Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Alexander Key: A Forgotten Author?

Among the many books from my childhood that I have kept and treasured all these years are books by Alexander Key, such as The Forgotten Door, Escape to Witch Mountain, Return From Witch Mountain and The Sword of Aradel. I also have fond memories of the Witch Mountain movies. While Key often shows children fleeing villains and in danger, there is always a happy ending with children returning home and winning out over their enemies. He also portrayed children with ESP and from other worlds. The underlying message of these books I think was that the future belonged to the children and that if adults listened to children, the world would be a better place. Any child would like the idea they could make a difference (smile).

Recently, I rather promised Jen Robinson that I would do a post on Alexander Key, after finding we both fondly remembered his book, The Forgotten Door. I started digging for information on him in order to shape my post. To my surprise, no one seems to have written any scholarly articles or dissertations about Key and his work. He has a biographical entry in Twentieth-Century Science-Fiction Writers, 3rd edition (1991) and Contemporary Authors Online (2008).

His papers are at the fabulous de Grummond Children's Literature Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi. Because he lived in North Carolina for years and set a number of his books there, the University of North Carolina collected information about some of his books in their literary scrapbook collection. One of my favorite library school professors, Kate McDowell wrote an appreciation of him for the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books.

The fan website Thru the Forgotten Door gives a pretty fair biography of Key. Warning, a lot of the links at that website do not work but it does have some interesting information. As a native Chicagoan, I was astounded to find that Key lived in Chicago. He attended the Art Institute of Chicago and later taught at the Studio School of Art, also in Chicago. He started out as an illustrator and I decided to put together as full a bibliography as possible since neither the fan website nor the official biographies list all of Key's own books or those he illustrated. I used the public version of WorldCat and ViaLibri to locate books and images of book covers. My question was how he managed to support himself with the relatively few books he was credited with having written. Now that I've put together this detailed bibliography (see below) and learned that he also wrote and illustrated for various magazines, I suspect he kept extremely busy and that there are other books he illustrated that have not yet been identified.

He wrote and illustrated books set in Florida, where he grew up and returned to live for many years, and in North Carolina, where he later moved, and in Alabama, where he also lived at one time. He had a strong sense of region and nature, as shown by the illustrations and covers I have found. One of the biographies mentions that he also painted professionally and that his work was in private collections. I have been unable to find visual images of his paintings (wistful sigh). I really love his illustrations and may track down copies of these books for my collection. I wonder why, post 1967, he did not illustrate any more books that I have discovered? I would have liked to see his illustrations for the Witch Mountain books, for example.

Exploring the Internet has shown me that many people share my love for Alexander Key's books and enjoyed the movies based on his books. There were even translations to other languages of some of his books and many went into multiple editions. Another Witch Mountain movie, Race to Witch Mountain is scheduled to be released March of 2009. I hope it will provoke a revival of interest in Alexander Key.

For that matter, why doesn't some academic scholar do a paper or book on Key? The materials are out there as I have tried to indicate, and he had a very interesting career as an illustrator and author. The de Grummond Collection just posted announcements of fellowships available for research in their collections, which include Key's papers.

The bibliography is organized, first by books he illustrated, and then by books he wrote, all listed under year of publication so you can get a sense of how his career developed. Having lived in Chicago for some years, it is understandable that his earliest publishers were Chicago publishers and he seems to have maintained ties to the Chicago publishing community.

Books illustrated by him:


Baker, Rannie Belle. In the light of myth; selections from the world’s myths, compiled and interpreted by Rannie B. Baker...Art selection by Ruth C. Stebbins. Illustrations by Alexander Key. Chicago & New York: Row, Peterson & Company, 1925. Reportedly the first book he ever illustrated, at the age of 19, although since he was born in 1904, perhaps the book's publication was delayed? Supposedly he was paid $900 for the illustrations.

Clark, Bertha. Stories of Belle River. Illustrated by Alexander Key. Chicago: Lyons and Carnahan, 1925.

Edson, Andrew Wheatley. Working Together. By Andrew W. Edson and Mary E. Laing. Chicago, etc.: Benj. H. Sanborn, 1925. The front cover and frontispiece are by Alexander Key. This children's reader was reprinted in 1927 and 1931 and maybe later.

Lyback, Johanna R. M. Indian legends. Illustrated by Alexander Key. Chicago: Lyons and Carnahan, 1925.


Browne, George Waldo. Indian nights: famous Indian legends, retold by G. Waldo Browne. Illustrated by Alexander Key. New York: Noble and Noble, 1927.

