Does anybody remember the old reading books they used to pass out in elementary school? It was a big, fat, textbook sized chunk of awesomeness that the teachers handed out every year, along with math and language books. The reading books were stuffed full of poems — mostly boring — and stories and snippets of books that were intended to broaden our horizons.
Mostly they probably did. I don’t remember much of them. I was that nerdy kid who took the book home and read it cover to cover in the first few weeks of school and then thought it was boring the rest of the year when the teacher assigned us to read things from it.
Except for two things. I remember clearly two distinct pieces of literature that I found in reading books. Neither of them were being used, probably because they had something good in them. Our school was giving away old reading books to anybody who wanted them. I’m pretty sure I was the only one who took some home.
These were old books. Ones that hadn’t been used in years. I took two of the same book home to share with my brothers. We found in those books the poem by A. A. Milne about the Knight Whose Armor Didn’t Squeak and I love that poem still.
The fascinating things was that, printed in the pages or one of those reading books (though not the other, even though they were identical in every other way), was the entire text of Alexander Key’s The Forgotten Door.
It was nearly a hundred pages long with illustrations and everything.
Alexander Key also created the source from which Disney made their movie Return to Witch Mountain — which, despite it’s name, is not a sequel. The movie is awesome and deals with many of the same themes that The Forgotten Door does.
I didn’t know any of that at the time. I didn’t know who Alexander Key was. I had not seen Return to Witch Mountain. I just read the first page of the story, expecting to skip it. After all, who wants to read a story that’s a hundred pages? (I read plenty of longer books, when I’m reading a story I like it short.)
I was completely entranced in the first paragraph.
I read breathless as Little Jon stumbled through the woods, his memory gone and his world far away.
The preaching about people being kind of monstrous is a little heavy handed now. The overt references to nasty people comes across as a little cynical and there is definitely a message in this book. However, all of that doesn’t matter because this book is one of the greatest.
It’s not a book of action. It’s not a book of confrontation. Little Jon wants to avoid those things and Alexander Key seems to be arguing that he is better off for it. This is a book that favors learning and growth over fighting and arguing.
Little Jon has fallen through a portal into our world. He lost his memory when he fell so he doesn’t know how to get home. Using his ability to read minds he befriends a family that will be kind to him and help him. In the process he runs afoul of racist and bigoted country folk that see his presence as an opportunity for nastiness.
The family that Little Jon adopts — Thomas and Mary Bean and their two children — are the only nice people in the book. As a child this made perfect sense. Of course all the people are mean. As an adult I realized that there are actually reasons for that. Little Jon picks up little bits about them that drop hints as to why they hate him, or hate Thomas Bean. It’s not much and it’s hardly a whole back story — which would have turned this into a Tom Clancy novel — but it’s enough to let the reader know that these aren’t just an angry mob of backwoods country folk that are intolerant of different people. Some of them are that. Some of them have traumatic or personal issues in their past that keep them from seeing how bad their decisions are.
Little Jon comes from a world where much of our technology isn’t needed. He knows nothing of automobiles and weapons but he is familiar with television and radio (this was written in the 1950’s so excuse the lack of computers and internet). The reason for that is his people’s ability to read minds. When Thomas and Mary Bean discover his ability they jump immediately to the conclusion that of course, if people could read minds they would stop having wars because there would be nothing to fight over.
I found that to be such a non-cynical view that it kind of shocked me momentarily. In most stories about reading minds it is terrible. It is better to not know the little things that people sensor from their own speech each day. I suppose Key is showing us the end result. If all of us could read minds then perhaps we would learn to only think the kind thoughts as well as say them. I imagine the beginning of that kind of world would be pretty awful for a while, though.
I find it completely engrossing to this day. I love it like I love few other books. If you haven’t read The Forgotten Door you need to. It really is that good.