Exploring the world of children's literature

From King Arthur's magical forest to Heidi's Alpine home, these spots will bring your favorite kids books to life

  • Channeling King Arthur in his enchanted forest of Paimpont, France

    You have to let your fancy fly to let sink in what once may have been. Start with the name: All that’s left of King Arthur’s mythic stomping ground for Excalibur-caliber deeds of derring-do is the small mostly private Paimpont forest. Through and around it, though, winds the well-marked Circuit Touristique de Broc

  • Visiting Heidiland with kids in Maienfeld, Switzerland

    Parents are forever telling their kids that they have it easy compared to the old days. A strategic trip to Heidiland might just drive home this point in a fun way, while also exposing little ones to one of the world’s most beloved fictional characters and the beauty of rural life in the mountains. Her make-believe Alpine hometown, Heididorf, is in the Swiss Alps near Maienfeld. Why so many Japanese tourists frolicking in the fields, you may ask? In the mid-’70s, Hayao Miyazaki worked on a 52-episode anime version of the story that was — and still is — wildly popular in Europe and Asia. So don’t be surprised to see adults (and kids) doing as Heidi did, running with abandonment through green flower-filled meadows, communing with herds of goats, eating fondue, visiting her grumpy grandfather’s mountaintop cabin, and hiking in the peaks. Sure Heidi had it hard, but there is much to learn from that tough, resourceful girl who knew how to enjoy and give thanks for the simple things in life.

  • Watching the mane event on Assateague Island, Va.

    Since 1925, thousands have gathered on the shores of Chincoteague Island at the end of July to watch as saltwater cowboys herd the island’s famous ponies across the channel from Assateague Island. Legend has it that the ponies arrived at their present home after escaping from a Spanish galleon full of wild stallions. These are the stomping grounds of the beloved “Misty of Chincoteague,” which author Marguerite Henry based on a real pony. Her dainty hoofprints are embedded in front of the Roxy Theater and both she and her real-life and literary offspring Stormy are immortalized taxidermically at Beebe Ranch, where she once lived. To beat the crowds, park a dingy down the channel and bring some binoculars (or skip the main event entirely and watch them swim back two days later). The fun doesn’t stop there; post-swim, join the revelry of the Chincoteague Island Volunteer Fireman’s carnival where a handful of hoofed swimmers are auctioned off to raise money for trucks, ladders and fire hoses.

  • Getting a read on Dahl’s writing process in Great Missenden, England

    “It is truly swizzfigglingly flushbunkingly gloriumptious,” reads the outer wall of the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Center. Really, how could that not be true when stepping into the world of a writer who managed to be both beloved by parents and children and known for wit, biting social commentary, deep irony and dark humor? This is a small museum, but it packs in a wealth of information on Dahl’s writing process that will be fascinating for children who have read the books, less so for those who (for shame!) have only seen the movie versions. There’s a re-creation of the writer’s backyard writing hut, the humble and quiet space where he produced all of his masterpieces.

    Dahl lived here for 36 years and Great Missenden was the point of departure for many of his stories, like “Danny, Champion of the World.” Dahl’s widow, Felicity, still lives in the family home nearby, Gipsy House, but a few days every year, it is possible to tour the garden, peek into the original hut, and catch sight of Danny’s — and the Dahl children’s — colorful gypsy caravan playhouse.

  • Riding the clockwork elephant through Nantes, France

    It looks like a machine but acts like a mammal … and public transportation. Inspired by a prop from a street theater company (which was, in turn, an homage to Jules Verne’s mechanical pachyderm in “The Steam House”), the Great Elephant is 12 meters high, weighs 45 tons, can carry 49 people on its back for a 45-minute promenade along the Loire River, and is powered by the motor from a city bus. But the not-in-Kansas-anymore part is that it trumpets, wags its tail, blinks its eyes, sprays people with water from its trunk, and has been known to pee on the sidewalk. The beast is but one of the Machines of the Isle of Nantes, a sculptural and mechanical oasis of whimsical creatures inspired by Nantes native Jules Verne, housed in what was until recently a decommissioned shipyard and industrial wasteland.

  • Pondering penguin parenting at the Central Park Zoo in New York City

    Roy and Silo are undoubtedly the most famous pair of penguins in the world. Inseparable for six years, when the two male chinstrap penguins displayed signs that they were ready to start a family (they took turns sitting on a rock that they had rolled into their nest), the zookeepers gave them an egg to hatch and the world watched. The two devoted dads knew just what to do and raised the baby as their own. The whole sweet story spawned the popular (and unfortunately most-banned) children’s book “And Tango Makes Three.” In what was one of 2005′s most lamented breakups, Silo left Roy, but visitors to the Central Park Zoo can still see them today, and watch for signs of a rapprochement between the now-single lovelorn birds. Lest it appear that Roy and Silo were a natural anomaly, several other same-sex penguin pairs have nested together in the frigid Antarctic display — including Tango and her girlfriend, Tanuzi.

  • Hugging amorphous furies at Moomin World near Naantali, Finland

    While not terribly well known on the other side of the pond, Tove Jansson’s Moomintroll series is widely read (and watched in its TV and film versions) in Europe. The stories are extraordinarily imaginative, frequently apocalyptic, anti-authoritarian and deeply weird in a subtle way that sneaks up on readers gradually, as only subversive, cute cartoon material can. If you aren’t familiar with the characters, Moomin World (“Muumimaailma”) will feel like the kind of alternate-universe theme park that Bj

  • Giggling at the macabre in Yarmouth Port, Mass.