Chalmers, Eleanor M. Talks about our country. Illustrated by Alexander Key. Chicago [etc.]: B.H. Sanborn & Co., 1927.

Freeman, Frank Nugent. Child-story readers [Second reader], by F. N. Freeman, G. E. Storm [& others]. Illustrated by Alexander Key. Chicago: Lyons, 1927. Reprinted under the title: Magic stories.


Andersen, Hans Christian. The real princess. Illustrated by Alexander Key. Joliet, Ill.: P.F. Volland, 1928. Retells the stories of the Princess and the pea and the Steadfast tin soldier.

Clark, Bertha. Belle River friends in wings and feathers. Illustrated by Alexander Key. Chicago: Lyons and Carnahan, 1928. A scanned version is available online at the Rosetta Project.

Clark, Bertha. Work and play on Belle River farm. Illustrated by Alexander Key. Chicago: Lyons and Carnahan, 1928.

Smith, Laura Rountree. Circus animals in Funland. Illustrated by Mae H. Scannell, Olive Lofts, and Constance Enslow. Chicago: Albert A. Whitman & Co., 1928. The cover illustration is by Alexander Key.


Pettee, Florence M. Blunder’s mystery companions. Chicago: Albert Whitman & Co., 1929. Illustrator named as Alexander Key.

Sabin, Elbridge Hosmer. Dollie’s big dream: or the magical man of mirth. Cover drawing by Alexander Key. Chicago: Albert Whitman & Co., 1929.


Browne, George Waldo. Real legends of New England, by G. Waldo Browne. Illustrations by Alexander Key. Chicago: A. Whitman & Co., 1930.


The book of dragons. Selected and edited by O. Muiriel Fuller. Illustrated by Alexander Key. New York: R.M. McBride, 1931. Reprinted by Dover in 2001 (that cover is shown here).


Manning, Clarence Augustus. Marko, the king’s son, hero of the Serbs. Illustrated by Alexander Key. New York: R.M. McBride, 1932. A scanned version is available online. To my surprise, I have a copy of this book that I picked up years ago without realizing that the illustrator was Alexander Key!


Nolan, Jeannette Covert. The young Douglas. Illustrated by Alexander Key. New York: R.M. McBride, 1934.


Barrows, Marjorie. The child life mystery-adventure book, by Marjorie Barrows and Frances Cavanah. Illustrated by Marguerite de Angeli and Alexander Key. New York: Rand McNally, 1936.


Moderow, Gertrude. Six great stories, edited by Gertrude Moderow, Mary Yost Sandrus, Josephine Mitchell [and] Ernest C. Noyes. Illustrated by Alexander Key. Chicago [etc.]: Scott, Foresman, 1937. Contents: Treasure island, by R.L. Stevenson.--The legend of Sleepy Hollow, by Washington Irving.--Rip Van Winkle, by Washington Irving..--Shakespeare’s As you like it, by Charles and Mary Lamb.--Gareth and Lynette, by Alfred Tennyson.--The golden touch, by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Story parade: a collection of modern stories for boys and girls, by noted authors, Mabel Leigh Hunt, Wilfrid S. Bronson, Charles J. Finger...and others. Introduction by Elizabeth Coatsworth. Illustrations by Frank Dobias, Alexander Key, Lois Lenski...and other contemporary artists. Philadelphia [etc.]: The John C. Winston Company, 1937.


Blackmore, Richard Doddridge. Lorna Doone. Adapted by Rachel Jordan, A.O. Berglund [and] Carleton Washburne. Illustrated by Alexander Key. Chicago [etc.]: Scott, Foresman and Co., 1938. Adapted for a juvenile audience.

Matschat, Cecile Hulse. Suwannee river: strange green land, by Cecile Hulse Matschat. Illustrated by Alexander Key. New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1938.

Stratton, Clarence. When Washington danced: a tale of the American Revolution, by Clarence Stratton. Adapted by Gertrude Moderow. Illustrated by Alexander Key. Chicago: Scott-Foresman, 1938.


Stevenson, Robert Louis. Treasure Island. Adapted by Gertrude Moderow, Josephine Mitchell, [and] Ernest C. Noyes. Illustrated by Alexander Key and Ernie King. Chicago: Scott, Foresman, 1949.


Judson, Clara Ingram. Sun Yat-Sen, by Clara Ingram Judson. Illustrations by Alexander Key. Frances Cavanah, director of biographies. Evanston, Ill.: Roe, Peterson, 1953.


Blackford, Charles Minor. Deep treasure, a story of the Greek sponge fishers of Florida. Illustrated by Alexander Key. Philadelphia: Winston, 1954.

