I have a particular fondness for little boys, especially fictional ones. Their humor, their antics, the good hearts buried beneath a sea of orneriness. I love it when my dad waxes nostalgic about all the things he did as one. I enjoy reading about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn because Mark Twain knew what it was like to be a little boy. He wrote what he knew. He was, most probably, an ornery little kid. And the best fictional boys come from those who were ones.

Maybe that’s why Netflix’s Stranger Things is such a success. It’s the part Alien, part Goonies brainchild of the Duffer Brothers, two grown-up sci-fi 80s nerds who recall VHS tapes, lumpy tape recorders, and big hair with fondness. Stranger Things is the perfect blend of nostalgia and creepy-crawly scares. It’s a risk-taking show whose main characters are lovable, eccentric, delightful preteen boys.

The story starts out with best friends playing Dungeons & Dragons in the basement. The control freak of the group is the generous-hearted but intuitive Mike. Dustin provides the laughs and the chocolate pudding. Lucas is the exasperated cynic, who expects the worst around every corner. And quiet, sweet Will holds them all together.

Until he goes missing on the way home. Vanishes without a trace. His frantic mother calls the local sheriff. But the boys, not content to let the cops find their friend, set out to rescue him themselves. Along the way, they stumble across “El,” a girl with strange abilities who has escaped from an experimental lab. There’s a set of adult and teen characters but the show’s heart and soul lies in its brilliant children.

The Duffer Brothers capture the joys, trials, and tribulations of boyhood in a way that captivates its audience. It gives its heroines time to shine, but the story’s strength lies around its exploration of men at all stages of life: awkward boys who aren’t sure they like girls yet, teenage males competing for girls and status, even the gruff sheriff’s need to fulfill a “dad role.” And while anyone can enjoy it, it’s got a strong attraction for boys through its story arcs, focus on its male leads, and… well, all the gross goo and monsters.

Each episode reveals the creators’ fondness for childhood, but from the nuanced perspective of adults who understand the complex relationships between friends, romantic partners, and what it’s like to “start” growing up. Despite the wild and crazy stuff that happens (from an upside-down reality full of monsters to an evil laboratory that performs experiments on kids), it feels real, because the emotions are real. The fear of a lost child. The pain of a dead child. The uncertainty of first romantic attraction. Of growing up. Not knowing what you want. Seeing your girl like someone else. It’s all there, and then some.

A lot of productions “age up” child protagonists. The tween hero of the Spook’s Apprentice books became an eighteen-year-old in the movie. It flopped. To give Susan a love interest, Disney made the ten-year-old Prince Caspian seventeen in their second Narnia adaptation. Also a bomb. Part of the power of the original stories is that they are children

For me, that’s why Stranger Things is such a pleasure to watch—it allows its main characters, its heroes, to be little boys. These aren’t just any kids. They’re smart. Courageous. Can-do. And I like every single one.

One of the best relationships turns up in season two when Dustin finds a much-needed “big brother” in the teenage Steve. First season Steve was a jerk. Second season Steve steps in when Dustin needs a friend. Steve acts as a mentor, protector, and helps him transition into being a teenager.

Another powerful arc is El’s relationship with Hopper. She needs a dad, and he needs to heal from his daughter’s death from cancer. It echoes the relationship of parents and children everywhere—the anger, tantrums, misunderstandings, the slamming of doors, and the love.

Our world wants children to grow up fast. It exposes them to much more in the modern time than ever before, not all of it good. And it doesn’t always let little boys be little boys. Stranger Things harkens back to a more innocent time where boys rode bikes and had adventures in the woods instead of peering at cell phones. It reminds us of the joys of little boys. Their antics. Their struggles. I think Mark Twain would approve. It reminds us that little boys may not always be nice, but what a boring world it would be without them.