Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Tag Archives | Louise Fitzhugh

The Need for Secret Places

honeysuckleIn the fifth grade, my best friend and I dis­cov­ered a tan­gle of hon­ey­suck­le in the scrub­by woods bor­der­ing our school play­ground. It would make the per­fect recess refuge. All we had to do was pull the hon­ey­suck­le from inside the cir­cle of saplings it was twined around, leav­ing a cur­tain of vines.

The next day, we sprint­ed into the thick­et and began rip­ping out vines. Hon­ey­suck­le, we learned, often grows with poi­son ivy. When we were no longer coat­ed in calamine lotion, we fin­ished our hide­out. Each recess, we dashed down the hill when the teacher wasn’t look­ing and zipped into Hon­ey­suck­le Hide­out. Hav­ing a secret place at school, where we were cor­ralled by adults, gave us an exhil­a­rat­ing sense of free­dom.

Until the day three sixth graders invad­ed our Hide­out. The pres­ence of sneer­ing, old­er girls shat­tered our pri­va­cy. Our haven sud­den­ly seemed child­ish and the pow­er we’d felt spy­ing on oth­ers dimin­ished in an instant. We were back in the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion of ordi­nary kids.

Although I had my own room at home, I made a den from a blan­ket-cov­ered card table, cob­bled a makeshift play­house inside my clos­et, and claimed the nook behind the fur­nace in our base­ment. In these places I felt safe and seclud­ed. The books I read fueled the need for secre­cy: the gate­house-turned-club­house in the Trix­ie Belden mys­ter­ies, the Melendy sib­lings’ Office in The Sat­ur­days, the dumb­wait­er Har­ri­et the Spy squeezed into, the Bor­row­ers’ realm beneath the floor­boards.

four books

Once, I spread a tarp inside a roll of unused chick­en wire sit­ting along one side of our gar­den. I crawled inside. Rag­weed and tall grass cloaked the fence roll from view. The tarp floor smelled musty. I tucked a box of Milk Duds and my library book in a fold at one end. The cat joined me. We whiled away sum­mer after­noons as bum­ble­bees drowsed in the clover and a thrush sang sweet­ly deep in the woods.

I didn’t know then that place-mak­ing helped con­nect me to the plan­et. Qui­et and hid­den, I began to under­stand I was part of the larg­er space shared by the bum­ble­bees, the thrush, and the cat. I con­tin­ued to cre­ate these sanc­tu­ar­ies no mat­ter where I lived. As poet Kim Stafford said in his essay, “A Sep­a­rate Hearth:” I would take any refuge from the thor­ough­fare of plain liv­ing … there I pledged alle­giance to what I knew, as opposed to what was com­mon.

The geog­ra­phy of our pasts is lit­tered with snow forts and retreats beneath rhodo­den­dron bush­es, tree hous­es and havens under front porch­es. Secret spaces, no mat­ter how tiny or crude, expand to accom­mo­date kids’ fan­tasies and imag­i­na­tion. Children’s den-mak­ing, says Col­in Ward in The Child in the City, car­ries over into adult­hood. “Behind all our pur­po­sive activ­i­ties, our domes­tic world, is this ide­al land­scape we acquired in child­hood.” I still carve out sanc­tu­ar­ies to escape dish­es and laun­dry and, nowa­days, the inva­sion of email.

In my 1920s themed sit­ting room, the small­est room in our house, I sit on the floor sur­round­ed by vin­tage children’s books, old per­fume bot­tles, and McCoy vio­let pots filled with col­ored pen­cils. I write notes using my grandfather’s cedar chest as a desk, read, or work on art projects. Each evening, I wind down in this cozy room and let the day waft out the win­dow.

Secret PlacesWhere do today’s chil­dren craft their pri­vate spaces? I nev­er see kids in my neigh­bor­hood build­ing forts or play­hous­es or even sit­ting under a tree. As Eliz­a­beth Good­e­nough says in her book, Secret Spaces of Child­hood, “With­out a cor­ner to build a world apart, [chil­dren] can’t plant what [author] Diane Ack­er­man calls ‘the small crop of self.’”

