I’ll admit it: I actually enjoyed the 100 Cupboards books. This fast-paced series from N. D. Wilson has some good depth in terms of world-building and some great themes. The adventure begins when nervous, quirky 12 year old Henry discovers a wall of cupboards hidden behind the drywall in his uncle’s attic. With the help of his cousin Henrietta, he learns the secret of traveling to other worlds through the cupboards. In the process, he accidentally frees an evil sorceress, finds the world he came from, and is reunited with his long lost family. In the sequels, Dandelion Fire and The Chestnut King, Henry and his family fight the evil sorceress to save their world from destruction. Although I enjoyed this engaging series, I have a few reservations, especially considering the target audience age. This is a series where parents need to check their own comfort level with my “cons” list below.
One huge positive in 100 Cupboards is the unequivocal good versus evil theme. In a kids’ fantasy series, I appreciate Narnia-esque clear-cut villains. In 100 Cupboards, the antagonist is the terrible sorceress Nimiane. She wants to gain power by draining all living things of life. On the other side, you have Henry’s family trying to stop Nimiane in a desperate bid to save their world and protect their freedom.
My favorite theme in 100 Cupboards is the power of a loving family. Throughout his adventures, Henry is supported and empowered by his parents, aunt, uncles, grandmother, cousins, and siblings. In many ways, this series is a celebration of the special “magic” of a large, loving family network.
Another great theme is growth in virtues, especially courage. Henry is a timid 12 year old at the beginning of the series. His overprotective adoptive parents have kept him in bubble wrap his whole life. He can’t even throw a baseball. As the books progress, Henry grows tremendously in courage, resourcefulness, and unselfishness. He becomes a Christ figure in some ways, showing willingness to risk or lay down his life for his friends and family.
One negative in 100 Cupboards is the ambivalence about magic. There’s a ton of debate about “magic” in Catholic circles. Some of the arguments I’ve heard about magic include: magic is good, magic is always bad, magic is sometimes bad, magic is ambivalent, magic is from the devil, and magic is a type or use of natural wisdom. Unfortunately, I don’t know that there’s a clear cut answer to this question; different authors use the word “magic” to mean vastly different things, so really there’s no substitute here for a close reading of individual authors.
In 100 Cupboards, the magic question is far from clear cut, which is one reason I hesitate to hand it to the young audience. In the first book, magic is a dark power used by the witch and her minions. But in subsequent books, magic is also used to mean various things. For example, the word magic is also used for an innate power which Henry and some of his family possess to manipulate natural elements such as plants, wind, and water. And magic is also used to describe the fairen race’s special powers. Overall, this implies that in 100 Cupboards magic can refer to any type of unusual power.
Now here’s the pivotal point: there’s this evil object everyone is looking for in Book 3 since it’s the root source of Nimiane’s power: the Blackstar, an ancient orb which holds imprisoned dark jinns (demons, as far as I can tell). Henry eventually receives the Blackstar as part of a trade and uses it to help defeat the witch Nimiane, drawing strength from it, then hurling it into the witch. Now this, I didn’t see as a positive. It’s never a good lesson when the good character uses an evil object/means to attain a good end.
I was really disappointed that this was the resolution of the “defeat Nimiane” problem. I was all excited for a Christ-like sacrificial death for his family and friends (Henry was willing). Or even a tribute to the power of love: Henry defeating the witch with the help of his family’s love. Or better yet a simple good triumphs over evil: Henry defeats the witch because good is more powerful than evil. So that ending was a major bummer in my opinion and really undermines the other positives in 100 Cupboards.
Other negatives are mild sibling bickering and snotty behavior in book 1, and a decent amount of violence and suspense. The violence isn’t described graphically as a general rule. It’s mostly offscreen, along the lines of someone seeing the knife coming, then fade out. However, lots of people die, including some minor characters. There’s also quite a bit of suspense and scariness, including: a witch who drinks blood, witch dogs, possessed men with fingers growing out of their skulls, kidnapping, disturbing dreams, souls being separated from bodies, and Henry and his family frequently being in danger of imminent death.
100 Cupboards has many positive aspects, countered by a few major negatives. I think it’s the sort of series that is often read at too young an age; it’s often recommended for children as young as 8, which I think too young for these type of themes and level of suspense. For older readers (11+ perhaps) it could be enjoyed with some parental discussion about the problem with the use of evil means to a good end. Or you could skip it, and enjoy some better fantasy series I wholeheartedly recommend. Check out my list Beyond Narnia: More Great Fantasy Series for Catholic Kids and Teens for ideas!