Travel in England Via Kids’ Books
Next time I fly into Heathrow, I will present both my passport and my library card.
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One of the reasons that England is a favorite destination for Americans going abroad is that travel there may provoke feelings of deja vu. If there were children’s books in your childhood, chances are you spent years reading about the place. Indeed, many readers may have grown up in England before ever journeying there.
Our notions of London (from Kensington Park to Paddington Station) were formed by Peter Pan, Mary Poppins and, of course, A Bear Called Paddington. My own knowledge of the English countryside came from reading Beatrix Potter’s books, well before I ever traveled to Sawrey and Hilltop Farm where Peter Rabbit and his cousins actually lived. Then there was Doctor Dolittle and dozens of others–so many set in England, in fact, that I ought to claim dual citizenship. Indeed, next time I fly into Heathrow, I will present both my passport and my library card.
Not that I am authentically English. Unlike the Brits, Weetabix doesn’t strike me as the ideal breakfast cereal but rather as a clever way to compress cardboard boxes. On their part, my English friends don’t understand why, for example, Americans (myself included) aren’t bonkers on Enid Blyton’s books. The same goes for Thomas the Tank Engine, a series of railroad-themed picture books beloved by the English but that strike others (myself included) as simply stories about trains with smiley faces.
If you’re traveling to the UK, and you are a parent or children’s literature enthusiast, you might spend a little time doing research on the internet to link locales with children’s books and their authors. If traveling to Yorkshire, for example, you can get information on sites in The Secret Garden you can visit; and if traveling to the Lake District, those in Swallows and Amazons. Or, variously, you can find itineraries for following in the footsteps, say, of Robert Louis Stevenson or J.K. Rowling, tracing parts of Treasure Island or the Harry Potter books.
But even if you aren’t traveling abroad, making this kind of literary geography can be a wonderful adventure in itself. Did you know that Oxford is the home not only of Alice’s Lewis Carroll and Narnia’s C.S. Lewis, but The Dark Materials’ Philip Pullman? Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang were written by two different authors (Roald Dahl and Ian Fleming) but they lived in the same neighborhood. And the very same locale that inspired The Wind in the Willows and Winnie the Pooh also prompted that fearsome animal story Watership Down. Discovering this kind of information can be armchair travel at its best.
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This essay was inspired by a great, interactive website called StorybookEngland.com (see graphic at the top of this entry) that was created by VisitEngland but, alas, is no longer available.