5 Special Places in Literature: Reading Retreats
Did you have a special place as a child to take a book and read? I loved reading outside and could usually be found under a tree with our two dogs nearby.
Literary characters find their own magical places when they want to read a book. Here are my top five choices for the most interesting reading retreats:
5a. Jo's Attic (garret) in Little Women
Attics seem to represent something special in children's literature. While brainstorming about evocative places to read, my friend, Lisa, mentioned three attics: The school attic where Bastian hides with the book in The Neverending Story; Sara Crewe's imaginary world in the cold attic in The Little Princess; and Jo Marsh's hideaway for reading and writing in her garret.
Coming in at number 5, "A Tale of Two Attics" shows how authors can create a completely different atmosphere and mood using the same setting.
Perhaps it is the feeling of being above everyday activity, alone and private, that makes attics so exceptional. Here is an introduction to the place where Jo likes to read, write and renew her creative energy with crisp autumn apples:
"Jo! Jo! Where are you?" cried Meg at the foot of the garret stairs.
"Here!" answered a husky voice from above, and, running up, Meg found her sister eating apples and crying over the Heir of Redclyffe, wrapped up in a comforter on an old three-legged sofa by the sunny window. This was Jo's favorite refuge; and here she loved to retire with half a dozen russets and a nice book, to enjoy the quiet...
5b. Sara Crewe's attic in The Little Princess
In contrast to the comfortable scene in Little Women, Sara Crewe's attic is cold and unsought. When funds for her tuition at a boarding school cease, she is forced to stay in a frigid attic room and become a servant.
Author Frances Hodgson Burnett doesn't shy away from showing Sara's bitterness and anger at her change in fortune. We also see how Sara's powerful imagination makes the attic a place where she can reach inside herself for strength and transform her life.
This excerpt shows the balance between the hardship of the attic and Sara's ability to create a world of her own:
When the square suddenly seemed to begin to glow in an enchanted way and look wonderful in spite of its sooty trees and railings, Sara knew something was going on in the sky; and when it was at all possible to leave the kitchen without being missed or called back, she invariably stole away and crept up the flights of stairs, and, climbing on the old table, got her head and body as far out of the [attic] window as possible...It used to seem as if she had the sky and the world to herself...
4. The Maple Tree in Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown
My friend, Lynne, recommends one of her favorite series, the Betsy-Tacy stories. Interestingly, author Maud Hart Lovelace adjusted each book in the series to match the reading level of her fans as they grew older.
The beginning of Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown finds Betsy in her maple tree where she loves to read and dream of writing a story of her own:
Betsy was sitting in the backyard maple, high among spreading branches that were clothed in rich green..Three branches forked to make a seat, one of them even providing a prop for her back...She was aware of the river winding through its spacious valley and of a world, yet unexplored, lying beyond.
3. Emily Starr's reading chair in Emily of New Moon:
In the scene at the beginning of the book, all that is settled, hopeful and well-loved is about to change for Emily. Reading is tied to the comfort and familiarity of her first home:
...Emily had curled herself up in the ragged, comfortable old wing-chair and read The Pilgrim’s Progress all the afternoon. Emily loved The Pilgrim’s Progress. Many a time had she walked the straight and narrow path with Christian and Christiana–although she never liked Christiana’s adventures half as well as Christian’s. For one thing, there was always such a crowd with Christiana. She had not half the fascination of that solitary, intrepid figure who faced all alone the shadows of the Dark Valley and the encounter with Apollyon...
2. Bailey Badger's retreat in The Tale of Briar Bank
In the series, The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter, we find the children's author moonlighting as a sleuth in her beloved Lake District.
The books are written in Miss Potter's own style, and feature all sorts of creatures who live in a thriving world of their own. Although I'm not usually very fond of places away from the sunlight, this depiction of an underground library is wonderful and contains one of my favorite quotes about reading:
...whilst Bailey lived in three simple rooms (spartan or bare, depending on your point of view), his library enjoyed a much larger space than he did. It occupied six commodious chambers, each room filled floor to ceiling with bookshelves containing works of history, biography, science, philosophy and literature.
These works had been collected, through numerous generations, by badgers who believed that "Reader" was the most rewarding vocation to which a virtuous badger might be called, and who gauged their week's anticipated pleasure by the height of their to-be-read piles...
1. Robin and The Velvet Room
For me, there is no more mysterious place in children's literature to read than The Velvet Room by Zilpha Keatley Snyder:
From that first glimpse, from the first minute, it was more than a room—more even than the most beautiful room Robin had ever seen. Her hands shook on the doorknob, and the shaking didn't come from fear or cold.
Her trembling hands were only an echo of something deeper that had been strangely shaken by that first sight of the Velvet Room...It was as if she had been there before, or at least had known it was there. As if she had always known there would be a place exactly like this...
The walls of the room were paneled in dark wood. All along one wall the bright bindings of books contrasted with the wood. The books went on and on, all down one side and across the far wall, on shelves that went almost to the ceiling...
My own copy of The Velvet Room has traveled with me from California to Oregon and then up to the Canadian border in Washington State. Even as I kept it with me, I never reread it. I was afraid the special feeling would vanish if I began reading it again as an adult.
Recently, I finally made the leap. Please join me here for A Most Mysterious Room: Revisiting a Childhood Classic.
Linda Borromeo enjoys describing the room overlooking the ocean where her characters read in her island mystery books (there's also a traveling library). The first book in the series, Mystery Shores, is available to read now.
Linda lives in the Pacific Northwest where she often hikes while watching birds and thinking of her next book to read.