September 21 marks the birthday of Alexander Key, who wrote or illustrated more than a dozen books for children and young readers in a career that ran from the 1940s to the ‘70s. While Key was born in Maryland and spent time in Chicago, Florida and Alabama (where he died in 1979), for most of his writing career he lived in a “studio,” as he called it, on Wayah Valley Road in Franklin. His best-known books include The Forgotten Door (a perennial Scholastic title), Escape to Witch Mountain (the basis for the two Disney movies), and The Incredible Tide (the inspiration for Future Boy Conan, a Japanese animated series directed by Hayao Miyazaki).
Although Key wrote mostly science fiction, his time in Franklin clearly influenced the settings of his best-known works. In the first chapters of The Forgotten Door, Jon, a boy accidentally transported to Earth from his alien home, struggles across a hilly, wooded landscape seeking help. In The Magic Meadow five orphans from a big city hospital teleport themselves to a distant planet thickly wooded with pines. In Escape to Witch Mountain and Return from Witch Mountain, the eponymous location is placed explicitly in the Blue Ridge.
Readers will also find types familiar to long-time residents of WNC among Key’s characters. In The Forgotten Door, Jon’s psychic abilities inspire fear among the superstitious locals. But a humane, down-to-earth female judge acquits him of trumped-up charges of theft. And Jon finds refuge with a family of idealistic, educated non-natives who have relocated to the mountain town where the main action takes place—but choose to return with Jon to his utopian planet at the end of the book.
Nevertheless, Key’s books explore universal themes, and if they reflect the upheaval of the times in which he wrote, readers these days will sympathize with his characters’ frequently expressed longing for a world free of war, poverty and cruelty (against both humans and animals). And as Kate Mcdowell writes for The Bulletin of Children’s Books, Key’s work also remains relevant because it “effectively captures the experience of isolation that growing up often entails.” Two decades before Harry Potter, Key was writing novels about children with extraordinary abilities who must join or rejoin communities of similarly gifted people before they can find their place in the world.
For years only The Forgotten Door and the two Witch Mountain titles remained in print, but now Open Road Media is producing e-reader editions of several other titles, including The Incredible Tide, The Magic Meadow and The Sword of Aradel. They’re worth a look: while Key once declared “I long ago reached the point where I feel that the young are the only ones worth writing for,” even adults can enjoy seeing the mountains of North Carolina — and the people who live in them — put to use by such a gifted fantasist.