A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies by Alix E. Harrow

Green sea turtle in Graham’s Harbor

This is my next review of a nominee for the 2019 Short Story Locus Award. This story was also nominated for the Nebula and Hugo Short Story awards.

Published: February, 2018 in Apex Magazine (read for free online at that link)

Genre: fantasy

Setting: a rural South library, present day

Summary: Short version: A librarian has to decide if she will give a boy the locked away book he needs.

Long version: Our narrator is a librarian and a witch. She’s able to feel what books a person needs and tries to match you to the perfect book. She’s become fixated on a young black boy who has a yearning need to be somewhere else. She tries to fill that need with various portal fantasy books, but it’s not enough. She knows there’s the perfect book for him, locked away in the Special Collections, but she’s not supposed to give those books to kids looking for escape. Finally, she just can’t help herself, and doesn’t want a repeat of the last time she ignored her promptings to provide a Special Collections book, and gives him the book. That probably means she’ll be expelled from every library for eternity, but it was worth it.

Final thoughts: This is just about a perfect story for me, mainly because of it’s subject matter. First, we have a story about a librarian who is recommending books. Bonus, the books and their call letters start each section of the story. I want to go and read the books the librarian recommended that I’ve never heard of (except maybe The Runaway Prince, which just sounds awful). The books talk to the patrons as they wander the shelves, trying to encourage people to pick them up. Now, I want to go and wander the stacks in my local library. I usually just go in for a specific book. I’m definitely the type of patron who the librarian wouldn’t bother helping, since I have no problem finding books on my own. Sometimes I like to be surprised. Usually, I wander the stacks when I’m looking for a letter for my Alphabet Reading Challenge, but perhaps I should do it more often and just see what speaks to me that day. Somedays, nothing speaks to me and I have an impossible time finding a book. That’s when I like to have a list to work from. Other times, I end up with a stack of books and not enough time to read them. Those are the good days.

Sadly, the story did not win the Nebula Award for short fiction (The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington did), but it did win the Hugo Award.

Title comes from: It’s the name of the book the librarian gives to the boy so he can find his escape


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