Tuesday, November 17, 2009

How the Heather Looks by Joan Bodger

"A Joyous Journey to the British Sources of Children's Books" is a very accurate subtitle for this delightful book.

In the mid-1950's, Joan Bodger and her family - husband John, 8-year-old son Ian, and 2 1/2-year-old daughter Lucy - took an extended trip to England to find as many connections to the stories they loved while exploring the countryside. It was a trip that any Anglophile or bibliophile, especially one with children, would love to repeat. Realistically, that's not possible for most of the Anglophile and bibliophiles I know, especially those with children, so we can live vicariously through Joan Bodger's account of their travels and adventures.

From spending two weeks in a gypsy wagon and cooking in a converted chicken coop, to sculling the Thames along the same stretch of river that inspired The Wind in the Willows, How the Heather Looks: A Joyous Journey to the British Sources of Children's Books provides rich descriptions, unforgettable experiences, and unique comments on both well-known classics and forgotten treasures of children's literature.

The chapter headings are somewhat indicative of the regions they visited or books and authors that they tried to find, but they are by no means comprehensive. "A Peak in Narnia," for instance, dwells mostly on their sojourn in the gypsy caravan, mentioning books like The Wind in the Willows and The Boxcar Children, with only an fanciful reference to Narnia (which misses the point, in my opinion). But other chapters are more focused, as "In Quest of Arthur," which traces their disappointments and delights as they look for places of Arthurian legend.

One of my favorite incidents is in this chapter on Arthur. At the ruins of Tintagel's castle, they found a sign posted near the cliff edge by the Ministry of Works that stated, "Parents are requested to discipline their children." You can see why this would be necessary:
But I wonder if the British government still makes such a pointed request for child-discipline more than 50 years later!

If ruined castles don't interest you, how about finding the little crooked house where the little crooked man lived with his crooked cat and crooked mouse that inspired the illustrations of Leslie Brooke (112)? Or maybe you would prefer the street in Gloucester where the tailor lived with Simpkin in Beatrix Potters' The Tailor of Gloucester (21)? They visited with Mrs. Milne, the widow of A. A. Milne, who directed them to the very bridge from which they could play Pooh Sticks just like that stuffed hero (152). And they even included some sites pertinent to adult classics, visiting the Bronte home, where a few of the minuscule stories the three sisters wrote with their brother Branwell are preserved (188). I could share many more fascinating tidbits, but, in short, you simply must read the book!

I have also added to the list of must-read books for myself and for my children. Some that weren't at all familiar to me include Puck of Pook's Hill by Kipling, Popular Romances of the West of England by Robert Hunt, and English Fairy Tales by Jacobs (which, according to the author, assists in the understanding of Shakespeare). When we study English history in a few years, I will definitely try to find Looking at History by R. J. Unstead, The Story of England by Brown and Arbuthnot, and 1066 and All That by Sellar and Yeatman (130).

The only thing that would improve the book would be a detailed map marking the path of their travels and the literary points they discovered. Aside from this omission, the book is well documented, with a good index and a section on Further Reading which includes more recent sources for background on authors, regions, history, etc. I'm very glad my library has this book, and I expect I will be referring to it many times in the course of our educational and reading journey. . . even if we do stay on this side of the pond.

1 comment:

Petunia said...

This sounds great. I am planning a bookish tour of England when the kids are grown but I would still love to visit KidLit locations. What fun!