Boats, Trains and Automobiles

I love road trips.  And boat trips.  And train trips.  And, not coincidentally, some of my favorite books involve those very trips…

Around the World in 80 Days

This book has trains and boats (and an elephant and sledge to boot!).  I will never forget the first time I picked up this book, and realized for the very first time that people like to travel to new places just for the rush and adventure of travel, itself, and not necessarily only to get somewhere specific.

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The Black Stallion

In this book, the significance of the boat trip isn’t about the journey.  The boat is a catalyst.  It is onboard a boat that Alec meets Black, and befriends the feisty stallion with kindness.  When the boat sinks after an explosion, Black and Alec fight for their lives.

I remember being riveted as a kid, and grasping immediately that the reason Black is drawn to Alec is his kindheartedness.  And I remember staying up way past my bedtime, feverishly turning page after page to see how Alec and Black survive the open seas.

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The Odyssey

Of course, the oldest and most famous story of a boat trip is Homer’s epic.  This was assigned reading in high school, and at the time, I didn’t think of it as a travel story.  It was mythology, and history, and classic literature.

But, on my first voyage to Greece, during spring break of my senior year of university, it all came back to me.  Having devoured the story of Odysseus’ journey home from Troy to Ithaca, that trip (and later trips, to Greece and Turkey) totally resonated.  The funny thing about books is, when I read them, the story becomes personal; it becomes mine.  I hear my voice in my head telling the story to me.  So, it was my voice that I remember relaying Odysseus’ trials and tribulations, and it was intoxicating to feel personally connected with Greece (and Turkey), even though I had never physically set foot there before.  I had been there in my head.

This was especially true during the two trips in the region that involved boats – I imagined that I was sailing in the same waters as Odysseus, strolling the same shores, exploring the same cities.  And, I imagined I was doing it for the second time, because the first time I had accompanied him (at least in my head).

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The Old Man and The Sea

Hemingway’s classic about an old Cuban fisherman was a simple, yet deceiving story.  Similar to Black Beauty, the boat is important because of a journey, but it sets the required tension for the story.  In this case, it is a story about man’s powerlessness.

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Moby Dick

Wow, lots of books on my high school reading list took place on boats, now that I think about it!  I haven’t even touched on Tom Sawyer or The Tempest.  But, Moby Dick definitely makes my list.  What a remarkable story about passion to the point of madness and determination to the point of obsession, all set on a whaling ship.

Every time I’ve gone whale watching, whether its off Nantucket like Ahab, or Hawaii, or somewhere abroad from America’s coast, I think back to the adventures of the Pequod.

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Murder on the Orient Express

This is the first book, (and subsequently all the Hercule Poirot and Agatha Crisitie novels), that my mom and I read together as adults.  As such, more than being inspired by the romance of the train adventure, I realized books can be connections to family and friends as we each journey together (and separately) through the chapters of a story.

The idea of an epic train adventure stayed with me, and was the impetus for my (real-life!) journey with my sister on the Trans Siberian Railway.

When my friend Dawn and I were in Istanbul a couple years ago, we visited the hotel, The Pera, where Agatha Christie stayed while she penned this murder mystery.  And, we saw the railroad station where Hercule Poirot boarded the Orient Express in (then) Constantinople.  This is the book that just keeps on giving in my life!

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On the Road 

I had never read Kerouac’s classic novel of angst, freedom and the Beat Generation until a boyfriend and I took a couple road trips across the country.  There was something addictive about being on the open road, seeing the country mile by mile, and entering and leaving state after state, and city after city.  I was hooked.

When I told people about my love of the crossings, they universally recommended Kerouc’s book.  I dove in and immediately related to his intangible search for himself, and for finding a way to truly experience life.

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Motorcycle Diaries 

I was drawn to Che Guevara’s memoir of his motorcycle (steamship, raft, horse, bus and hitchhiking) journey from Argentina to Peru, solely to relish his magnificent descriptions of South American people and landscapes.

By the end of the book, Che and I were both changed forever.  I had fallen in love with South America, and Che had thrown off his upper-middle-class identity for a dedication to the plight of the poor, and to the cause of a united Latin America.

In the diary, I saw Argentina, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Panama (and Florida).  And since reading it, I have been lucky enough to visit Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia, (and Florida).  But, like all “firsts”, my first time “visiting” those places, with Che, has colored all subsequent times.  I am glad my first time was with him.

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Internal Migrations

In February 2013, I attended the annual Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators’ Conference in NYC.  This was my second time participating, and I have also attended their last two annual summer conferences in Los Angeles.

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One of the striking things about these conferences is the caliber of the speakers.  They have giants in the industry, on both the business (publishers and agents) and artistic (writers and illustrators) sides.

