Marsh, Katherine. The Door by the Staircase. illus. by Kelly Murphy. 288p. Disney-Hyperion. Jan. 2016. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781423134992.
Gr 4-6– When readers meet orphan Mary Hayes, she’s clawing her way up a chimney to escape from the Buffalo Asylum for Young Ladies. Miraculously, she succeeds—but only until a freak whirlwind causes the cruel headmistress to spot her out a window. After she’s brought back in and confined to a closet, Mary fears that she’s doomed—that is, until a mysterious woman named Madame Z appears the next morning, wanting to adopt an orphan. Mary eagerly volunteers, and without much thought, Madame Z agrees. Mary’s new home is called Iris, a town with a sideshow flair. She soon meets a magician’s son named Jacob, a fast friend and ally. Before long, Mary realizes that amid all of the town’s razzle-dazzle, there’s also real magic. She’s astounded to learn that Madame Z is a witch, complete with a talking cat. But Mary senses that something is off, and, indeed, the groundskeeper reveals that Madame Z is actually Baba Yaga—a powerful witch who eats children. Her fierce sense of self-preservation still intact, Mary immediately starts plotting her escape with Jacob. But as the adventure unfolds, it becomes clear that Baba Yaga may not be the enemy after all. Marsh has crafted a sparkling tale full of adventure, magic, and folklore. It’s a delightful mash-up of stories and traditions; imagine Little Orphan Annie crossed with Russian folklore, plunked down in the spiritualist community of Lily Dale, NY, with a dash of Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away on top. VERDICT Perhaps not a story for reluctant or struggling readers—it’s relatively demanding in terms of length and vocabulary—but for those willing to tackle a rich and layered text, there’s much here to enjoy.
This review was published in the School Library Journal December 2015 issue.