come from that angle.

Also, all this being said: I did like the dinner scene with the Beavers, and that scene, only.

#1: The Problem With Portals from an Imperialist Perspective:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that British literature is embedded in a violent and colonial history. And so, the notion of a portal fantasy bears all the more weight— because what does it mean to pass into a whole other world, completely different from the one you know? Here, four British children wander into a foreign land where they are immediately clocked as being very important and also wreak all manner of havoc. Would Narnia be better if they stayed out? Probably! Is Mister Tumnas written like a ready-to-be-saved native with little to no guile or agency? Yes. Is it hard to believe that four random kiddos who don’t seem to know anything about anything can wander into another land and be perfectly fit to rule it for years to come? Absolutely it is. Is any of that questioned in the text? No. Instead, the reader is meant to accept it. For, why wouldn’t children of the British Imperialist legacy not be suited to lead a land they know nothing about? Of course they are, by Lewis’s imagining. That same arrogance defines British history, and every page of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe drips with it.

Some Alternative Portal Fantasies to Consider:
Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan Maguire
Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova
In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan

#2: The Narrator Doesn’t Like Kids

Leaving aside the treatment of Edmund, who’s written as a sniveling, lying, selfish little asshole, I mean when the narrator speaks directly to the kids. I listened to this book on audio instead of reading a physical copy, so I can’t pull exact quotes. However, there are several times when the narrator says something to the effect of: ‘if I told you about all the monsters that were there your parents wouldn’t let you read this,’ or when the girls find dead Aslan, ‘maybe you’ve cried a whole bunch in a day, but you probably still don’t understand the misery these girls felt in this moment,’ or some such. What these asides— which I would argue are also moments of apparently authorial laziness— tell kids is that the author does not respect their audience enough to take the time to communicate with them. This is the opposite of someone like, say, Mister Rogers, who’s love for children was apparent through his willingness to engage with them under the radical notion that they were people, with emotional lives as rich as adults. Often, the narrative camera in Lewis’ work veers away at the very moment that a child might be invited in to something they may not have understood previously. But that is precisely what fiction is FOR. To help us live lives we do not. Cheating kids of that because the author is easy too lazy or too arrogant to think they couldn’t possibly understand the profundity of their imagination is an indication that that particular author shouldn’t write for kids.

Some Alternative Books with a Vocal Narrator to Consider:
A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket
Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo
Whales on Stilts by MT Anderson

#3 All That Sexism

Phew. If Lewis didn’t like kids then he straight up HATED women. I don’t know what went wrong for him— other than a life spend in unquestioned patriarchy— but he does not much care for femmes of any stripe. I’m told this only gets worse as the series goes on, but man, it was plenty in just this one book. The titular Witch is not great — lacking the intelligence and grit of a truly interesting villain. It could be argued that Lucy is given a great deal of page time, but she too lacks any cleverness. She’s just a sweet, gormless little girl who wanders off, and then gets shit on by her older brother— her lack of agency makes her an uninteresting force in the story. Susan is basically sentient wall paper, who’s gifted a bow and arrow but told NOT TO USE IT by Father Christmas, because, essentially, women can’t be trusted in battle. All is made right in the world by Peter, the Professor, and Aslan, a male lion and also the most stunning visual metaphor for patriarchy there is. The lion figure cuts an accidental brilliant critique of itself— real male lions are powerful, yes, but lazy, capricious and abusive creatures, a danger to the females and the young of their species. They are, indeed, the greatest metaphor for patriarchy there is.

Some Alternative Fantasy Books with Strong Female Characters to Consider:
Graceling by Kristin Cashore
The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson
The Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir
The Star Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi
The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton
The Girl From Everywhere by Heidi Heilig
Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C Dao
Eon by Allison Goodman
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
Literally anything these days, FFS

So. Please stop using this book as your comp title. There are so many better, more exciting, smarter, cooler, more complicated books out there. Get thee to a library or bookstore and find them.