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Travel by the Book

By Colleen Dunn Bates & Susan La Tempa
June/July 2002
Working Mother Magazine

All too often, sight-seeing with kids leads to a dumbing down of the vacation experience: We give in to the obvious and settle for prepackaged tours or resorts. This is understandable. Many of us don't have the time or expertise to plan a unique, meaningful trip. And what parents really want to turn their own vacation into an earnest nagfest or a glorified field trip?

But there is a way to introduce your kids to the wide world, share with them your zest for adventure, and have a fun, memorable vacation at the same time. The secret is to set aside your travel books, head straight for the shelves in your children's room, and let their storybooks be your guide.

For the past several years, we've been wandering North America and Europe with our kids, exploring the geography of children's literature. Armed with dozens of wonderful books-from classics like Heidi and Pinocchio, to our own childhood favorites like Little House on the Prairie and Eloise, to recent award winners like The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963 and Yolonda's Genius-we wanted to find out if we could see and do the very same things each book's heroine or hero saw and did.

In the process, we discovered a whole new approach to taking a family vacation, and that led to the writing of our new book, Storybook Travels: From Eloise's New York to Harry Potter's London, Visits to 30 of the Best-Loved Landmarks in Children's Literature (Three Rivers Press). We hiked in Heidi's Alps, walked the Boston route described in Make Way for Ducklings, and looked for Ramona Quimby's Klickitat Street in Portland, Oregon. Of course, during these literary travels we were able to enjoy all of the traditional family-vacation activities that kids just adore: eating ice cream, river rafting, going to the beach, and shopping for all kinds of souvenirs.

A storybook vacation begins at home, with you and your child curled up together reading-perhaps And Now Miguel, by Joseph Krumgold. You look at the pictures and wonder if there are still sheep-ranching families near Taos, New Mexico (there are). Or maybe you've long since decided on a family vacation to England when your child discovers Harry Potter and starts wishing he could see Hogwarts (hot tips below). However it begins, the result is a two-part journey-reading and traveling-that interweaves to make real magic. Here are four of our favorite trips.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Hannibal, Missouri

Mark Twain's hometown and the setting for two of his most memorable books has held onto many of its nineteenth-century American charms, which are especially evident in the summertime. That sense of leisure, of time to explore and discover, is the great gift parents can give their kids on a Tom Sawyer trip.

You could hurry through Hannibal on a quickie one-day stop-anticipating the town's efforts to cash in on its famous son. You might even skip the riverboat ride and spend just enough time here to tramp through the gift shops. To you we say, Slow down.

You'll miss tall tales told by local guides who have such an innate understanding of Twain's speech rhythm and language that they seem to be quoting him when they're merely improvising. You'll miss one of the inspirations for Tom Sawyer's cave (with its walls tagged by Jesse James and other old-time bad boys), and Cameron Cave, which older kids can explore by lantern light. You'll miss the chance to walk along the levee of the Mississippi River and wonder at the chance of flood.

If you linger in Hannibal, you'll discover that the riverboat is a lovingly refurbished craft piloted by Steve Terry, a true river veteran who, like Mark Twain, knows a thing or two about little boys. On our visit, he warned that the loud blasts of the boat's steam whistle would actually be painful for folks sitting right in front of the bridge, allowing time for a half-dozen boys to immediately run to that location and yowl during the blasts.

The historic district, where you'll find the riverboat dock and assorted Twain-era landmarks, has several small museums, cafes, and shops. Hotels are nearby, but the best bet for overnighting is camping. There are three campgrounds, two with pools and fishing lakes and one that is adjacent to the caves and nature trails. Plan to enjoy picnics, fishing, swimming, and just hanging out by the campfire, thinking about Tom and Huck sneaking out at midnight, floating on a log raft, cooking catfish on the campfire, smoking corncob pipes, and prowling around haunted houses.

Hannibal Convention and Visitors' Bureau, 573-221-2477, 866-263-4825
Mark Twain Cave, Cameron Cave, 573-221-1656, marktwaincave.com.
Mark Twain Riverboat, 573-221-3222,

Little House on the Prairie
De Smet, South Dakota

By the time Laura Ingalls Wilder's family reached the frontier settlement in the Dakota Territory in 1879, they'd lived in a covered wagon, a dugout, a log cabin, and various shanties. Finally, Ma decided she'd had enough of this harsh, nomadic life, so they settled for good in De Smet. Wilder set five of her nine Little House books here, including By the Shores of Silver Lake and Little Town on the Prairie.

Today we have the increasing difficulty of family farming to thank for the preservation of the Ingalls Homestead here. Tim and Joan Sullivan had been having a tough time making a go of it on their Iowa farm when they happened to take a trip and passed through the De Smet area. They saw a notice that the old Ingalls homestead was up for sale, and the deal was clinched. The Sullivans received federal funding when they restored some of the land on the property to native prairie grasses. They bought the place and turned the rest of the land into a lovely hands-on, child-centered, bring-the-books-to-life destination.