Many kids escape adults in their bed­rooms, holed up with lap­tops or Play Sta­tions. Apps and games let chil­dren cre­ate mar­velous king­doms. A house made of sticks can hard­ly com­pete with, say, the sophis­ti­ca­tion of Fortnite’s “Loot Lake.” Yet a space of the child’s own mak­ing pro­vides soli­tude and expands to accom­mo­date fan­tasies and imag­i­na­tion. Secret places in games are bound­ed by adult-cre­at­ed rules, the prod­uct of some­one else’s imag­i­na­tion. Those seem­ing­ly lim­it­less options are con­tained in a box.

How will chil­dren find their place in the world in front of screens? Hands tap­ping plas­tic keys can’t feel the fiber tough­ness of hon­ey­suck­le vines or the rough sur­face of a sun-warmed tarp. Eyes focus­ing on flick­er­ing avatars can’t track the up-and-down flight of a blue­bird. The player’s sense of iden­ti­ty, dis­guised in a “skin,” is mere­ly a reflec­tion in the glass.

Bet­ter to seed that small crop of self with books which give a child ideas, words that flour­ish into men­tal pic­tures, and send her out the door to build her own pri­vate king­doms.


Skinny Dip with Sarah Aronson

Sarah AronsonSarah Aronson’s most recent books, The Worst Fairy God­moth­er Ever (The Wish List #1, Beach Lane Books) and Keep Calm and Sparkle On! (The Wish List #2) are at once light­heart­ed and serious—stories that are fun to read and encour­age work­ing for caus­es that mat­ter to the world. Sarah is wide­ly known in the children’s book writ­ing com­mu­ni­ty as an enthu­si­as­tic and effec­tive writ­ing instruc­tor. Thanks, Sarah, for tak­ing a Skin­ny Dip with us in Decem­ber!

Who was your favorite teacher in grades K-7 and why?

This is an easy one! My favorite and most influ­en­tial teacher dur­ing those first years of school was my sixth grade teacher, Mr. Dan Sigley.  

It was a year that began with mixed emo­tions. At that time, I didn’t real­ly feel pas­sion­ate about books. Oh, I liked books, but the­ater was my favorite sto­ry medi­um. I had also just returned from 8 months in York, Eng­land. I went to school there and was intro­duced to new set­tings (that you could vis­it) as well as writ­ers like Charles Dick­ens. I read Enid Bly­ton. More impor­tant, I watched my friends take the 11 plus exam, effec­tive­ly track­ing and divid­ing them for dif­fer­ent kinds of futures.

The PearlMr. Sigley awak­ened my cre­ative spir­it in many ways. He got me hooked on books in three dis­tinct ways. First, our class read and per­formed Romeo and Juli­et—unabridged! He showed me that even if I didn’t under­stand the indi­vid­ual words, I could infer mean­ing in a text! Sec­ond, he tire­less­ly hand­ed me books—he was deter­mined to make me a read­er. The book that did it was John Steinbeck’s The Pearl. That end­ing blew me away! It made me think! This was what I want­ed from books! A chance to think about injus­tice and rela­tion­ships and fam­i­ly … and how I could make it bet­ter. Last, he taught us how to make books—from writ­ing to illus­trat­ing to bind­ing. This first home-made book, The Adven­tures of Prince Charm­ing, con­nect­ed the dots. Books were like the­ater. Books were unique for each read­er. I loved get­ting into the heads of my char­ac­ters. I loved hold­ing a book, too.

About the time Head Case was released, Mr. Sigley moved to the house next to my par­ents, so I got to see him many times and thank him for every­thing he taught me. He was a gen­tle, cre­ative man. He was the first per­son who held me account­able and awak­ened my imag­i­na­tion.

All-time favorite book?

The word, favorite, is my least favorite word ever! Here are the books I keep on my desk—they are the books I love. They are the books I reach for when I’m stuck. These are the books that have taught me how to write.

  • The Story of Ferdinand, The Rag and Bone Shop, Sandy's Circus, What Jamie SawOliv­er Twist (Charles Dick­ens)
  • The Rag and Bone Shop (Robert Cormi­er)
  • Mon­ster (Wal­ter Dean Myers)
  • Clemen­tine (Sara Pen­ny­pack­er)
  • Bun­nic­u­la (James Howe, Deb­o­rah Howe)
  • What Jamie Saw (Car­olyn Coman)
  • The Car­rot Seed (Ruth Krauss, Crock­ett John­son)
  • The Sto­ry of Fer­di­nand (Munro Leaf, Robert Law­son)
  • Har­ri­et the Spy (Louise Fitzhugh)
  • Blub­ber (Judy Blume)
  • Offi­cer Buck­le and Glo­ria (Peg­gy Rath­mann)
  • Charles and Emma (Deb­o­rah Heilig­man)
  • Sandy’s Cir­cus (Tanya Lee Stone, Boris Kulikov)

What’s your favorite part of start­ing a new project?

