Posted by: jeannineatkins | February 14, 2008

Children’s Secret Hideouts as a Way to Another World

Some of my students just wrote brilliantly about childhood haunts. Some liked being alone – in the woods by a hole that might once have been a dinosaur footprint or an asteroid crater, under an apple tree or on the roof with a book and a candle. One girl grew up in noisy people-filled house she loved, but few corners, so when she craved a space of her own, the sofa had to become a ship.

Some allowed siblings into their hideouts. One girl had a spot under the stairway, shared with a sister: the one place where they never fought. Others explored the woods with brothers, or a pond, though a girl’s relationship to the turtles there was totally different from that of her the three boys.

How do we claim the magic where a sofa is as good as a ship, a rock becomes a mountain, a walk through the backyard an epic journey? The key seemed to be being away from adults. The temporary solitude of these children felt chosen, not forced upon them, so that alone in their sanctuaries, they didn’t feel lonely, but developed a rich inner life. Some wrote of woods that seemed vast, though now when they go back, they may cross them in minutes. But certainly the small groups of trees shaped their lives as much as those of the characters in The Chronicles of Narnia, Lord of the Rings, and many fairy tales, where the forest offers a refuge from the turmoil or even comforts of family and school, or a path to another world. These writers showed you don’t have to be an orphan, or tossed on a tornado like Dorothy, or sent away to an old house to escape WWII London bombing, like the children in Narnia. You just need a little time alone, or away from adults to find your imagination, which C.S. Lewis called a faculty that “stirs and troubles” the reader with “a dim sense of something beyond reach.”

Apparently a young visitor, escaping from the blitz to an old house in the country, asked the owner, C.S. Lewis, “What’s behind that wardrobe?” And a story began.


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