The Door by the Staircase

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
The Door by the Staircase Book Poster Image
Orphan girl meets witch in exciting, imaginative tale.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Readers will pick up a few words of Russian and learn quite a bit about Russian fairy tales and folklore. Also, Grimm's fairy tales serve as Mary's guidebook in dealing with the supernatural. The story is set in a 19th-century tourist town populated with lots of hucksters, fortune-tellers, and magicians, and readers get a revealing look at how those tricks work. There's also some clever problem-solving, such as how to provide water for a horse whose fiery breath evaporates it before he can drink.

Positive Messages

There's a big message about love's power to redeem people and change their ways and another about paying attention and looking beyond appearances. Mary also learns responsibility as she performs various tasks, including taking care of a much-neglected, fire-breathing horse.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Twelve-year-olds Mary and Jacob are good friends and help each other, often showing loyalty and creative thinking in a pinch. They both long for family and a real home. They both disobey and deceive their elders, but it's usually for good and compelling reasons, and their courage and problem-solving skills save them where many others perished. Other characters, from Madame Z to the town's magicians, hucksters, and ghosts, are more complex -- for example, Madame Z proves to be the notorious Russian witch Baba Yaga, who eats children, but she and Mary come to have a guardedly loving relationship.

Violence & Scariness

A character is roasted to death in an oven; Mary's especially afraid of fire because her family perished when their house burned. A central character is a witch with a long history of eating children; apparently helpful people are sometimes treacherous and vice versa. Mary's left in the scary woods by herself all night.

Language

Sivka, the fire-breathing horse, has such bad gas that his farts set things on fire.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Katherine Marsh's The Door Beneath the Staircase, illustrated by Kelly Murphy, is a compelling, imaginative read with an unusual perspective. Drawing elements from Russian fairy tales -- the firebird, the magic house on chicken legs, the child-eating witch Baba Yaga -- and stories from the Brothers Grimm, especially "Hansel and Gretel," it pits a clever, determined girl who longs for a home and family against a witch who plans to roast and eat her. It also advances the possibility that love can make even a monster change her ways, if not her nature. Set in 19th-century upstate New York, it includes a tourist village of magicians, fortune-tellers, and assorted hucksters -- as well as the inside view of how their tricks work. Some things may be too intense for sensitive kids -- protagonist Mary's family burned to death in a fire; the witch has a big oven for roasting children; the gate to her house is adorned with the flaming skulls of her past victims -- but there are strong messages here of standing up for yourself, being courageous and loyal to your friends, and the power of love and unconventional thinking.

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What's the story?

Years ago, Mary Hayes sneaked out of the house one night to read her precious book of Grimm's fairy tales -- and thus escaped the fire that killed her family. Now 12, she's been in awful orphanages ever since and is determined to escape, but no sooner has her latest attempt been foiled than a mysterious lady arrives in search of a girl to adopt. Swept away in a horse-drawn cart to the house of Madame Z, Mary is soon enjoying better food and greater comfort than she's ever known -- but can't shake the feeling that something's not right, from THE DOOR BY THE STAIRCASE -- always locked -- to unexplained events around the house. Also, Madame Z, while indulgent, isn't exactly maternal. Will Mary's longing for a home and family lead her to certain death or save the day?

Is it any good?

A plucky heroine, a lot of magic, and elements from Russian fairy tales add up to an exciting story of danger, mystery, and the power of love and family. Kids who have encountered the firebird, the chicken-legged house, and the scary Baba Yaga in other stories will get a huge kick out of their appearance here, and they'll root for Mary and her friend Jacob as they try to find a real home -- and not get devoured. Kelly Murphy's whimsical illustrations help bring the characters and setting to life. This isn't your ordinary simplistic fairy tale, as both the characters and the situations are a lot more nuanced.

"'Where are you going?' ...

"'Back to you.'

"Madame Z's eyes narrowed. 'And why would you want to do that? You know who I am.'

"Mary wanted to shrink back, but she forced herself to square her shoulders and look the witch straight in the eye.

"'I need your help.'"

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about stories of fairy-tale characters who turn up in the ordinary world and the complications that happen as a result. What other examples do you know? How do they compare to this one?

  • Do you know any magic tricks? Does this story make you want to learn some new ones?

  • When do you think it's good to stand up to your fears and face the thing that's scaring you -- and when might it be better to run away?

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