Campbell, Sam. Loony Coon: antics of a rollicking raccoon, by Sam Campbell. Illustrated by Alexander Key. Indianapolis & New York: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1954.

Matschat, Cecile Hulse. Ladd of the big swamp: a story of the Okefenokee settlement. Illustrated by Alexander Key. Philadelphia: Winston, 1954.


Helm, Thomas. Monsters of the deep. Illustrated with photos., and with drawings, by Alexander Key. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1962.


Lyback, Johanna R. M. Indian legends of eastern America. Color illustrations and map ornamentation by Dick West. Other illustrations by Alexander Key. Chicago: Lyons and Carnahan, 1963.

Lyback, Johanna R. M. Indian legends of the great West. Color illustrations and map ornamentation by Dick West. Other illustrations by Alexander Key. Chicago: Lyons and Carnahan, 1963.

Books by Alexander Key:


Key, Alexander. The red eagle: being the adventurous tale of two young flyers. Story & pictures by Alexander Key. New York: P.F. Volland, 1930. Reprinted in 1930 and 1935 by the Wise-Parslow Company, New York.


Key, Alexander. Liberty or death: the narrative of William Dunbar, partisan. Presented in story and picture, by Alexander Key. New York & London: Harper & Brothers, 1936.


Parents’ Institute (New York, N.Y.). Best stories for boys and girls: pages of stories selected by the editors of “The Parents’ Magazine.” New York: Parents’ Institute, 1938. Includes the story: “Caroliny trail, by Alexander Key” from the magazine, Story Parade, which had been recently published.


Argosy, v. 295, no. 2. New York: Frank A. Munsey, December 2, 1939. Contains a story by Alexander Key: “Black Bayou--short novelet”, Stranger, don’t fear the whisper of the ’Glades tonight. Morning will bring the sun, and a girl’s song, and the promise of a safe Destiny, p. 72. Apparently some other issues of Argosy during the 1930s contained other stories by him.


Key, Alexander. With Daniel Boone on the Caroliny trail. Written and illustrated by Alexander Key. Philadelphia [etc.]: The John C. Winston Company, 1941.


Key, Alexander. Boys will be boys: very easy pantomimes and entertainments for boys, by Alexander Key. Franklin, Ohio: Eldridge Entertainment House, 1945.


Key, Alexander. The wrath and the wind, a novel. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1949. An adult novel. Translated into Spanish in 1950 as La ira y el viento. I posted here the Popular Library paperback cover because it's such a cheesy one!


Key, Alexander. Island light. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1950. An adult novel.


Key, Alexander. Island of escape. Toronto, Ontario: Harlequin Books, 1952. Harlequin book 237. Not clear if this is a romance or adult novel. In the early years Harlequin published non-romances as well.


Key, Alexander. Cherokee boy. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1957. Translated into Swedish in 1958 as Den hemliga dalen.


Key, Alexander. Sprockets, a little robot. Written and illustrated by Alexander Key. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1963. Translated into Spanish in 1967 as El robotito.


Key, Alexander. Rivets and sprockets. Written and illustrated by Alexander Key. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1964. Translated into Spanish in 1967 as Vuelven los robotitos.


Key, Alexander. The forgotten door. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1965. Published by Scholastic in paperback in the same year and still in print. Translated into Chinese in 1973 as Qi yi de men and into German in 1975 as Die Tür zu einer anderen Welt. It was made into a 1966 tv series with 7 episodes.


Key, Alexander. Bolts, a robot dog. Written and illustrated by Alexander Key. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1966.


Key, Alexander. The mystery of the sassafras chair. Illustrated by Louis Segal. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1967.


Key, Alexander. Escape to Witch Mountain. Illustrated by Leon B. Wisdom, Jr. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1968. Translated into German in 1977 as Die Kinder vom anderen Stern. It was adapted as a Walt Disney Productions film in 1975.


Key, Alexander. The golden enemy. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1969.


Key, Alexander. The incredible tide. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1970.


Key, Alexander. Flight to the lonesome place. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971.


Key, Alexander. The strange white doves; true mysteries of nature. Written and illustrated by Alexander Key. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1972.


Key, Alexander. The preposterous adventures of Swimmer. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1973.


Key, Alexander. The magic meadow. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975.


Key, Alexander. Jagger, the dog from elsewhere. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976.


Key, Alexander. The sword of Aradel. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977.


Key, Alexander. Chill factor. New York: Doubleday, 1978. A Crime Club edition.