The conference in February was no exception: Mallory Kass, Heather Alexander, Tara Weikum, Kate Sullivan, Tina Wexler, Edward Necarsulmer, Ginger Clark, Jenny Bent, Michelle Nagler, Lin Oliver, Stephen Mooser, Meg Rosoff, Mary Brown, Robert Brown, Jon Fine, Peter Glassman, Alexander Penfold, Nancy Siscoe, Shaun Tan, Tomie dePaoloa, Jane Yolen, Margaret Peterson Haddix, Julie Andrews, Emma Walton Hamilton, and Mo Williams.  And these are just the people I heard speak!

I was spoon-fed a wealth of useful information, and inspired to raise the level of my craft, and, all-in-all, reminded why I decided to write to children’s books to begin with.  All these speakers contributed to my bountiful takeaway.

But, Shaun Tan’s talk really stuck with me, which is a little surprising, considering he is more of an illustrator than an author (although he may disagree with that categorization, as he really is clearly both).  But, he is a more visual storyteller than I am, to be sure.

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However, his discussion of “Internal Migrations” and “The Journey Within” resonated incredibly strongly with me.   And it helped me understand how writing fits into my exploration of place.

It is obvious how reading and traveling do.  But, the third leg of my stool, the third thing I am passionate about, is writing (picture books, novels, blog entries) based on my travels and readings.  And, until I heard Shaun speak, I didn’t fully appreciate how closely linked that was to the other two.

Now I get it: writing is the exploration of place INSIDE my head.  It is traveling in my thoughts, without leaving my desk.  It is an internal migration, where take all the material I have gathered, through my travels and readings, and create characters and stories that I can share with others, and enable them to explore those same places.

Writing is a way I explore place, just like reading and traveling are.

So, thank you, Shaun (and SCBWI).  Now I understand what I have been up to!

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Ants On The Tracks

A focal part of my relationship with my niece and nephew is reading.

Sure, we do a lot of tickling, and kissing, and hugging, and chasing, and shoulder rides, and laughing.  There are water slide parks, and cheeseburgers, and train museums…and other things, too.

But, every time I visit them, I bring them each a book.  And, every time I put them to bed, we read.

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So, it is no surprise that traveling with them involves books, too.

First, there is deciding which books they will bring on any given trip (they are allowed three each).

Then, at each gift store we visit for each train museum (our trips usually involve train museums), there is deciding if they will buy a book or a toy, and which one.  I love that they are completely torn by the decision: to them, a book is just as tempting as a toy.  It is so gratifying to see them struggle over whether they want a new book or a something that beeps and lights up and moves.  They fully understand the magic of books:  books are magic carpets that can take you to new and exiting lands where you’ll join new friends on an adventure of sorts.

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Finally, there is the joy of reading the new books when we get back home, and, in a very real way, reliving the vacation a little bit.  The book becomes a special kind of magic carpet, that no only transports us to the places within its pages, but ALSO has the power to transport us back to our vacation.  It becomes a secret ticket that only has that power for us, the people who were on the original trip when the book was procured.

Last summer we went to the Wisconsin Dells, and visited two train museums.  We got the book, “Ants on the Tracks”.  Every time we read it, we of course visit the ants on the tracks.  But, we also get to remember the whole vacation: water slides, fudge, trains, pools, duck boats.  Go figure — all that in a book about ants on a track.

I am incredibly passionate about books.  And travel.  And spending time with my niece and nephew.  When all three of these activities marry, I am absolutely giddy with joy.

Hawaii Deserves Better From Me

I have been lucky enough to visit Hawaii four times so far.  And, I can say without reservation that I loved it each time.  I’ve rented open-air jeeps and driven around volcanoes and found deserted beaches.  I learned to surf.  I danced the hula, ate roasted pig and plates of fresh pineapple, and drank piña coladas.  I visited Pearl Harbor, watched whales dive, and experienced magical sunsets.

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I know this paragraph will sound snobbish and off-putting, but here I go: everyone speaks English so it’s comfortable and easy.  And it’s American, so it’s clean and modern.  There aren’t any bugs or snakes.  Or exotic diseases.  You can drink the water.

As a tourist, it is hard to imagine a more potent example of paradise.

But, taking off my tourist hat and looking at Hawaiians as fellow Americans, I start to feel a little more uncomfortable.  They have a long and tortured relationship with the mainland U.S., and their rich culture, I feel, has been Disneyized for easy consumption.

After my last trip there I was determined to learn more about it and be a more responsible tourist.  So, I read Sarah Vowell’s “Unfamiliar Fishes”.

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Anyone familiar with Vowell (I wasn’t) will immediately see the error of my ways.  Her book is very entertaining.  But, even in the course of criticizing the patronizing way the missionaries and U.S. government treated the nation of Hawaii, her easy-breezy, overly-chatty tone manages to patronize its history.