Fans of the Little House books will love exploring a cabin that is identical to the one Pa built, as well as a miserable dirt dugout, just like the one the Ingalls lived in briefly. Kids can ride in covered wagons, ride horses, attend school in a one-room schoolhouse overseen by an in-character docent. They can also make rope, 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. Kids are encouraged to touch and experience everything-and they do so, with gusto.

In the nearby town you can tour the Surveyors House, where the family lived during their first De Smet winter, as well as the house Pa built when he and Ma were ready to move off the farm. The Loftus store, where Laura shopped for books, is still in business, and the De Smet Depot Museum is full of prairie-life memorabilia. In the summertime, the local residents put on a Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant out on the prairie near the old cottonwood trees. The Laura Ingalls Wilder Society also hosts a festival, which includes old-time fiddlers, food stands and a kids' tractor pull.

The town has a couple of bed-and-breakfasts, but to really get into the spirit of life as Laura Ingalls Wilder lived it, camp out at nearby Lake Thompson State Park, on the shores of South Dakota's largest lake.

The Ingalls Homestead, 800-776-3594,
Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society, 800-880-3383, liwms.com.
Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant, 605-692-2108. Lake Thompson State Park reservations,

Island of the Blue Dolphins
Channel Islands National Park,
Ventura/Santa Barbara, California

The sun-drenched California coast is the jumping-off point for a boat trip to enchanted islands close enough to be seen from the shore yet far enough away to have their own unique animal species. Based on a true story, Scott O'Dell's novel is about Karana, an Indian girl who spends years alone on one of these islands, like a young Robinson Crusoe. In an easy day trip with no special preparations, you and your children can see life through the eyes of this castaway of the early 1800s and in the process encounter dolphins, whales, and many other creatures of the wild.

In the story, Karana is accidentally left alone on the island when her tribe moves away. She eventually befriends and tames wild dogs, birds, and an otter. Today, this national park is home to more kinds of seals and sea lions than anywhere else in the world and is a protected nesting ground for the California brown pelican, a species brought back from the brink of extinction.

Our boat was the only one landing on Anacapa Island the day we visited, and, like Karana, we were separated from civilization by miles of water but surrounded on all sides by wildlife. We saw two giant purple jellyfish, three gray whales, scores of seals and sea lions, a raft of cormorants, and hundreds of pelicans. Later, as our boat headed back to the mainland, we were surrounded by a pod of literally thousands of dolphins. In every direction we turned, the waves churned with their glistening gray bodies.

Ventura makes a good starting point for this trip. The beach town has helpful museum exhibits on local Native American culture, and boats to Anacapa, operated by Island Packers. Our day trip featured an hour-and-a-half boat ride with whale watching (gray in the winter, blue in the summer) each way, and an after-landing picnic and walk along an easy 1.5-mile nature trail. Tiny East Anacapa (total land area is about one square mile) fulfills every child's dream of what an island should be because you can so clearly see all the edges of the land and the vastness of the ocean surrounding it.

Channel Islands Visitor Center Ventura
Island Packers, 805-642-7688 (recorded information), 805-642-1393 (reservations)
Ventura Visitors Bureau, 800-333-2989,
Santa Barbara Visitors Bureau, 800-676-1266.

Harry Potter
And the Sorcerer's Stone
London, Windsor, and Durham, England

If you have a child between the ages of 5 and 15, chances are 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 out some of Potter's magical locations.

As almost every parent knows by now, orphan Harry is forced to live a miserable life in the cupboard under the stairs of his nasty relatives, the Dursleys. Then he is rescued on his eleventh birthday and sent off to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. It turns out he's been a wizard all along, the son of a famous witch and wizard, and now the time has come for him to fulfill his destiny.

The majority of Harry's adventures take place in fantastical locations-from the goblin-staffed Gringott's Bank to the classrooms, towers, and secret passageways of Hogwarts. Even so, it is quite possible, and quite a lot of fun, to take a Hogwarts-inspired English odyssey from accessible sites.

The sleuthing starts in London, with a trip to King's Cross Station to look for Platform 93/4, where Harry first steams off to school on the Hogwarts Express. Naturally, ordinary muggles will only find Platforms 9 and 10 in the King's Cross annex building; you'll have to use your Potter-style powers to see 93/4. Head over to Charing Cross Road, where there are plenty of pubs just like the Leaky Cauldron. You'll want to pick up a magic wand, of course, so don't miss Davenport's, said to be the oldest-known magic shop in the United Kingdom (it was established in 1898).

Next, take the one-hour train ride to the fairy-tale-castle town of Windsor, where you can tour Eton College, the legendary British boarding school and clearly one of J.K. Rowling's inspirations for Hogwarts. Eton is the school of choice for many of Great Britain's elite. England's royal heir, Prince William, is an alum of Eton and his brother Prince Harry still attends school there.

Elsewhere around the United Kingdom are various sites used in the filming of the feature film version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, most notably the massive Durham Cathedral in northern England, founded after the Norman conquest 900 years ago. The British Tourist Authority can provide a free tour map, "Harry Potter: Discovering the Magic of Britain."

British Tourist Authority, 866-4-Hedwig,
King's Cross Station, 44-0845-7484950. Eton College, 44-1753-671177,
Davenport's Magic Shop,