Key, Alexander. Return from Witch Mountain, by Alexander Key based upon Walt Disney Productions’ motion picture. Screenplay written by Malcolm Marmorstein, based upon characters created by Alexander Key. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1978. The 1979 London edition claims this was actually written by Martin Mellet. The book was written as a companion to the Walt Disney Productions film which was released in 1978. See the entry on Wikipedia.


Key, Alexander. The case of the vanishing boy. New York: Pocket Books, 1979. This appears to only have been printed in a paperback edition.

Play adaptations:

Falls, Gregory A. The forgotten door, adapted for stage by Gregory A. Falls from the book by Alexander Key. New Orleans, La.: Anchorage Press, 1982.

Movie adaptations:

Mirai shōnen Konan, gensaku, Aregusandā Kei, enshutsu, Miyazaki Hayao. Tōkyō: Tokuma Shoten, 1997. A anime-style book adaptation of Miyazaki’s anime tv series which was based on Key's The Incredible Tide. Information on the anime tv series can be found here.


Jen Robinson said...

Wow, Jenny! This is amazing!! I had no idea that Key was an illustrator at all. Nor that he had written so many books. All I have are The Forgotten Door, Escape to Witch Mountain, Return from Witch Mountain, and The Vanishing Boy. Clearly I'm going to have to try to track down some of these others, especially The Sword of Aradel. And I think it would be excellent if the movie in 2009 sparked some renewed interest in Key's books.

I especially love your timing for this piece, because I watched the 1975 Disney version of Escape to Witch Mountain this weekend. It's that rare case for me where even though the book and movie are pretty different, I love them both. I'm wanting to re-read the book now, too.

Thanks so much for this fabulous gift, Jenny! I'm going to come back tomorrow and read it in more detail.

Jenny Schwartzberg said...

You are very welcome! I'm so glad you like the post. I hope others like it as well. I got nervous since it's so bibliographic and I'm afraid people might get bored reading the list of books.

I do find it amazing how much Key wrote and illustrated! I definitely recommend the Sword of Aradel and I think I'll look for copies of some of his other books when I'm not in a credit hole.

That's fun that you just watched Escape. I remember loving that movie! And yes, when book and movie are different it can drive me up the wall, but both did work very well according to my memory.

Looking forward to further comments.

Anonymous said...

I own a book that is not on the list: "Working Together" by Edson and Laing, 1931. The cover and frontispiece depict Johnny Appleseed illustrated by Alexander Key.

Jenny Schwartzberg said...

Thanks! I checked and found that the Working Together reader was first printed in 1925, found an image of the cover and updated the post, as you can see above under 1925.

joe said...

I'm 46 and "The Forgotten Door" was a big favorite of mine when in school. I had no idea that this author penned the "Escape to Witch Mountain" story that I saw on Disney. Now I want to find his original book as well as a copy of "The Forgotten Door". But I guess I should have guessed it was his, the theme is remanissent. Thank you for this post!

Jenny Schwartzberg said...

Joe, you are welcome! Have fun reading the other books by Alexander Key!

Mick said...

I found your blog after following up on a lovely eBay Child Life cover (April '29) signed by him. Have a look, it's really exquisite, and like many Child Life covers of the period, rather Deco and illustrated by a Chicago - based artist.

bowdler said...


Enjoyed this post. Some information on one of the books - the Harlequin "Island of Escape" is a renamed "Island Light".

Anonymous said...

About 35? years ago I ready The Golden Enemy as a child. It was in the school library. Not long after, it was removed from circulation, to be disposed of. A few years ago, I searched for this book in the public library and was approached by a librarian. I was told I had accessed a book on a "watch list" and told not to look for it again. This was a great book and one of the reasons I enjoy science fiction/fantasy now. Any idea what happened with this book?

Anonymous said...

Other slightly similar books you might like:

the "People" books by Zenna Henderson (there's a NESFA collection called "Ingathering" that incorporates all of them)

"The Anything Box" (also Zenna Henderson - her non-People short stories)

"Children of the Atom" by Wilmar H. Shiras

"Emergence" by David R. Palmer


Tonk82 said...


For quite some time, a lot of the books written by Key are available as eBook on amazon.

Its great, because i wanted to read "the incredible tide" for years . Awesome book, by the way.

Anonymous said...

A group of enthusiasts in Tallahassee, Florida have arranged for re-publication of "Island Light" and "The Wrath and the the Wind" to be the subject of an event at Mission San Luis on Thursday December 11, 2014, at 6 pm according to a story in the Tallahassee Democrat here: http://www.tallahassee.com/story/life/2014/12/06/local-group-reissues-vivid-forgotten-novel-author-key/19961583/ Mike Underwood munderwood@nettally.com