I was enjoying the book so much as I read it, that it wasn’t until almost the end that I realized how cringe-worthy this irony really is.  And how much I felt like the book was my fifth visit to Hawaii, where I thoroughly enjoyed myself but didn’t give the island or its people the respect they deserve.

In fairness, I did learn a lot.  From the death of Captain Cook, to the influx of missionaries, whalers and sugar cane prospectors, I do have a much more nuanced understanding of the plight of the Native Hawaiians as their population was decimated from 300,000 to a mere 40,000.

But, as much as Vowell educated me that Hawaiians are sensitive to this day about their annexation into the U.S., I was left feeling uneasy with her flippant tone and the shallowness of her descriptions.

Annexation ceremony in 1898 in Honolulu.

Annexation ceremony in 1898 in Honolulu.

The truth is, I have been spoiled by all the effort that Ryszard Kapuściński, and other authors I’ve been reading, make to remove the “Us and Them” mentality, and explain history, places and cultures with sensitivity and depth.  And, that’s just not the charter Vowell embraces.  She is purely an entertainer.

I ate up her book, but it left me hungry, with the all too familiar guilt of a junk food binge.

I’ve Never Been To Yemen…

But I feel like I have. That’s how good a job Jennifer Steil did introducing me to the country in her book, “The Woman Who Fell From the Sky.”

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Her writing is masterful, and intoxicating. As she reveled in the sights, tastes, and sounds of the country during her one-year stay there, my senses lit up. As she lamented the role and status of women, my sense of justice was inflamed. As she fought to adjust to working in a non-U.S. (a VERY non-U.S.) environment, I felt her frustration. As she fell in love with the country, I started to develop an infatuation from afar. As she explained the countries political issues, I started to worry.

I have written before about how reading news stories about places I’ve been to affect me differently (more deeply) than stories about places I have yet to see. And, for the most part, that’s true. But indeed, there are some places I haven’t physically visited, that I still feel a kinship with: these are the places I have visited in books.

I read Steil’s book in the fall of 2011. And, since then, Yemen has been reported on regularly. I am not sure if this has always been true, and if I just glazed over these news stories prior to my completion of the book, or if Yemen’s dubious celebrity is a new thing. My sense is it’s the latter.

I always take a deep breath before clicking on an article about Yemen; it is rarely good news. The reports are about accounts of human rights abuses, poverty, and a country moving decidedly in the wrong direction. If it weren’t for Steil’s book, I wouldn’t even really bother reading. There is enough depressing news in the world — why does it matter about what is happening in a tiny corner of the Arabic Peninsula?

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It matters to me now because Steil made me care. That, quintessentially, is the power of books. I care about the people of Yemen, even though I have never been there because I met them through a book. I care about the future of Yemen even though it is uncorrelated with my future, because I started to hope for a brighter future while reading a book.

While I will likely never visit Yemen, I did the next best thing by watching the quiet and quirky film, “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen”.

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While this movie only skims the surface of the issues of corruption and violence that Steil explores, it did a wonderful job of satisfying my curiosity about what the country looks and sounds like.

I’ve never been to Yemen…but my spirit rallies with hope and sinks with disappointment as I follow its developments from home.

Welcome to Not on a Digitized Road: Part I

There are two constants in my life:  reading and travel.

I don’t remember not traveling.  I started earning frequent flier miles when I was 8 years old. I vividly remember the year my sister and I got matching Snoopy suitcases for Christmas.  Nothing else we got that year even came close to being as cool as those suitcases! 

After my parents divorced, and my mom moved my sister and I across the country, my sister and I flew alone cross-country several times a year to visit our dad.  And, my sister and I went on great holidays with our dad to Mexico and Jamaica, and with our mom to England, Florida, New York, D.C. and Australia.

But, even more common than flying were the road trips.  With our dad, we took trips to Wisconsin (the Dells), Indiana (the Dunes) and Michigan (some kind of Lithuanian summer community).  With our mom it was all about the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Yosemite.

I learned about history, culture, politics, and life.  Not through the filter of television, but by actually traveling and seeing it.

And what I didn’t learn through traveling, I learned through reading.  I read whatever was in front of me:  books, magazines, cereal boxes…

I now watch my two-year old niece “read” her books to her stuffed animals, and I know I must have done the same.  Some of the people I feel closest to, and have some of the fondest memories of, are people that don’t really exist:  characters in books.  Some of my favorite teachers are the authors of the books that taught me about the world around me.

This blog will be a medium for me to capture that intersection of my constants:  reading and travel.  I will strive to explain what each is teaching me now, or key lessons I learned in the past.  My hope is that you enjoy reading it a fraction as much as I enjoy learning it.