Tuesday, 17 February 2015

The Best Place to Hide: Some Favourite Children's Books about Dens and Hiding Out - Emma Barnes

Last week I wrote about how camping out - in both reality and fiction - inspired my new book Wild Thing Goes Camping. Equally important, I realised, was the idea of dens and secret hiding places.

There’s something really powerful for a child about a den or a secret place. There’s all the fun of finding or building one. There’s also the thrill of having a place that nobody know about: a place totally under your control, where nobody messes with your stuff, which is totally private from the grown-ups.

I’d already used the idea once before in Sam and the Griswalds – where a tree-house in Sam’s garden provides an important refuge and meeting-place.

In Wild Thing Goes Camping, five-year-old Wild Thing disappears into the back garden with some of the clean laundry.  When big sister Kate, Gran and Dad go looking for her, they are rather taken aback when a head pops out of the ground at their feet.

"No need to shout," she said. 
It was a bit of a shock seeing my sister come out of nowhere like that.  "What are you doing down there?" I demanded.  "And... where is the rest of you?"
"In my new den, of course," said Wild Thing.  And she disappeared again, under the sheet.
Dad gave a roar of annoyance.  Then he knelt down and grabbed a corner of the sheet - and pulled.
Wild Thing gave a howl.  "Stop!" she bellowed. "That's my roof!"

It turns out Wild Thing has made a potato trench in the back garden into a den for herself and her worms. She makes a sheet into the roof and purloins Gran’s new handbag as a “worm house”.

Of course, Dad forbids her from building more den.  But like children before and since, Wild Thing is not about to give up her pursuit of a place of her own!

Here are some of my own favourite books with secret dens. They cover the entire age range: a secret space, after all, may be just as important to a teenager as it is to a small child making a den behind the sofa.

I’ve had to search hard, though, to think of recent examples. Is this because there are fewer forgotten and hidden places in today's intensely developed world?  Or because modern children have less freedom to explore outdoors?  Or perhaps because today’s children take refuge online – not in dens?

1) Sally’s Secret - by Shirley Hughes Classic picture book writer-illustator Shirley Hughes produced this wonderful story about a small girl making herself a house at the bottom of the garden. The joy is in the details – the doll’s tea set, the leaf plates, the tiny cakes. At the end she decides to share it, and invites the next door child to tea.

2) Tilly’s Houseby Faith Jacques  A servant doll that runs away from a dolls’ house and creates her own home in a wooden crate in an abandoned green-house. Although about a doll, it taps into a child’s own desire to make a little place of their very own. The special pleasure of this story, again, lies in the very detailed illustrations, and in seeing how discarded and unwanted every day human objects (sponges, bottle tops, wrapping paper, an old glasses case) can be transformed into the furnishings for a doll. 

3) The Hollow Tree House by Enid Blyton Enid Blyton may not have been a great stylist. But her enormous popularity was not for nothing, and one of her strengths was her ability to hook-in to a child’s fantasies. It’s not surprising, then, that many of her books feature secret hide-outs. The Hollow Tree House is about two children who, with the help of a friend, run away from their abusive relatives and make their home in a huge, hollow tree in the woods.

4) The Magician’s Nephew - by C.S.Lewis  Sometimes a secret place may be the way into another world.  Polly has made a "smuggler's cave" in the attic of her terraced house. It is, of course, when she shows the attic to her friend Diggory that they travel too far along the rafters, stumble into Uncle Andrew’s study, and end up as part of an experiment which sends them out of this world, and eventually into Narnia…

5)  The Dare Game - by Jacqueline Wilson Jacqueline Wilson is a contemporary author who seems to have a direct line to a child's fantasies.  In this book, her most famous character, Tracy Beaker, bunks off from school and discovers an empty house.  It becomes a place where she can escape from her troubles, but also form new friendships.


6) The Secret Hen House Theatre - by Helen Peters  This is a recent book, whose old-fashioned setting on a Sussex farm has not stopped it making a big splash.  Helen lives with her three siblings and widowed dad, whose long working day leaves little time for his children.  Then one day she stumbles upon a dillapidated old hen house.  For Helen, it represents not just the chance of creating her own space, but a way of fulfilling her dreams of being an actress...

7) Jenning’s Little Hut - by Anthony Buckeridge  Jennings and his boarding-school friends build their own shelters down by the pond.  These vary from Bromwich Major’s subterranean “elephant trap” with resident goldfish to Jennings and Darbishire’s own Ye Old Worlde Hutte with its periscope, duckboards, and front door mat made of bottle tops!

8) Peter’s Room - by Antonia Forest  In this neglected classic, Peter Marlow turns the loft above the coal shed into a hide-out, complete with stuffed hawk and antique pistols. This adult-free space then becomes the venue for a teenage fantasy game that gets dangerously out-of-hand.

9) The Hunger Games - by Suzanne Collins   Katniss and Gale have a secret shelter where they meet while poaching in the woods. Later, during the Games themselves, Katniss and Peetah take refuge in a cave by the river. For victims of an oppressive, authoritarian regime, the possibility of a space of their own is every bit as important as it is to younger children trying to dodge their parents.

Any suggestions for number 10? ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Emma's series for 8+ Wild Thing about the naughtiest little sister ever (and her bottom-biting ways) is published by Scholastic. 
"Hilarious and heart-warming" The Scotsman

 Wolfie is published by Strident.  It is a story of wolves, magic and snowy woods...
"A real cracker of a book" Armadillo 
"Funny, clever and satisfying...thoroughly recommended" Books for Keeps

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Joan Lennon said...

You've brought back memories of so many dens, from a tunnel in a snowdrift to a corner of the basement to under a bush out in the woods to a circle of flattened grass in a field - thanks for reminding me!

Rosie H said...

Milly-Molly-Mandy has a tree house in one story, though I forget which book.

Thank you so much for mentioning Tilly's House. It's one of those books I loved as a child but couldn't remember the details of to find it again as an adult. Off shopping now!

Penny Dolan said...

I have always loved the way overgrown trees sometimes droop towards the ground so that their leaves and branches make a temporary den where a child can play and daydream - if only for a while. (I've realised I'm thinking of a particular elder tree, surrounded by tall weeds, that grew near a row of garages. My little brother was usually too busy pedalling around on his bike to bother me. Bliss! )

Piers Torday said...

I was obsessed by dens when I was younger - in particular recreating Stig's, and hoping I might somehow travel back in time through one!

Emma Barnes said...

Sorry for the late response - Rosie, I tried to find that Milly-Molly-Mandy story while writing the post and couldn't - I'm glad to know it actually exists. Piers - I forgot about Stig! A classic den indeed.