    The contents of the Edward Gorey House are amusing, eclectic and a bit macabre, just like the works of the artist himself. Some of the house is much as he left it, like the cluttered kitchen decorated with stones (he was always looking for ones shaped like frogs) and yard-sale finds. The rest is set up to display the broad array of his artwork: illustrated books, set designs for Broadway’s “Dracula,” even sketchbooks that you’re welcome to page through. You’ll want to take time to examine and appreciate everything — and to look for the clever portrayals of Gorey’s “Gashlycrumb Tinies” (“A is for Amy who fell down the stairs …”) all through the house.

  • Getting graphic about comic-strip art in Brussells, Belgium

    Clinging for dear life to a red-and-white checkered rocket, you’re flying to the moon with Tintin and Snowy. According to the Belgian Center for Comic Strip Art, Belgium is home to more comic artists per square meter than any other country, and you’ll find many of them well represented here. But it’s Tintin — Europe’s postwar comic-book Everyman — who reigns supreme with life-size dioramas and a meticulous deconstruction of Herg

  • Discovering a literary wonderland at Ripon Cathedral in Yorkshire, England

    For the brilliant, imaginative — not to mention slightly unhinged — the smallest detail can launch flights of fancy. Lewis Carroll’s father, Charles Dodgson, was a clergyman at this North Yorkshire church in the mid-1800s, and the young writer spent many hours here. The crypt dates from the 7th century, when it was located beneath a simple stone church built by St. Wilfrid. But it’s the present-day cathedral’s misericords (15th-century carved wooden seats) in the choir that enchanted Carroll. Many of the depictions here are quite secular — and strange: wild men of the woods, mythical beasts wreaking havoc (one gnaws on a human appendage), pigs playing bagpipes and dancing a jig, an anatomically correct male beaver. Under one of the seats, you’ll see an unusual scene: a rabbit fleeing from the clutches of a griffon, with another rabbit’s posterior just visible as he escapes down a rabbit hole.

  • Storytelling in a real-life fairy tale in Odense, Denmark

    As I open the door, three fairies rush past me frantically waving their magic wands while Thumbelina is off to the side engaged in a duel with a king and it looks like she’s winning. Two cows make mooing sounds from above on the hanging bridge before continuing their game of tag. On the second floor, an impromptu puppet show breaks out in Danish, complete with stage. (Your Danish isn’t up to snuff? Fear not, there’s a silent, pantomime version of “The Princess and the Pea” every afternoon.) This is the Tinderbox Storytelling Museum — a whimsical space right next to the Hans Christian Andersen Museum that re-creates the writer’s fairy-tale scenes, encouraging kids to bring his stories (and their own) to life with costumes, props and backdrops.

  • Getting the story on picture book art in Amherst, Mass.

    The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art just might be the perfect venue for introducing kids to art museums. Children are sure to see some familiar faces in the artwork (as will anyone of any age who ever enjoyed a picture book). The galleries delve into a deeper way of understanding picture-book art. Part of this comes from hanging the individual illustrations on the wall. This context — generally reserved for “high art” — feels profoundly different from flipping through the colorful pages of a book while trying to precipitate bedtime. Display cases explain how the works were made, revealing Carle’s creative process, and art is hung at a height that takes into account the stature of both the tall and the small. If just looking gets a little too intense and tempting, take a break in the library to interact with plenty of touchable books, or in the studio, where artists of all ages can get creative with collage materials that are similar to those used by Carle (and keep their hands busy).

  • Giving a bear hug in Paddington Station

    Paddington Station is one of the great hubs of railway transit in London, designed by the man with the grandest name among civil engineers, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The station inspired the name of a favorite character from children’s literature: Paddington Bear. Within the hustle and bustle of commuters, business travelers and tourists, a bronze statue of Paddington Bear reenacts his fictional debut, sitting quietly amid the chaos on a suitcase in the retail area known as the Lawn. Looking a bit forlorn — having just arrived from “deepest, darkest Peru” — he simply cries out for a hug from children and adults alike. His little plinth is a perfect spot for a picnic lunch looking out at the strikingly beautiful glass roof designed by Brunel — a cathedral of glass and steel, a perfect reminder of the industrial glory of the steam age. A little booth nearby ensures you can take your own Paddington Bear home when it’s time to move on, wherever your travels take you.

  • Learning about Jack London’s life in Glen Ellen, Calif.

    The collection you’ll discover in this fieldstone house, set into the side of Sonoma Mountain in a grove of tangled live oaks, brings Jack London’s adventures and writings to vivid life. His wife, Charmian, also a writer, built “The House of Happy Walls” — part of London’s expansive “Beauty Ranch,” now within the Jack London State Historic Park — with her husband’s legacy in mind. The evocative display includes his typewriter and dictaphone; a photo of Jack holding up his prize baby pigs, grinning, and sitting proudly on his horse; manuscripts showing his scribbled edits; rejection letters galore from early in his career; and a model of the Snark, on which he intended to sail round the world (ill health cut the voyage short). Walk a short distance to pay your respects to Jack and Charmian at their simple grave overlooking the Valley of the Moon.