Step Into the Pages of Children’s Literature for Your Family Vacation
The world first opens up to children in the pages of great books, taking them in their imaginations to fascinating places near and far: a farmhouse in South Dakota, a cave on the banks of the Mississippi River, a fancy hotel in New York City. When children travel into the wide world in their minds, they’re traveling with some of the most enthralling companions they’ll ever meet: Laura Ingalls, Tom Sawyer, Eloise …
Sometimes the geography of children’s literature is fantastical, such as the Wizard of Oz’s Emerald City and Charlie’s chocolate factory. But often the worlds in books are quite real. These actual places, so vividly imagined by young readers, and so fondly remembered by adults, can become the scenes of real-life adventures. Why not bring your child’s book to life and put one of these literary destinations on your family’s vacation itinerary?
In the Northeast
Eloise, by Kay Thompson and Hilary Knight, Simon & Schuster, 1955.
For the countless readers of the Eloise books, New York means one thing: the Plaza Hotel. If Eloise could pass day after fabulous day within the gilded walls of this famed hotel, then any fan of hers should plan on spending at least an afternoon here.
Regardless of how long you visit, make sure to spend some time following in the footsteps of the free-spirited 6-year-old Eloise, who lived in the Plaza with Nanny while her mother gallivanted around the world. "Skibble" around the hallways and put a letter down the mail chute, wishing you could be naughty enough to pour water down the chute like Eloise did. Wander into the Oak Room to see if you can score a "broken mint." Crash an "enormous affair" in the Grand Ballroom and, by all means, have tea (or hot chocolate) in the Palm Court, where Eloise took many of her meals. Don’t miss Hilary Knight’s oil painting of the 6-year-old on the ground floor, and skibble across the street to F.A.O. Schwarz to pick up something from the extensive Eloise section.The Plaza Hotel: 212-759-3000. F.A.O. Schwarz: 212-644-9400.
The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge, by Hildegarde H. Swift and Lynd Ward, Harcourt, 1942. This beloved picture book and the real Jeffrey’s Hook Lighthouse, which sits under the looming George Washington Bridge, have symbolized a child’s life in New York for six decades.
The little red lighthouse knows what it’s like to be a very, very small part of a giant city – and in the course of the story, the lighthouse learns how even the very, very small can make important contributions and be brave, valued and loved. Thanks in part to this book, the lighthouse escaped a planned demolition many years ago, and it’s now part of Fort Washington Park on the banks of the Hudson River.
While you can see the little red lighthouse from either a car window or the Circle Line ferry, it’s best to get up close and personal on foot. Enter the park from a footbridge on 181st Street, and bring a picnic to enjoy on the banks of the river. The Urban Park Rangers give lighthouse tours from May to October, and there’s an annual Little Red Lighthouse Festival in September. Urban Park Rangers: 212-304-2365. Fort Washington Park: 800- 201-PARK.
Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott, various editions, 1868.
Although the writing style in Little Women is flowery and dated, and the girls at first seem hopelessly prissy, the tales of their daily life are enthralling. Alcott based the novel on her own life, which may be why it radiates such warmth and authenticity.
That’s also why a visit to Orchard House in historic Concord, Mass., is essential for any Little Women fan. You’ll see the costume trunk used for the "theatricals," the impossibly tiny desk on which Alcott wrote the novel, dollhouse dioramas of the March family, the piano played by Louisa’s musical sister, Beth, and a bedroom wall filled with the drawings made by her artistic sister, May (Amy in the book). Check on the frequent docent programs for kids, from one-hour costumed living-history tours to weeklong drama workshops.
Elsewhere in Concord, you can have a picnic at Walden Pond, like the March sisters did, and visit The Wayside, where the Alcotts lived for a few years before selling it to Nathaniel Hawthorne. Orchard House: 978-369-4118. The Wayside: 978-369-6975. Walden Pond State Reservation: 978-369-3254.
Make Way for Ducklings, by Robert McCloskey, Puffin, 1941.
Although this picture book is more than 60 years old, it’s as popular with 4-year-olds today as it was during World War II. That’s because of the timelessness of the story – a family of Boston ducks has to make its way through the treacherous city to their new home in the Public Garden – and the beauty of McCloskey’s ink-washed illustrations. Native Bostonians take pride in being able to name all eight ducklings (Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack and Quack).
Start your visit on the banks of the Charles River near the Hatch Shell on Storrow Drive, and you’ll see the island where the ducklings hatched – it looks exactly the same today as it did in 1941. Then follow the ducklings’ route: over the Arthur Fiedler Bridge, left at the first street, right on Mt. Vernon, a lovely street with 19th-century red-brick houses, right on famous Charles Street (stopping for an ice cream or drink if refueling is in order), across busy Beacon Street, and into the Public Garden, where you’ll find the bronze statues of Mrs. Mallard and her brood.