When I am in pre-writ­ing mode, noth­ing counts! (I am one of those weird writ­ers that deletes her first dis­cov­ery draft!!!) I love writ­ing with­out expec­ta­tions! It doesn’t feel like work. It is all dis­pos­able!

ShoesBare­foot? Socks? Shoes? How would we most often find you at home?

You have to ask? I write books about fairy god­moth­ers! I like shoes. Always shoes. I love shoes and boots and would even wear glass slip­pers if I didn’t think I’d trip and break them.

When are you your most cre­ative?

First thing in the morn­ing. Best advice I can offer: hide your phone. Be a word producer—not just a con­sumer. Get out of bed and cre­ate. Get some­one to make you a cof­fee. Jour­nal every morn­ing. Or doo­dle. Get the pen to the paper. Find a way to tran­si­tion from the real world to your imag­i­na­tive state. The world and social media can wait!

Favorite fla­vor of ice cream?

In the win­ter: choco­late

In the sum­mer: peach

But the gela­to place around the cor­ner makes Greek Yoghurt gela­to. It’s sweet and sour and tangy! Yum.

(File under: this author has prob­lems with favorites.)

Book on your bed­side table right now?

I’m cry­ing over Matyl­da, Bright and Ten­der, by Hol­ly McGhee, rec­om­mend­ed by Olivia Van Ledt­je, also known as @thelivbits

Sarah Aronson's elephantWhat’s your hid­den tal­ent?

I can turn any­thing into a writ­ing les­son.

Also: I can draw an ele­phant from behind.

Why do you feel hope­ful for humankind?

Young peo­ple give me hope. They val­ue kind­ness. And the envi­ron­ment. They stick up for one anoth­er. They exhib­it a strong sense of good­ness and a will­ing­ness to speak out against injus­tices.

That is what I have seen and learned from readers—to kids and teens—even the shy ones who wait until they can email me to ask a ques­tion. Our young peo­ple are grow­ing up in a time where there are no bar­ri­ers to infor­ma­tion. Yes, there is a lot of mis­lead­ing stuff, but the good stuff is at our fin­ger­tips, too. I could com­plain a lot about phones and the inter­net, but tech­nol­o­gy is also equal­iz­ing. We live in a time when we can inter­act with just about any­one. There are so many ways to learn.

In young peo­ple, I see moti­vat­ed kids like Nora (from The Wish List). They want to make the world bet­ter. They believe in good­ness. They are not afraid to speak out. They sup­port each oth­er. That gives me hope.


Skinny Dip with Stephanie Greene

bk_Posey10What keeps you up at night?

Not much. If I do wake up and start wor­ry­ing about some­thing, I put my newest plot dilem­ma into my brain. Puz­zling over it puts me right to sleep.

What is your proud­est career moment?

I guess I’m most proud that I’m still com­ing up with fresh ideas after twen­ty years. I’ve writ­ten sev­er­al char­ac­ter-dri­ven series, some stand-alone books, sev­er­al anthro­po­mor­phic books, and new ideas con­tin­ue to arrive. Maybe I should call that a pro­fes­sion­al mir­a­cle.

What’s the first book you remem­ber read­ing?

The first book I remem­ber car­ing about, deep down, was The Secret Gar­den.

Were you a teacher’s pet or teacher’s chal­lenge?

bk_SophieDepends on what grade you’re talk­ing about. Not sure I was ever a pet, but I cer­tain­ly became a chal­lenge in mid­dle and high school.

What 3 children’s book authors or illus­tra­tors or edi­tors would you like to invite to din­ner?

Hilary McK­ay, E L Konigs­burg, Louise Fitzhugh

Where’s your favorite place to read?

Almost any­where. At night, in bed. In the morn­ing, on a bar stool at the kitchen counter. While I eat lunch, at the table. On a nice day, out­side. If it’s rain­ing … see what I mean? While in line at the gro­cery store, if it’s long. Any­where, any­time.