of the Center for Children's Books:
Gone But Not Forgotten
|Each month we offer a focus on a particular
author or artist. Sometimes we use this space to discuss a rising new talent
or an established star, but we also like to celebrate those who now live
on only in the rich legacy of their books. See the archive
for focus pieces from previous months.
Alexander Key is probably best known (or most often forgotten) as the author of the book Escape to Witch Mountain, which was adapted and made into a feature length film by Disney, released in 1975. What young readers and older viewers may not realize is that a treasure trove of heart-pounding science fiction page-turners are probably gathering dust under "J/Key" in their libraries.
As he did in Escape to Witch Mountain, Key often wrote about children with extraordinary mental abilities, whether they are able to communicate telepathically, teleport themselves to other places (as in The Magic Meadow), or read the minds of those around them (The Forgotten Door). His characters usually share extreme isolation, particularly from the adult world around them that misunderstands and fears their invisible gifts. Adults are most often clearly good or bad; while some of them prove very helpful to children, other adults are terrifying in their cruelty towards weaker beings, children included. These gifted children are often shown escaping from unsympathetic adults, and Key does not skimp on the thrill of the chase; his stories of flight and escape are skillfully paced, giving readers the kind of suspenseful ride found in few of today's page-turners. Although he often ties up loose ends a bit too neatly and tightly, readers are likely to overlook this flaw for the excitement of the story.
Key's works, particularly The Forgotten Door, have remained memorable throughout the years in part because he effectively captured the experience of isolation that growing up often entails, even for those of us without telepathy. Key created characters who are isolated precisely because of their unique abilities and inherent strengths in the way that smart kids too often are. Despite the gifted youngsters he chooses as subject matter, Key's writing is consistently accessible for young readers down to the fourth grade level. Using the realm of fantasy to great effect, he also gave many of his characters a magical way out of their tormented world, whether it be a door into another dimension (The Forgotten Door) or a secret society on a mountaintop (Escape to Witch Mountain) or even time travel (The Sword of Aradel). Although those of us in the real world may not be able to escape so easily, Key believed that it could help to imagine a better place. Key himself said that "...our only hope of making [the world] better is through the young. Their minds are still open. Anyway, I long ago reached the point where I feel that the young are the only ones worth writing for." 1
Sadly, all of his novels but The Forgotten Door (winner of the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, 1972) are now out of print, so if you're looking to acquire these gems you'll have to search diligently. However, many libraries still hold on to these treasures of thrilling science fiction adventure. Check them out, and enjoy these stories of Key's memorably gifted characters escaping from a world that doesn't understand them.
1 Commire, Anne, ed. Something About the Author, v. 8. Gale Research, 1976.
Selected Bibliography of Works by Alexander Key: