Wednesday, March 2, 2011

How the Heather Looks

Subtitled "A Joyous Journey to the British Sources of Children's Books," How the Heather Looks chronicles the Bodger family's amazing trek across England one summer in 1958.

Thanks to a "modest windfall" as author Joan Bodger put it, her family spent a summer holiday in England. With the maps from book end papers in Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh, T.H. White's Mistress Masham's Repose, Arthur Ransome's books and others, the Bodger family began an unforgettable hunt for the places that inspired the classics their children so loved.

In addition to Milne, White, and Ransome, the book is full of literary references to other British authors. Some were familiar and others are ones I look forward to learning more about:
  • Kenneth Grahame
  • John Bunyan
  • Randolph Caldecott
  • L. Leslie Brooke
  • Robert Lawson (a personal favorite of mine; marvelous illustrator)
  • Edwin Tunis
  • Robert Louis Stevenson
  • J.R.R. Tolkien
  • Beatrix Potter
  • Marcia Brown
  • George Borrow
  • E. V. Lucas
  • Hugh Lofting
  • Edith Nesbit (another particular favorite)
  • George MacDonald (a write who inspired C.S. Lewis)
  • C.S. Lewis
  • Mary Norton
  • Hilda Lewis
  • Rudyard Kipling
  • Charles Kingsley
  • Henry Williamson
  • Rosemary Sutcliffe (writer of great juvenile historical fiction)
  • Eleanore Jewett
  • Geoffrey Ashe
  • Edward Ardizzone
  • Captain Marryat
  • H.E. Marshall
  • Edward Eager
  • Howard Pyle
  • Frances Hodgson Burnett
  • Charlotte & Emily Bronte
  • Pauline Clark
  • Noel Streatfeild
  • Joel Chandler Harris
Armed with Bartholomew's Road Atlas of Great Britain, this adventurous family searched high and low to find the hills, dales and rivers mentioned in so many books they had loved. Imagine being able to interview Arthur Ransome or meeting Mrs. Milne and being directed to the very bridge where Pooh passed the time playing "pooh sticks."

What was surprising was how often local residents had little to no knowledge of the author or illustrator who had lived and worked within their midst. Imagine visiting the library where Randolph Caldecott lived and being unable to find any of his books!

The stories of their successes and failures are told with such candor and wit that you will eagerly await each new chapter. Several friends had advised against bringing their daughter who was under 3 at the time and yet she was an incredible trooper. It's hard to imagine a more idyllic summer than theirs in 1958.

It was therefore heartbreaking to read Bodger's afterward and learn that her daughter had died before the book was published in 1965. What a comfort those days as a foursome must have been after her passing. It certainly makes one think seriously about seizing the opportunities each day presents, not knowing how many our days will number. Equally sobering was the knowledge that Bodger's marriage had ended within a year of the book's publication and that both husband and son had been affected by schizophrenia.

I highly recommend this book (within the story itself there is no hint of their future tragedies). It's a refreshing diary of one special summer immersed in the magic of childhood stories. While we do not have the time or money for a summer in England, I look forward to exploring its magic through the pages of the books I can share with my kids. With five notebook pages full of book suggestions, our journey will take much longer than one summer but hopefully my kids will form magical memories of journeying there one story at a time.

I love this passage from Bodger's afterward:
"Would-be pilgrims have sometimes asked me, anxiously, whether they can make the same journey. Will it be the same? Is there anything left? They remind me of children whom I am about to tell a story. Is it true? they ask. My stock reply is, It's truer than true. Often there is one child, determined not to be impressed, who says scornfully, I've already heard that story. I am immediately interested. You have? So have I. But since the last time I told it, and since the last time you heard it, the earth's gone 'round the sun, the rain's fallen into the brook, and the brook's run into the river. Even if you've heard the story before, even if I tell it word for word just like the first time, you've changed and I've changed and the story will change.
You can never step into the same river twice.
And yes, if you go you will see what we saw--and more. May your journey be joyful." (p. 232-233)

Blessings on your journey,

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