Mason, the grandson of Saltwater Cowboy Walter Marks, pets Moe at the landing site before the 86th annual Chincoteague Pony swim on Wednesday, July, 27, 2011. The annual event inspired Marguerite Henry's Newbery Honor winner "Misty of Chincoteague."
Keeping kids engaged while traveling can be a challenge, particularly if the adults in the family can’t stand amusement parks. One inventive alternative to this conundrum is a literary destination that caters to little readers. After all, who hasn’t lost themselves in a book — in a character’s thoughts amidst a world of the author’s creation — and wished they could be there? For kids, visiting the nexus of their favorite book is like entering that imaginary world.
In some cases — Harry Potter, for one — literary travel does require a trip to a theme park. But many classics were based on real places, including the destinations written about in these timeless children’s books:
- Every Father’s Day weekend, thousands descend on Victorville, Calif., for Huck Finn Jubilee. “We wanted to create an environment that would take you back to the 1880s, to a little town along the Mississippi River when the circus came to town,” says founder Don Tucker, who collaborates with the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum in Hannibal, Mo. Activities include egg-tossing, bluegrass concerts, storytelling by a Mark Twain impersonator, river-raft building and frog-jumping contests. “It’s like a vacation without the TV — an escape event,” says Tucker. “I call it creative involvement: where you can play with your imagination, and let your imagination take you away.”
- On Chincoteague Island, Va., the Chincoteague Wild Pony Swim inspired Marguerite Henry’s Newbery Honor winner “Misty of Chincoteague,” published in 1947. The event, during which about 150 ponies are herded across a channel at low tide to a neighboring island, dates back 85 years. Henry attended the event in the 1940s and heard of two island siblings and their tamed wild foal Misty, whose equine descendants still live in Chincoteague. At the neighboring Assateague Island National Seashore, families can camp and see the horses in their habitat, alongside wildlife such as horseshoe crabs, foxes and dolphins.
- L.M. Montgomery, who penned "Anne of Green Gables," fashioned the feisty red-headed heroine’s home after a relative’s farm, and that original Green Gables is now part of the Prince Edward Island National Park of Canada. There, "Anne" fans traipse through the Haunted Wood and coastline that fascinated her after arriving as a landlubber orphan. Green Gables is open year-round, and in July and August admission includes guided tours, a puppet show, Victorian picnics and game days, with an "Anne" musical running (for over 45 years now) at the Charlottetown Festival.
- Although Laura Ingalls Wilder moved across the Great Plains as a child, several of her “Little House on the Prairie” books were set in De Smet, S.D. That small town about two hours northwest of Sioux Falls is where young readers can find the Ingalls Homestead. Ann Lesch of the Ingalls Homestead has seen an increase in grandparents visiting with grandkids, who get hands-on exposure to the tales at the homestead farm, through the artifacts at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Homes, and watching the “Little House” pageant show. “They are very well-crafted stories,” says Lesch. “The way that they’re written is accessible, even to children. So it’s one of the first encounters children have with the stories of American history.”
And there’s another way to turn any trip into an exciting literary adventure for kids, says Sam McClure of the Austin-based travel agency Small World Travel: Pick a few books about your destination for children to read ahead of time.
“We have families that really take it to heart, and each child will have to research an aspect of each destination,” says McClure. Options might include reading Anne Frank’s diary to prep for seeing Amsterdam, stories of Marie Antoinette for a jaunt to Versailles or stories of children growing up in China before an expedition to the Great Wall. “The ones who do it, and take it seriously, say it absolutely enriches the experience.”
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