Children’s Books Make London Come Alive
By Rebecca Mayer
How can you a make a trip to London more exciting for your kids? Brush up on British children’s stories, and you could transform your family’s trip into an adventure.
Here in London, at almost every turn, children encounter a familiar tale relating to history or fantasy. For example, when they walk through Paddington rail station , souvenirs of the tale’s small brown bear surround them. They might even peek over their shoulders to see if any deliveries from Darkest Peru await them on the platforms.
Walking down Brompton Road to Harrod’s department store (87 Brompton Road), they may stop at each iron lamppost, hoping for Mr. Tumnus to appear, if they have read C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe . Once in Harrod’s, it won’t take any imagination or background reading to make the Confectionary Room in the Food Halls magical. Also, they just might find the Turkish Delight that Edmund finds so irresistible in the story.
When they stroll through Hyde Park admiring the Queen’s Rose Garden with you, if they have read Mary Poppins , they might wait in suspense for an errant statue to stroll by. Or, they will gaze up at nearby rooftops, hoping to glimpse a chimney sweep emerging from an ancient chimney.
Crossing the "long water" to Kensington Park from Hyde Park, if they have read Peter Pan , they will love that the author, J.M. Barrie, made his Peter Pan statue appear overnight, so that it would seem as if it had sprung up by magic. Barrie also met the boys who inspired the tale around that spot. Your children will be able to swordfight imaginary pirates and hide out in a wigwam in The Princess Diana Memorial Playground , where there is a pirate galleon, a "magic" fountain and an "Elfin Oak".
Your family might take high tea at Fortnum and Mason’s or The Ritz , or The Orangery in Kensington Gardens. If you want a more relaxed atmosphere, your child will also enjoy an authentic British tea in your flat or hotel. Most rooms come with an electric teapot, and the biscuit (cookie) selection in just about any London grocery is extensive. Refer to any Shoes book by Noel Streatfield to research British teatime for school-age children. Usually it includes jam and chocolate digestives, but only if the characters have behaved themselves.
In Ballet Shoes , by Noel Streatfield, the Fossil children walk with their nurse to the Victoria and Albert museum, just three blocks up from the Gloucester Road tube stop, past the Natural History museum and preceding Harrod’s department store by about four blocks. The Victoria and Albert showcases decorative arts past and present, and its key appeal for kids is the hands-on exhibits. Your child can design a textile, try on a hoopskirt or piece of armor and create a personal coat of arms. Most London museums are free, as is the V & A, and if you visit on Wednesday and haven’t adjusted to the time change, the museum is open until 11 p.m.
Backtrack across Cromwell Road from the V & A to the Museum of Natural History , pass the diplodocus skeleton in the entrance and pick up a free explorer backpack filled with activities and an explorer hat and binoculars (deposit of £25 required). In the Life Galleries, see the smallest living mammal (a stuffed version), a "living" feeding dinosaur and touch a meteor. Kids may also enjoy the "creepy crawlies" exhibit. Author Arthur Ransome’s entourage of adventurous and nature-minded children, in the Swallows and Amazons , probably would.
London schoolchildren often visit the city’s museums on field trips, so expect to see many straw hat and plaid shirt-wearing groups of students at the British Museum . You could talk to your student about how English school days have changed since Sara Crewe attended Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies in A Little Princess . The British Museum is massive; be sure to peek at the Rosetta Stone, the mummy exhibit and the Greek and Roman statues. There is some armor, but the displays do not compare to the armories at the Tower of London . (By the way, if you tour the Tower, do not miss the informative, amusing and free Beefeater tour.)
For more battle relics, relive history at the Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms, to glimpse a life of the man many call "the greatest Briton ever." Churchill never wrote a biography, because he said the poem If , by Rudyard Kipling, expressed his beliefs perfectly.
Your children will also love reading Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book , which will help them see the animals at The London Zoo in a different light. The zoo is one of the best in the world, only improved upon by the thought of Christopher Robin being escorted up to Pooh’s cage to release him for adventures in the Hundred Acre Wood, or of Mary Poppin ’s Jane and Michael celebrating Midsummer’s Eve with the animals while their neighbors sulk inside the cages!
For an excursion out of London, your family could drive out to the countryside and enjoy the blustery rolling hills dotted with farmhouses, sheep and sixteenth century manors. But if your child has read Wind in the Willows , he can imagine Mr. Toad living in the nearby castle, tooting the horn of a stolen motorcar in the next lane.
A London play or musical performance will inspire your child’s imagination even farther. Mary Poppins is currently playing, one of the "big, splashy musicals" every guidebook recommends. This sweet, funny show sticks to the book’s plot much more closely than the Disney movie did, and will, as it promises, help your child believe that "anything can happen if you let it."
Seeing a Shakespeare performance in England is an unforgettable experience for anyone of any age. Whether your family chooses the Globe Theater , an outdoor park performance, or travels to Stratford-upon-Avon for a show, research what will be playing so you can read the material in advance as a family. Knowing the storyline helps you relax and enjoy the bard’s wit and humor without having to concentrate so closely on the plot.
Not only will these tales of enchantment enrich your children’s travels, the practice of reading for fun will give them adventure no matter where they are.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe series, C. S. Lewis
The Enchanted Castle, E. Nesbit
Ballet Shoes, Theater Shoes, Skating Shoes, Tennis Shoes, Movie Shoes, Noel Streatfield
A Little Princess, Frances Hodgson Burnett
Mary Poppins, P. L. Travers
Swallows and Amazons, Arthur Ransome
Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie
The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame
Paddington Bear, Michael Bond
The works of Shakespeare
If (poem), The Jungle Book
OTHER GREAT TITLES:
Peter Rabbit, Beatrix Potter
Dr. Doolittle, Hugh Lofting
Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
(See sidebar on How to Prepare for London on the Internet.)
Rebecca Mayer is a former high school journalism teacher living in Portola Valley. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org . This is her first article for BAFT.
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