Do you remember about a year ago I read a marvelous book about a British family who went in search of storybook Europe? It was called Heidi's Alp by Christina Hardyment and it was a mixture of travel narrative and literary history. The Hardyments traveled through Europe in the mid-1980s and Christina wrote about their experiences. I have found a perfect companion book and it is something of a reversal of 'narrators' though of a similar subject. I just started reading last night and I think it is going to be as interesting and entertaining as Heidi's Alp was.
Joan Bodger published How the Heather Looks: A Joyous Journey into the British Sources of Children's Books in 1959 after she, her husband, and two small children traveled to Britain to find the places they had read about in children's books which they have been raised on and loved. Both Joan and her husband, American by birth, each had one British parent. The pair were confirmed Anglophiles and it seemed as though their children were following suit. A modest windfall the year before meant they could pursue a dream of spending a summer holiday in England. They had spent time there as children and were "steeped in English history and literature." Would it be possible to find the imaginary places they had read about--places not listed on any map but firmly part of their memories.
None of the general inquiries they made netted anything concrete from their British travel sources, but Bodger remained undaunted. How handy to have a husband who was a reference librarian! She compares their explorations to an Emily Dickinson poem. They only needed faith (and no doubt a sense of adventure and inquisitiveness).
After a weeklong journey aboard a Cunard liner, where Joan had read an article about Randolph Caldecott, they decided they would begin their journey in Whitchurch. Now I have a confession to make. I very recently ordered the most recent Caldecott Award Winners and the books sit on display in the library where I work. Somewhere in the back of my mind I must have known this? But to be honest I can't say I have given just who Caldecott was much thought. (Hanging in head in shame for just a moment now). The Caldecott Medal was named for Randolph Caldecott--the first award was given in 1938. He was himself a children's book illustrator. And Whitchurch is where he lived as a young man.
"Suddenly, before we expected it, we saw a small brick building marked Whitchurch Council School standing by itself along the roadside. John stopped the car so Ian and I could go in and ask the teacher to direct us. I wondered what it would be like to talk to children who walked to school each morning over the very fields and country lanes made famous in the Caldecott illustrations. Did every household own a dog-eared copy or two, or did the teacher have the thrill and pleasure of introducing the books? If so, the experience must be akin to holding a child up to the mirror for the first time and letting him recognize what it is the rest of the world holds dear."
Obviously the Bodgers were not just readers but Readers. As it turns out no one really knew who Caldecott was (granted he was born in 1846 and died less than 40 years later--so very far away from his beginnings--in Florida). They found traces of his work, but nothing concrete. Where they found him was in the beauty of the countryside--the inspiration for his drawings and paintings. And somehow that seems just as it should be.
Like Heidi's Alp, this is going to be a mixture of literature, travel, history and social history. What is going to make it even more interesting is that the Bodgers traveled to England in the 1950s--such a different world then than now even. A world where "nothing comes ready-wrapped", "it cost threepence for a flimsy paper bag to carry one's purchases" and where each item had a proper place selling it--butter at the butcher's, fruit at the florist's and frozen food at Woolworth's. I might have to keep my notebook handy to write down references--like Hovis Bread(?) to look up later.
I can already see new paths my reading might well take as I make my way through How the Heather Looks. As you can see I had to go look up Randolph Caldecott's books (below are a few photos of his illustrations in case you are as curious about them as I was). They are going in search of Narnia next. Wouldn't it be fun to read the books along with their travels? I may have to read a Pooh story or about Jemima Puddle-Duck. And then I could check out each Caldecott winner from the first to the most recent . . . Ah, yes, this might well be a dangerous book to read. (But in a good way).