A to Z: The story of Cleovet

Throughout April, I’ll be tackling 26 A to Z topics related to children’s literature. Today’s prompt is the letter C, which seems like a good opportunity to tell the story of Cleovet.

From the imagination of Katherine Paterson came Terabithia. From the imagination of Julie Andrews Edwards came Whangdoodleland.

Both of those imaginary worlds were rooted in my mind early in childhood. By fourth grade, I had been introduced to each book, and I fell in love with the idea of finding a magical land in your own backyard.

In “Bridge to Terabithia,” Jesse and Leslie imagine a magical kingdom in the woods, on the other side of a creek. Their kingdom is inspired by the Chronicles of Narnia, which Leslie loved and shared with Jesse. Meanwhile, in “The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles,” three children and a professor transport themselves to Whangdoodleland using the power of imagination.

One of my favorite scenes in “Whangdoodles” is this one:

The professor spoke quietly. “[…] Look at the garden and imprint the scene upon your memory. Very slowly close your eyes and remain aware of it all—just as we have always practiced.”

The children had the odd sensation that the world was beginning to spin and tumble around them. The professor’s voice continued. “Feel your minds opening, floating. Remember where we are going. Reach out for it. Reach. It’s there. Right there. Open your eyes now, and look. Look, dear children, and you will see that it is time we were on our way.”

Ben, Lindy and Tom became aware of the most incredible light. It surrounded them. It was dazzlingly bright and for a moment it was hard to see anything at all.

But as their eyes adjusted to the brilliance, they saw that the garden hedge in front of them was spinning around like a pinwheel on the Fourth of July. There was the sound of a rushing wind and they felt themselves being pulled forward as if by unseen hands.

The professor was smiling and nodding his head and beckoning. “Come along, come along.”

Their vision gradually focused and then, quite suddenly, everything became crystal clear. In front of them the hedge had twisted into a long mossy tunnel. The children knew that at the other end of it lay the most wonderful of all surprises.

I spent countless hours in my own backyard, gazing intently into the tangle of branches in our lilac bushes and imagining a magical new world opening up to me. Like Leslie being inspired by Narnia, I was inspired by Terabithia and Whangdoodleland.

And one summer, I discovered Cleovet.

Geographically, Cleovet is a small place. It’s a circle of rocks in Mom’s garden, and a shaded patch of ground carpeted in pine needles and ceilinged by oak and pine branches. I was between fourth and fifth grade when that small patch of yard expanded into an entire kingdom. Instead of swinging over a creek on an enchanted rope like Jesse and Leslie, or walking through a tunnel in a hedge like the Whangledoodleland adventurers, the path to Cleovet was walking around the rock garden three times. But there were rules. You had to walk barefoot (flip flops got abandoned in the dirt), and your feet couldn’t slip off the rocks, or you’d have to start over.

Cleovet overlapped the real world. A twirling baton hooked through a belt loop in the real world was a sword hanging by my side in a sheath in Cleovet. Birds roosted overhead in the real world were spies or messengers in Cleovet. A ring of rocks in the real world was a mighty castle in Cleovet.

I was the queen of Cleovet, and my companion ruler was King Panther, the large black cat who trailed my every step as a child. There were evil sidewinder armies to battle (inspired by Edwards’ sidewinders in “Whangdoodles”) and deadly tree giants to escape (loosely inspired by Don Quixote’s windmill giants, which I encountered in an episode of “Wishbone”). The bald stalks of white dandelions became a particularly vicious enemy called pigweeds. Baton-swords did an excellent job of chopping down pigweeds.

In times of famine, I would gather food for the people of Cleovet, which consisted of filling a sand pail with seeds from broadleaf plantains (an Illinois weed that grows tall stalks full of small buds; pinching the stem at the base and then running your fingers up it can strip a stalk of its pearls in seconds, although it will stain your fingertips green after a while). After collecting a bucketful, I would scatter the buds all over the yard, feeding the people of Cleovet. (And, I’m quite sure, spreading the weeds all over the yard in the process.) But the real world was a secondary consideration. My entire focus was Cleovet.

That was the power of storytelling. I grew up living in a backyard kingdom, where dozens of creatures and friends and foes buzzed and breathed in my mind. There was an enormous sense of wonder in me as a child: If all of these creatures and places could live in my mind, so real I could practically see them in front of me, did I have a world inside my head? Was our world just a place inside God’s head, where he imagined us into existence? Perhaps the entire universe was simply God’s imagination, telling stories of people and places and things just as I did in the backyard.

As winters and new school years came and went, I spent more time reading and writing, and less time playing. Places like Cleovet began to be bound to the page instead of linked to a specific location. Cleovet itself slipped further away, tumbling into memory instead of an active and alive place.

As an adult, there’s still a flicker of Cleovet tucked away in my mind. Sometimes during visits to my parents’ house, I wander out to the rock garden and try to sense some of the magic that once resonated there. My imagination still sparks at the site of the rock circle. There’s even a new addition of a brick-paved circle filled with purple sand, which my nieces played in. In the back of my mind where Cleovet survives, that sandbox is actually a bottomless purple pool that’s a portal to other kingdoms.

But try as I might, the kingdom is locked to me. Even walking barefoot around the rock circle three times doesn’t transport me to Cleovet anymore. As much as my imagination sparks, it won’t ignite. These days, I need paper as fuel to ignite my imagination. The stories only come to life in words for me now. They don’t come alive before my eyes.

Cleovet is still in there, though. I’m saving it. Someday, at the right time and with the right story, I’ll bring it to life on the page. I’ll return there, if only as a spectator to the events unfolding on the page instead of an active participant in the story.

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