After playing with (or on) the immobile ducks, keep walking to the Swan Pond, where there are plenty of real ducks to feed and visit, as well as the Swan Boats, a heavenly little ride for preschoolers (from May to October). It’s an easy walk even for little ones, and a lovely way to bring the book to life.For more information go to: Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau: 888-SEE-BOSTON (733-2678). Swan Boats: 617-522-1966.
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The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963, by Christopher Paul Curtis, Bantam Books, 1995.
This is the story of 10-year-old Kenneth Watson and his family, who drive south from Michigan to spend a summer with Grandma Sands in Birmingham, Ala., where they end up experiencing the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church (a real-life event in the news again recently because of the decades-overdue convictions of the bombers).
It sounds grim and serious, but Curtis’ writing style creates characters who are rich with warmth and humor. To build on the experience gained from reading this book, plan a visit to Birmingham and its newish Civil Rights District, which includes the rebuilt church, the Civil Rights Institute (a museum with older-kid-friendly exhibits on the struggle for civil rights and freedom), Kelley Ingram Park, and the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame. Birmingham is no longer the slow-moving country town it was in the early ’60s, but to experience the Watson kids’ lake-swimming summer fun, head to gorgeous Oak Mountain State Park.Birmingham Civil Rights Institute: 866-328-9696, http://bcri.bham.al.us. Oak Mountain State Park: 205-620-2520.
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Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O’Dell, Random House, 1960.
Based on a true story, this novel (ideal for readers ages 9 to 13) is about an Indian girl who spends years alone on one of the Channel Islands off of Santa Barbara, Calif. Karana is accidentally left alone on the island when her tribe moves, and she eventually tames and makes companions of wild dogs, birds and an otter.
Today, Channel Islands National Park is home to more kinds of seals and sea lions (pinnipeds) than anywhere else in the world, and it protects the nesting ground of the brown pelican, a species brought back from the brink of extinction. On the half-day boat trip to tiny Anacapa Island (which fulfills every child’s expectation of an island, because you can see all edges of the land), you’re likely to see whales (gray in winter, blue in summer), cormorants, sea lions, pelicans and huge pods of dolphins. Either Ventura or Santa Barbara makes a good base for this trip, and both beach towns have museum exhibits on local Native American culture.Channel Islands Visitor Center, Ventura: 805-658-5730. Island Packers: 805-642-7688 (recorded information) and 805-642-1393 (reservations). Ventura Visitors Bureau: 800-333-2989. Santa Barbara Visitors Bureau: 800-676-1266.
Maybelle the Cable Car, by Virginia Lee Burton, Houghton Mifflin, 1952. Told in off-and-on rhyme, the book introduces us to Maybelle, the cheerful San Francisco cable car whose existence (and that of her sisters) is threatened when the city fathers want to replace the quaint old cable cars with Big Bill, looming, diesel-spewing buses. Fortunately, citizens protest vigorously, the cable cars are saved, and after a scary slide on a steep, wet hill, Big Bill learns to appreciate Maybelle’s hill-climbing ability and the two learn how to be friends.
Based on the actual citizen’s campaign to save the cable cars in the 1940s, this story teaches kids about civic involvement, preservation and cooperation. And since a kid hasn’t been born who doesn’t love San Francisco’s cable cars, a reading of this book must be followed with a visit to the City by the Bay, to ride the cars and visit the Cable Car Museum. (Hint: The Powell line is always mobbed, so head for the less-popular California line.)Cable car information at San Francisco MUNI: 415-673-MUNI. Cable Car Museum: 415-474-1887.
Ramona Quimby, Age 8, by Beverly Cleary, Scott Foresman, 1981. With a lighthearted, fun voice, Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books capture the humorous tales of everyday life in an ordinary middle-class neighborhood. The adventures of Ramona and Beezus, their friend Henry Huggins and his dog, Ribsy, and a variety of other friends, neighbors, parents and teachers happen in a neighborhood called Glenwood (she based it on her own childhood home of Portland, Ore.).
Ramona lives on Klickitat Street, which remains to this day a pleasant residential street where you can stroll with your child and decide which house looks the most like the Quimbys’. Also visit Grant Park (called Glenwood Park in the books) to see the Beverly Cleary Sculpture Garden, with life-size bronzes of Ramona, Henry, and Ribsy, an in-ground water fountain, and plaques commemorating every one of Cleary’s books.
While in Portland, make sure to visit the great Powell’s City of Books to pick up a couple more Cleary titles, and the Beverly Cleary Children’s Library within the stately old Multnomah County Central Library downtown.Grant Park: 503-823-PLAY. Multnomah County Central Library: 503- 988-5123. Powell’s: 503-228-0540.
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Little House on the Prairie, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Harper Collins, 1932.
Reading these tales of rugged pioneer life remains as much a rite of passage today as it was for children during the 1930s and ’40s. The Little House books are breezy, captivating and often thrilling – as fun for boys to read as for girls (at least until the later books, when more attention is paid to hair-fixing and courting).
