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Over the Woodward Wall by A. Deborah Baker
A Playdate With Death by Ayelet Waldman
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Over the Woodward Wall: 05/21/21

Over the Woodward Wall

Over the Woodward Wall by A. Deborah Baker is the start of the Up-and-Under middle grade fantasy series. Avery is a fastidious child. Zib is an unpredictable child. They are neighbors but go to separate schools. They don't know each other exist until two sets of roadwork put them on the same path to a woodward wall they've never seen before.

Avery and Zib in a moment of spotenaity, decide to climb the wall. Instead of a shortcut to their respective schools, they find themselves in a new world — the Up and Under.

In every other middle grade fantasy that involves travel to another world, the children who travel to utopia, have the agency to find their way home. Even the teens in Seanan McGuire's Wayward Children YA fantasy series find their way home (and then have to deal with the consequences of their return). This is the first book I can think of — from the many I've read — where the children don't make it home at the end.

Children who travel to other worlds and get home at the end of the book can (and do) return. Alice and Dorothy are prime examples from classic literature. Dorothy does eventually emigrate to Oz but it's under her own schedule and under her own rules, which included bringing her aunt and uncle along. September and Suzy are modern examples.

It seems that Baker is writing a middle grade isekai instead. In isekai stories the characters who are sent to these other worlds almost always are there for the long haul. In many cases it's because they've died and been reincarnated. In rare cases the characters have special talents that let them travel back and forth — such as the two women in Otherside Picnic.

From the moment the children land on the other side of the wall they are given a series of steps in order to find their way home. It's the classic formula for this type of book. What's missing here, though, is the children's own desire and self reliance to get themselves home. Children in these types of books are typically capable of decoding how the world works and what they need to do to get themselves home. Avery and Zib, however, just follow what they're told but they don't put anything extra into the process.

I predict that Avery and Zib won't get home until they actually develop the self awareness and agency to take care of themselves and their own destinies. They need to learn how to question the world they find themselves in. They closest they got to doing that was making the impossible road appear when needed.

Avery and Zib's journey is part of the road narrative spectrum. The children with no familial ties to each other but families at home on the other side of the wall, are marginalized travelers (66). A big part of their collective character sheets is their repeated insistence that they are in fact children who should be in school and are being missed by their parents. What's missing is their dogged determination to do whatever it takes to survive in the Up-and-Under and to find their own path home.

Their destination is, of course, utopia (FF). It's utopia in the purest sense — a no-place. It's a place that appears as a wall on a street that shouldn't have a wall. It's a place that removes itself from Avery and Zib's world in the blink of an eye. It's not like Wonderland which is tied to the world through one way paths: down a rabbit hole or through a mirror. Nor is it Oz which is reachable through moments of near-death danger (a cyclone, a large ocean wave, a sinkhole during an earthquake, etc). Nor is it by means of travel that require the main character to decide to go (via a flying cat or a dimension traveling train).

The path the children take is the interstate (00). The interstate is represented by the impossible road which repeatedly appears to keep the children headed towards the city they've been told to walk to. So while they have moments of offroad travel, these moments are part of the process of luring back the road.

Summed up, Over the Woodward Wall is the tale of marginalized travelers going through utopia via the interstate (66FF00).

The second book in the series is Along the Saltwise Sea which releases October 12, 2021.

Four stars

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