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Finding Neverland

In many of the classics of children's literature, secret places transport us and touch on our deepest dreams

One night, when my daughter was about to turn 7, I asked her what she wanted for her birthday. We discussed various toys, and after a while she began to drift off to sleep. I had just tiptoed out when she jolted awake and suddenly sat up. There must have been a moon through the window, because I recall the bright clarity of her face. ''I know just what I want!" she said. ''I want a little room. One you could put in my real room."

There would be hardly any space between the inner room and the outer. ''Just turn the knob of my real room," she said, turning a knob in the air, ''then right away there'd be that other door." I asked her what would be in the inner room and she answered, ''All the things that are in my real room." ''Can you describe it more?" I asked. But she had grown sleepy again, and added only, ''I could do whatever I wanted in there." I sat for a moment, waiting to see if she'd go on. ''You could probably get it at Home Depot," she murmured (was she laughing a little?) before she fell asleep.

By morning my daughter seemed to have forgotten all about this wish for a room, and in fact, when I brought it up she wasn't interested in talking about it. It was as if she had alerted me to a secret door but then refused to let me in. And if I've ever asked since, she has shooed me away and skipped off (often going to play with friends and dolls inside tents they've rigged up in the living room, or under tables, or to a neighbor's tree house: The desire for little rooms is obviously thriving).

I can recall my own craving for a secret or inner space as a child, my own enthrallment with playing in there, cordoned off. It's where I made up stuff, and could pretend it all was real. I remember being 6 or so and receiving a gift of two tiny chairs, about an inch high. I remember placing them in a box, and how it felt to see that they cast two tiny shadows. A sudden feeling gripped me: Something real was present in the box; here was a secret house, which I was in charge of, a house within my own house, but this one my parents didn't know about. Maybe in contrast to the tininess of the chairs and box, I felt swelled in size when I played with them.

There is a way to enter or reenter the secret rooms of childhood, of course, and that is through the grace of the authors of many beloved and enduring children's books. Virtually all books that involve some enchantment or express a child's deepest emotional longings center on the idea of a secret world, or a room within a room.

The nature of the secret places varies. In some books, the inner room opens out into a landscape where children have enormous adventures. The stuffy wardrobe in C. S. Lewis's ''The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" is actually a portal: Beyond the fur coats, Narnia is vast and snowy, full of glittering walls of icicles, cozy animal dens, and an evil queen. Because time is magical in Narnia, the whole wood can pass ''in a few hours from January to May" once Aslan arrives. The snowy hills become suddenly covered with yellow celandines.

Other rooms, rather than opening out, enclose the child. In Frances Hodgson Burnett's ''The Secret Garden," the unloved and unlovable Mary has access to an enormous house and acres of land -- she has nothing but freedom -- yet she is drawn to the enclosed, forbidden garden. She needs a small space. She wants to tend to the neglected roses and the fallow land. Similarly, in Rumer Godden's ''An Episode of Sparrows," an abandoned girl finds a plot of forbidden land, hidden from view. It is here, after planting stolen seeds, that she is surprised one morning to see countless little stalks, fine as hairs, ''which very gently she brushed with her palm." She feels moved by the thought that they were seeds that she had planted.

The room belonging to the boy Omri in ''The Indian in the Cupboard," by Lynne Reid Banks, is just a regular bedroom; it is messy and familiar. But in his normal bedroom is a smaller room: an ordinary, white, metal cabinet. Omri puts a little plastic Indian in the cabinet, and in the morning finds him -- still only an inch high -- alive and ''breathing heavily. His bare, bronze shoulders rose and fell, and were shiny with sweat." ''Were you always this small?" Omri asks him later. ''I not small! You big!" the Indian shouts angrily.

Like the dreamer whose sleep must not be disturbed, lest he lose his dream, the secrecy of these rooms must never be violated. Each book takes great care in laying out the rules that have to be followed: Muggles in J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter books must never know of wizards; in fact, Harry will be expelled from Hogwarts if he uses magic on Muggles. In Eva Ibbotson's ''The Secret of Platform 13," soft, furry, white ''mistmakers" breathe out sweet-smelling mist to hide their magical island from the outside world. ''And the people who might have landed and poked and pried saw only clouds of whiteness and went on their way." When Omri brings his Indian to school, and the principal actually sees him, the man nearly faints, and must go home, thinking he's losing his mind. And when the children come home from Narnia, the professor advises: ''Don't talk too much about it. And don't mention it to anyone unless you find that they've had adventures of the same sort themselves."

But no matter how much more beautiful or exciting the inner rooms are found to be, in most books the children do not wish to dispense with the outer room, that is, regular life, altogether. (Harry Potter is a notable exception here; he would love to be done with Muggles once and for all.) But Lewis's children choose to leave Narnia and clamber back through the wardrobe door; Omri needs his parents and the things they provide for him to act as counterweights to the mounting demands of his little toys. The girls in their walled-off gardens do not want to stay walled off from others; in fact, they want to enlarge their world -- to be less lonely.

The inner or secret rooms of childhood, as seen in books, seem to flourish to the extent that they have a realistic frame; it is as if the inner rooms are protected or at times egged on by tensions with the real, adult world. But by the same token, the secret rooms can spring fully to life only when they are secure from the intrusions of that world. This can be said, too, of actual children: They crave secret rooms -- protected but not barged into by the real world -- so they can imagine their own worlds.

I am reminded of a child's bedroom I once saw. It had been decorated by a designer, hired by the child's well-meaning mother, to be a replica of the ''great green room" in Margaret Wise Brown's book ''Goodnight Moon." The walls looked to be the exact green of the walls in the illustration (Benjamin Moore color ''Grassy Fields"), the carpet was the same orangey-red, there were the same billowy, striped curtains. Even the lighting caught the cast of moonlight. Surveying the perfectly undisturbed room, with its patina of enchantment, I asked the child -- a girl of 7, as I recall, expensively dressed -- where in her room she best liked to play. She seemed taken aback, and after a moment walked me out into the hall, and opened a closet a crack, just so I could glimpse what looked like stacks of junk.

She played in the closet! All that money spent, and the room seemed to function only as a set piece -- to be admired, but never fully entered.

But it made sense. She preferred to step out of her beautiful room, into her closet, where she could make up her own room. Perhaps from the closet it was easier to dream of somewhere far away, somewhere moonlit and green.

Barbara Feinberg is the author of ''Welcome to Lizard Motel: Children, Stories, and the Mystery of Making Things Up: A Memoir."

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