Ingalls and Wilder sites dot the Midwest, but by far the best destination is De Smet, S.D., where Wilder set five of her nine Little House books, including By the Shores of Silver Lake and Little Town on the Prairie. At the Ingalls Homestead, kids can play at housekeeping in a cabin identical to the one Pa built, as well as in a miserable dirt dugout just like the one the Ingalls lived in briefly. They can also climb in covered wagons, ride a horse, attend school in a one-room schoolhouse overseen by an in-character docent, make rope, play tag in the wide-open prairie, visit the actual cottonwood trees that Pa planted, and maybe even (as our kids did) discover a family of kittens in the barn’s loft. In the nearby town of De Smet, you can visit various Ingalls landmarks, including the Loftus store, where Laura shopped in the stories. And in the summertime, the local residents put on a terrific Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant. Ingalls Homestead: 800-776-3594. Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society: 800-880-3383. Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant: 605-692-2108. Lake Thompson State Park campground reservations: 800-710-CAMP.
Colleen Dunn Bates and Susan LaTempa are the authors of Storybook Travels: From Harry Potter’s London to Eloise’s New York, Visits to 30 of the Best-Loved Landmarks in Children’s Literature; Three Rivers Press, 2002.
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Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling, Scholastic, 1998. If you have a child between the ages of 5 and 15, chances are very good that you’ve read aloud, read along with, or had your child recount endless details of at least one of the Harry Potter books. So if you’re going to England, you will surely want to seek some of Potter’s magic. While most of the adventures take place in fantastical places, it is quite possible – and quite a lot of fun – to build a Potter-inspired English odyssey.
In London, you can search for Platform 9-3/4 at King’s Cross Station, wander Charing Cross Road to look for a pub that resembles the Leaky Cauldron, and pick up a wand at Davenport’s, reputed to be the oldest magic shop in the U.K. Then take the one-hour train ride to the fairy-tale-castle town of Windsor, where you can tour Eton College, the legendary boarding school for kids ages 11 to 18 – clearly the school that inspired Hogwarts. Elsewhere around the U.K. are various sites used in the feature films, most notably the massive Norman-era Durham Cathedral, which served as Hogwarts in several key scenes. The British Tourist Authority can provide a guide to other locations from the films.British Tourist Authority: 800-462-2748. King’s Cross Station: 44-8457-4844950. Eton College: 44-1753- 671177. Davenport’s Magic Shop: 44-8457-484950.
Hill of Fire, by Thomas P. Lewis and Joan Sandin, HarperTrophy, 1971. Before Mount St. Helens, there was ParicutÌn, a volcano in central Mexico that attracted worldwide attention when it grew in a farmer’s field in Michoacan in 1943. Lewis’ easy-reader (for ages 4 to 8) telling of the volcano’s birth from the eyes of the farmer’s son has led many children to wish they could see a volcano for themselves.
A visit to the ParicutÌn volcano can be made as a day trip from the state capital of Morelia or as part of a stay in Uruapan or P·tzcuaro, two towns that are known for historic architecture, colorful markets, excellent parks and rich cultural traditions. Guided day trips to the volcano and the village it buried can be arranged at many hotels, or just head to the village of Angahuan, where guides with horses will take you either on a short ride over the lava fields to see the buried church (the tower is still exposed, and you can climb in it), or a longer ride to the rim of the dormant volcano (it’s a real challenge, best for teens). Running down the black sand of the volcano’s flank is a thrill they won’t soon forget.Mexico Tourism Board: 800-446-3942. Tourism Office Michoacan: 52-443-3128081.
Madeline, by Ludwig Bemelmans, Viking Press, 1939. Families often fear that Paris’ formal (some say haughty) urbanity makes it inhospitable to children. But with Madeline as their guide, children will be as enchanted as their adult companions. You can spend a whole day walking in Madeline’s chaussures (shoes), or spread the outings over a few days, interspersed with other adventures.
Start by searching for the "old house covered in vines," which was home to the "twelve little girls in two straight lines." Bemelmans modeled the old house on the convent boarding school his mother attended; the closest approximation today are the vine-covered houses along the rue de Courcelles and its side streets in the 8th arrondissement, across from Parc Monceau. (Marcel Proust lived and wrote here, at 45 rue de Courcelles. Tell your kids about how he became famous for writing a story about eating madeleines, a delicious coincidence.) Let your little Madeline fan decide which house looks most like hers.
Elsewhere around Paris, you can follow the 12 little girls across one of the nearby bridges, off of which Madeline fell in Madeline’s Rescue, to the Eiffel Tower, to Notre Dame, to look for bad guys at the Place Vendome, and to the famous cafÈ, Les Deux Magots, where the girls go looking for their lost dog, Genevieve. French Government Tourist Office: 212-838-7800.
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