Lonely Planet Not For Parents Travel Book

This is a fun book about travel for kids, but it’s not actually about kids travelling – which is an important distinction.

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.

A Little House Traveler: Writings from Laura Ingalls Wilder's Journeys Across America

Wilder’s diaries aren’t just historical nonfiction, but they’re also solid examples of travel writing that’s actually about a young person travelling.

(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. [read the rest of the post…]


Richard Scarry

Do NOT anger the car trip gods with improper backseat reading...

Building off my last feature about essential reads for car trips, here are ten written-in-stone, have-to-be-followed commandments, rules, and good pieces of advice for anyone gathering books for their children to read on an upcoming road trip.

1. You should NOT bring any book that you cannot easily replace. Leave any rare or expensive books or books with heartfelt family inscriptions at home.

2. You must all leave dustjackets at home. Honestly. They don’t protect the books. They just give you something else to rip or lose.

3. You should expect that there is a good chance that any book you bring will be torn, colored upon, stained, smudged, or lightly chewed. This is an inevitability, so there’s no reason to get upset at your kid about it. It’s just going to happen.

4. You must bring some books that are small enough to fit inside a purse or daypack, so that you can bring some reading material into restaurants or rest stops to entertain your kid. Trust me. There will be moments where you just need your child to be preoccupied for a few minutes to give yourself a breather and let you order your Cracker Barrel biscuits and gravy in peace and, if the Berenstain Bears can help you reach that goal, so be it.

5. You must make sure that your child understands that you are bringing books for THEM to read and look at THEMSELVES. Do NOT let them suffer under the illusion that YOU will be reading the books. They need to be content to browse through the books on their own and, besides, reading in the car will totally make you puke.

Richard Scarry

Thou shalt obey the laws of the ideal mobile library...

6. If your child is obsessed with one book in particular and demands that you bring it with you, if you can, buy a secret back-up copy. Stuff happens on the road. [read the rest of the post…]


Richard Scarry's Cars and Trucks and Things That Go

The right reading material is a MUST for any good family road trip...

Whenever we get close to school vacation breaks or whenever I’ve finally banked so many vacation days at work that I have to start taking time off (or else lose it), our family mentally begins preparing itself for spending a whole lot of time in the family car. We start making mix playlists for the iPod, we start buying local-color travel guides for the freeways we’ll be traveling, we stock up on Trader Joe’s snacks, and we mark every Panera, Starbucks, and Chick-Fil-A on our Google Map printouts (good eats and reliably clean bathrooms). We’re a car trip family, plain and simple, and our daughter, as a result, has had to become comfortable with sitting for very, very long stretches of time strapped in a backseat booster.

She’s five now and she’s suffered through multiples drives from Michigan to various road-trip destinations – Chicago, Philadelphia, Cape Cod, Brooklyn, Atlanta, Nashville, and many, many trips to Florida to visit family. And, knock on wood, for the most part, she’s been amazing in the car. She chills out, she doesn’t complain, she enjoys the journey, and, best of all, she almost NEVER watches the portable DVD player we secretly bring on each trip as our “weapon of last resort.” She basically just has four main criteria for giving us no hassles on a car trip – As parents, we need to bring 1). Music she likes, 2). Lots of snacks, 3). Some toys (normally action figures) to play with, and 4). A metric TON of books. And that seems like a pretty fair deal to me. If I’m going to strap her into the backseat of a car for two days in a row, with no control over where she’s going and no ability to unbuckle herself and move around, the LEAST I can do is let her bring as much reading material as she wants. So, inevitably, we end up bringing one overflowing, ridiculously heavy tote bag full of books on each trip.

And, over the years, I’ve received a fantastic education on which kids’ books work well for road trips and which don’t. I’ve watched my daughter destroy an $18 Caldecott winner ten minutes into the trip and never look at it again, and I’ve watched a $5 bargain table book from Barnes & Noble captivate her interest across three states. Road trip books are a unique breed, but there are a few simple rules and constants that, for me, have really helped define what books are worthy to spend 20 hours in the backseat resting on my daughter’s lap. So, as a service to all the other current and future car trip families out there, here are my picks for eight essential road trip books for kids.

1. Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things That Go

Richard Scarry's Cars and Trucks and Things That Go

One of the best road trip kids' books of all time...

I’m just going to put this out there – Richard Scarry books are, hands-down, the BEST road trip kids’ books of all time. They really are. And many of the reasons why this is true that go well beyond Scarry’s obvious skill as a storyteller and illustrator. First, normally, Richard Scarry’s books are HUGE, which is PERFECT for a car trip. His books, like Cars and Trucks and Things That Go, are large, wide but thin hardcovers that give kids 60+ pages of reading material. (They’re also crazy durable and fit easily into tote bags.) When a kid opens a big Richard Scarry book on their lap in a car, they’re opening up a whole new visual world for them to lose themselves in. The opened book almost takes up their whole field of vision, which is GREAT for a road trip. It makes the reading experience that much more immersive and engaging.

Next, Scarry packs a ridiculous amount of detail into his two-page spreads. One spread might have forty vehicles, a whole town map, multiple animal families doing multiple things, 30+ jokes, and tons of visual easter eggs and hidden pictures for your kids to obsess over and while away the hours with. (My daughter really loves trying to find Goldbug and Lowly Worm on each page.) Scarry gives his young readers an experience akin to looking at an illuminated manuscript or a medieval tapestry or a Diego Rivera mural – they could flip through Scarry’s illustrated tableaus for days and still discover new details that hadn’t jumped out at them before.

Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things That Go is a particular favorite because it’s really funny – there’s a running joke about the police chasing down the delinquent Dingo Dog that my kid adores – and it’s thematically perfect for reading in the car. Cars and Trucks and Things That Go is like a travelogue of the most insane freeway ever, filled with every variation of car or truck imaginable, so it’s a fantastic visual companion for a kid who’s stuck watching traffic out their window all day. While Cars and Trucks and Things That Go seems made for road trips, any of the large format Scarry books work well too – we’re also big fans of Scarry’s Great Big Schoolhouse, Scarry’s Favorite Storybook Ever, The Adventures of Lowly Worm, and the compilation of his Sam and Dudley mysteries, The Great Pie Robbery and Other Mysteries. We’ve taken at least one Scarry book with us for every car trip we’ve gone on for the past three years and I don’t see that trend ending anytime soon.

2. The Berenstain Bears Series by Stan and Jan Berenstain

The Berenstain Bears

The Berenstain Bears are our go-to "take into the restaurant" books...

I run hot and cold on the Berenstain Bears books. On one hand, I like them because they were the first series books that my daughter ever fell in love with and I think most of the earlier titles in the series are really well executed. On the other hand, some of the characters are a bit one-dimensional and sitcomy (Mama can be such a wet blanket), and the more recent Berenstain Bears aren’t nearly as good as the earlier titles (and they get increasingly more preachy as the years go on). All that being said, I think Berenstain Bears books are great car trip titles. Why? On a practical level, the books are inexpensive (no worries if you lose one on the road), they’re hard to destroy, and they’re thin enough that you can easily bring 10 of them with you and still have plenty of room in your daypacks. (They’re also IDEAL books to take into restaurants – compact, light, tough, and way more manageable than Richard Scarry’s enormous tomes.)

On a creative level, Stan and Jan Berenstains are really skilled visual storytellers and, even if your kid isn’t reading yet, they can follow the action via the illustrations and still understand the majority of the story. Plus, in my experience, on a road trip, kids tend to pick a few items to obsess over – a particular toy, a CD, a book series – and they spend the majority of the trip ridiculously focused on those items. If your kid is into series fiction, find AS MANY of those titles as you can manage and bring them with you. I think the recurring characters and familiar story structures really sit well with kids trying to pass the time in the backseat. [read the rest of the post…]