Why We Need Portal Stories by Kamilla Benko
The best summer of my life began with a lie—and I was the one who told it.
We were bored (“we” being a handful of neighborhood kids, between the ages of 5 and 10), and hanging out on my wooden deck. It was hot and humid, in that suffocating way only Midwestern summers can be, and because there were so many of us, we weren’t allowed inside any of our air conditioned houses. But I was pleased as a creamsicle pop up that we were all here, on my deck. And then….a couple of the older kids stood up.
“Where are you going?” I asked, my smugness immediately replaced by panic.
“Inside,” they said. “It’s too hot. It’s too boring.” But what I thought they meant was You’re too boring.
I couldn’t just let them leave.
“Someone broke into my room last night,” I blurted out.
Ha. That got their attention. “It was a flying horse. Her name’s Duchess. She’s from Diamond Land.”
The second-to-oldest was immediately suspicious. “Flying horses don’t exist,” he said. “You’re lying.”
“I’m not!” I was, of course, but the indignation of being called a liar brought tears to my eyes, and the older kids looked at each other uncertainly. They didn’t want to get in trouble.
“Maybe you were just dreaming,” the oldest and most responsible suggested.
“That’s how you get there,” I said seizing on this out. “Dreaming is how you go to Diamond Land.” And so I began to weave a complicated tale of a land next to ours, filled with flying horses, but not just flying horses but flying lizards, turtles, and giant wise spiders. A land you could only get to by falling asleep and waking up there.
And maybe because I was so utterly convincing—or maybe it was because we’d all been reading The Chronicles of Narnia (The Oldest had just read it, and we all had to keep up)—or maybe it was just because we were all at that age when the rules of physics and sense were still in flux—but the next day, everyone reported their own dream into Diamond Land.
The rest of the summer was dedicated to creating an alphabet and songs, emblems and flags, histories and mythology, wars and treaties, all of which we reported from our “dreams.” And we all solemnly swore to each other that we weren’t making it up.
And in a way, we weren’t. It was real. And it was ours—just in the same way that Neverland belonged to the Darlings, Narnia to the Pevensies, and Oz to Dorothy.
I firmly believe that children need their own spaces. In a world that often feels perilously unreasonable and wildly out of control to adults, think then, how it seems to a kid, whose life is full of doorknobs at eyelevel and constantly swinging feet.
Literary portals should not be confused with escapes. When a character leaves our world for another, their problems don’t stay behind. They slink in after our heroes, sliding through the cracks in a wardrobe, worming their way down a rabbit hole, or leaking in through windows between worlds. In fact, instead of being safe places, portal lands are the exact opposite: they not only reflect our fears—they amplify them.
You’re scared of growing up? Here’s a terrifying adult pirate trying to kill children.
Have a brother who betrays you and makes you look like a fool? Try this place, where the same brother will betray you but now the stakes aren’t your pride—it’s your life.
You feel like your parents don’t see you? Come to this other world where your eyes will be plucked out, replaced with buttons, and no one will ever see you again.
Fantasy worlds: They’re frightening, deadly—and that’s okay. Because life happens at any age, and sometimes there’s no way to shelter a child from that fact. For me, at the time of Diamond Land’s creation, I was undiagnosed with a learning disability that made school and friendships unbearably difficult. I don’t know what Diamond Land was like for the others in my neighborhood, but for me, the idea of Diamond Land was a place to feel in control, after all, we were in charge of the very alphabet! And the historical events we spun were a mirror reflection of what we were going through (there was a Great War in Diamond that more accurately would have been a heated argument about which version of four-square we were going to play by.
And even as portal fantasies magnify our sorrows, they magnify our joys, training our eye in the pages to look for the seed of wonder in reality. We might not have the pleasure of knowing the animal form of our souls, but we understand what it is like to befriend someone with a like-minded heart. We will never talk to a cat, but we understand that our pets can be there for us. We will never clap to save a fairy’s life—but we know the spark of warmth that is ignited when working with a group of people toward a common goal.
Give children realms to reign. Prophecies to puzzle out. The idea that they can affect change, no matter age or size. Give them the stories that will be the blue prints for their own Narnia, Oz, or Diamond Land, and in doing so, show them the truth of the world.
Kamilla Benko spent most of her childhood climbing into wardrobes, trying to step through mirrors, and plotting to run away to an art museum. Now, she visits other worlds as a children’s book editor. Originally from Indiana, she currently lives in New York with her bookshelves, teapot, and hiking boots.
This article allows me to relive so many of the joys I had as a child when given the opportunity to just sit and read. A complaint I constantly hear from my third grade students is reading is boring! Research has proven that reading is no longer enjoyable to the majority of kids. Why is that? In my opinion, teachers feel like they have to focus so much of their time on the standards and teaching them to the rigor expected, that we too do not have the time to sit and enjoy reading. I also believe that with all of the electronics and gaming systems that create alternate worlds for our youth, they do not feel like they have to put any effort into creating a fantasy world when it has already been done for them. So how do we fix that?
I think we have to work at getting our students and children’s imaginations back. Just like Ms. Benko’s parents made her stay outside during the summer, we need to push them away from the electronics and make them figure out ways to not be bored. These books where the characters travel to far-off, unreal places need to be introduced to the new generations, so they can visit too! Just like the article mention, problems do not go away in these fantasies, but they can become bearable. Creativity and imagination needs a chance to live and breathe again in the students we have in our classrooms. What better way than introducing them to stories where creativity and imagination run wild!
This comes at the perfect time—when I’m struggling with a portal story of my own. So helpful to remember that the landing on the other side of the portal only magnifies character issues from her own world.
I am currently reading a “portal” story and loving it. As adults we have our own needs to escape and often forget that children and especially teens, need to as well. Sometimes it may be a better place, and others one so dreadful that our own is more tolerable. This posting is a wonderful reminder of portals’ place in children’s and YA literature. Thank you for expressing it so beautifully!