One of the most common grade-school writing assignments is the classic “How I Spent My Summer Vacation.” However, if you go to a bookstore or library and look for books where real kids actually explain what they did do on their summer vacations, family trips, or any other travel experience… you’re not going to find much. Or at least I didn’t. Maybe I’m just not Googling correctly, but, if there are books out there collecting really superior examples of travel writing for kids, they shouldn’t be this hard to find.
First, let me explain what I’m NOT referring to when I say “travel writing for kids.” I’m not referring to books about geography or other cultures. I’m not referring to nonfiction books that open with “Hello, my name is ____. I am from _____. Let me tell you about my country.” And I’m not referring to maps, atlases, or any kind of reference book. (If you want a particularly good example of a fun, readable geography book for kids, I’m a big fan of the Lonely Planet Not For Parents Travel Book.)
What I am talking about are travel memoirs, first-person accounts of people travelling across the globe and sharing with their readers how those experiences made them feel. And there are so many fantastic travelogues and travel memoirs that are written both by adults and for adults – for example, the nonfiction works of V.S. Naipaul, Alexis de Tocqueville, Paul Theroux, Hunter S. Thompson (Fear and Loathing is, technically, travel writing), Bill Bryson, Colin Thubron, Mark Twain, John Steinbeck (and his Travels with Charley) – the list goes on and on.
Personally, I’m a big fan of Michael Palin, the former member of Monty Python-turned-world-explorer, who’s responsible for a remarkable series of BBC travel documentaries and accompanying volumes of travel memoirs. (Palin’s Around the World in 80 Days is a particular favorite.)
But, while the world of adult travel writing is robust and varied, there are almost no works of travel writing that address the experience of children travelling, either coming from the perspective of adults travelling with their children or the perspective of the kids themselves. Which feels like a hugely missed opportunity.
(The only big exceptions to my “no travel writing for kids” argument – that I’m aware of – are Laura Ingalls Wilder’s diaries from her family’s journeys across the American frontier, which, I’ll admit, I haven’t read.)
Personally, I love travelling with my daughter. We’re not an exceptionally well-travelled family, but, whenever I take my daughter somewhere she’s never been before, the best part of the trip is always seeing the place through her eyes. Travelling with a child forces you to adopt an entirely different perspective as a traveler. Because, when you travel with your kid, you have to be both their steadfast travel companion, the person who’s going to lead them out into the big scary world, AND you also have to take on the responsibility of placing that big scary world into context for them.
Because there’s no point in taking your kid to Mount Rushmore if you’re not going to explain who those presidents are. And there’s not much point taking them abroad if you’re not planning on talking with them about the similarities and differences between their home culture and the cultures they’re visiting.
It was after finishing one of Michael Palin’s travelogues that I decided that I wanted to find some travel memoirs to share with my daughter. I wanted to show her that kids travel all the time and I wanted to show her that the kid-perspective on travelling to Paris is probably very different than the experience of a forty-year-old professional travel writer. I imagined sharing with her true stories of families biking across Africa together or a parent’s recollections of a son’s first trip to London or the travel diaries of a ten-year-old Army brat recounting her adventures at military bases across the globe. And… yeah, I didn’t find anything like that.
If you Google “travel writing for kids,” the results aren’t very satisfying. There are a lot of sites with instructions on how to get your kid to keep a travel journal, tips on travelling with kids, blog posts about how travelling with kids sucks, and biographies of travel writers who have kids themselves, but you won’t find any particularly substantial examples of travel memoirs about a kid actually travelling. The first search result I found for “travel writing for kids” is actually a syllabus for teaching travel writing to 9-12 graders, but the course’s recommended reading list is just a collection of standard adult travel classics.
(I did find ONE example of a self-published travel memoir written by a nine-year-old and her mom called We’re Doing WHAT for Summer Vacation, a travelogue that recounts their family’s summer trip across Borneo together. It sounds fascinating and I’m probably going to order it for my daughter on principle alone, but it’s a pretty major outlier.)
If you go to Amazon and do a book search on “travel writing” and then limit your search to the 328 books in the “Children’s Books” category, again, the results leave much to be desired. The first result is Tokyo on Foot: Travels in the City’s Most Colorful Neighborhoods by Florent Chavouet, a gorgeous, absolutely BRILLIANT visual travel diary that… has nothing to do with kids. The remaining results are an odd mixture of travel journal workbooks, Magic Tree House titles, and Flat Stanley books.
I KNOW there are children travelling out there in the big scary world and I know there are parents travelling with their kids in the big scary world all the time. I just wish more of them were writing about their experiences in a format that I could share with my daughter. She’s endlessly curious about the world and, I think, would LOVE to hear what it was like for kids, just like her, to journey to new and mysterious lands and how those travels made them think, feel, and experience life differently.
SO I’m really hoping that the problem here is my completely inferior web-searching skills. If you, dear readers, know of ANY examples of wonderful travel writing that either address the experience of travelling with kids OR are written from the perspective of a child, PLEASE share them with me in the comments section BELOW. I’d love to read them and I’d love to make them easier for other curious parents to find as well.