Out of the Wardrobe

By David Levithan

David Levithan novels existed when I was a teenager, but I didn’t begin reading them until I was an adult. There’s no way I would have been comfortable as a closeted 13-year-old in the South Bronx picking up “Boy Meets Boy.”

Even at 23, while reading “Two Boys Kissing,” I removed the hardcover’s gorgeous jacket on a crowded subway because the cover showed, well, two boys kissing, and I still wasn’t ready to be cast under that rainbow-filtered spotlight.

Now comes Levithan’s addictive middle grade debut, which my younger self not only would have been able to safely read anywhere, but also would have devoured.

“The Mysterious Disappearance of Aidan S. (as Told to His Brother)” begins with 12-year-old Aidan going missing. Was he kidnapped? Did he run away? What’s the story?

The hold-your-breath tension of the opening pages lets you breathe sooner than you might think when Aidan is found on the sixth night of his disappearance. Or perhaps it’s more appropriate to say when Aidan returns.

This is the first of many uncertainties that shadow the novel, and one that doesn’t make sense since Aidan’s family and the police searched every inch of the attic, including the old dresser that Aidan claims brought him to another world known as Aveinieu.

You’re probably already thinking about “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” I certainly was, as were the investigating officers on the case after Aidan tells his side of the story. But the brilliance of this novel is how Levithan flips the script on traditional portal fiction by not having the narrator be the person traveling between worlds. Instead it’s someone who would have appeared as a secondary character in another book.

As Aidan describes the many wonders of Aveinieu, his 11-year-old brother, Lucas, serves as our suspicious narrator, trying to catch him in a lie.

In the past, Aidan claimed that there were unicorns in the backyard, that there were monsters under the bed and that Santa sent gifts via Amazon. Lucas believed him then, but he won’t be fooled so easily now.

So did Aidan actually travel to a realm like Narnia or is Aveinieu an imagined world like Terabithia? Aidan certainly weaves exciting tales about green skies, a silver sun, royal blue leaves, fireflies that blink in different colors and the woman who had been there for 50 years who told him to go home before life could move on without him.

I was tempted to skip to the end for spoilers, but I exercised control. Ultimately, “The Mysterious Disappearance of Aidan S.” is an anti-thriller. The mystery is secondary to the novel’s heart, about accepting people for who they are. (This spirit is alive in Levithan’s past works as well, which, thankfully, now sit comfortably in the more tolerant mainstream.)

Deep into the book, Lucas matter-of-factly observes Aidan’s new boyfriend, which shocked me since the words “gay” and “queer” hadn’t come up, and don’t appear later.

The beauty of this is that it’s not a plot twist. It’s simply normal.

A welcome world for anyone coming out of the closet — or even a maybe-magical dresser.

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