Thursday, September 19, 2013

Looking for Children's Literature Locations in London

The Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens
As I've mentioned, I'm teaching in my university's study-abroad program in London for the fall semester, and N., Tim, and I have been here for almost a month.  In the two literature courses I'm teaching (the students also take art history, theatre, and London history courses), my students are exploring the relationships between text, place, and author by visiting author houses or locations where texts are set.  For example, they toured Samuel Johnson's house while reading Rasselas and they walked across Westminster Bridge after reading Wordsworth's "Lines Composed on Westminster Bridge."  After discovering a guide called Once Upon a Time in Great Britain, Tim realized we could do something similar with N.  So on various days this past month, we sought out landmarks associated with children's books we've read with N.

One day we took a long walk in the lovely Kensington Gardens, the park where J. M. Barrie met Llewelyn Davies children, with and for whom he wrote Peter Pan.  And we sought out the Peter Pan statue that Barrie commissioned in 1912.

Along the Long Water in Kensington Gardens there was a large pictorial plaque identifying common British birds that frequent the river.  N. was very excited to see, first on the plaque and then in the river itself, many birds we'd read about in the Swallows and Amazons series, especially coots, cormorants, and great-crested grebes.

Another day, we walked through Primrose Hill and Regent's Park, the setting for many outings in the Mary Poppins books.

We went to Paddington Station on our previous trip to England and again this time, imagining a little bear with sticky paws and a squashy hat emerging from a corner.

We saw the Victorian Leadenhall Market, used as the setting for Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter films (which N. hasn't seen, but he's read books 1-3).

I asked N. (as I'm also asking my students) if it makes a difference to the way he thinks about the Paddington stories or Mary Poppins to have walked in the locations where the characters walked, to see where the scenes are set.  He said, "no, because I already imagined them."  I thought this was a really interesting answer!  These books were fully alive for him when we read them aloud.  They effectively conjured complete worlds (as the best fiction does!) and he got no extra insight from seeing the locations that inspired them.

On the other hand, N. is currently reading The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd, a recent novel set in contemporary London.  This was a birthday gift from friends, and N. is totally absorbed in it.  He's been telling me with great excitement when places that we've been to are named in the text.  And today he and I went up in the London Eye, which he's always wanted to do but was especially urging this week as he reads Dowd's novel.  Perhaps place matters more because he's reading this book on his own (rather than listening to it as a read-aloud), perhaps because it is a contemporary novel, perhaps because he's reading it now, here in London, rather than retracing the world of books we read a year or two ago.  Whatever the reasons, while discovering the locations of other much-loved books didn't add much to their value for him, really enjoying reading The London Eye Mystery on location.

A coot on the Long Water
Looking down on London from the London Eye

1 comment:

Fanny Harville said...

Meant to add: I'd love to hear any recommendations for other books set in London or England, especially recent books. We've read a lot of Nesbit (recently, the Bastables books). But since N. loved The London Eye Mystery, it would be fun to find more like this for him.