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 House – by 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.
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
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
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
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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