Travel Books for Children

While writing an article about Robert Leeson (just published in IBBYLink https://www.ibby.org.uk/ibbylink/ ) I was prompted to look more closely at the oeuvre of another left wing author – Geoffrey Trease  – and was interested to discover that he wrote some of the books in the Young Traveller series that were published from the late 1940s to the mid 1960s. Trease’s titles were The Young Traveller in India and Pakistan (1949), The Young Traveller in England and Wales (1953) and The Young Traveller in Greece (1955). Intrigued by this, I looked more closely into this series, wondering about their contents and whether other writers of children’s fiction had also written for this series. The only name I recognised was that of Ann Thwaite who wrote The Young Traveller in Japan (1958) and for whom it was her first published children’s book. 

This has set me on the road to exploring travel writing for children in general and considering how it relates to travel publishing for adults.

It’s notable that the Young Traveller series was written by a range of authors rather than by one individual as it seems more likely that those writers will have personal knowledge of those countries, or at least have spent time researching information about somewhere they are genuinely interested in. Travel books are very much reflective of the time in history in which they are written as well as the political perspective of their authors. This was brought home to me when reading The Travel Writing Tribe. Journeys in Search of a Genre by Tim Hannigan (2021) which doesn’t touch on travel writing for children at all. In fact, it made me think about what travel writing for children actually is and who writes travel books for children and for adults. Hannigan writes about travel writers of the past such as Wilfred Thesiger and Patrick Leigh Fermor and interviews many currently writing, most of whom he acknowledges are white men. However, this is slowly shifting, with more women and people of colour writing about their journeys which, in part at least, frequently explore their own cultural heritage. An interesting example, not mentioned in Hannigan’s book, is Johny Pitts’ Afropean: Notes from Black Europe (2019) a winner of the Jhalak Prize and the Bread and Roses Award. 

In The Young Traveller in India and Pakistan two English children travel to India and Pakistan with their father who has been contracted to make a documentary film for children about these countries. In the wake of partition, international understanding is the aim. In an Author’s note Trease comments ‘no book about India or Pakistan can be quite up to date. Things change too fast for authors and printers to keep up with them. Anyone, after reading this story, will understand why.’

The father of Robert and Carol – Mr Woodstock – is of the opinion that partition should not have taken place. Trease introduces a range of characters with a variety of opinions and of different religions and the children are not talked down to. It’s understood that they are open to ideas and opinions. On much of the journey they are accompanied by an old army friend of Mr Woodstock from the Punjab referred to in the text by the nickname Ginger Whiskers (although his full name is Sheikh Surajjudin Bahadur, V.C., O.B.I.) and the children are instructed to call him sahib. He is the main source of information for the children and their father. His parting remark is: ‘Only one thing we ask you to do: make the young people of other countries more interested in us, more anxious to learn. There are books, there can be more films in days to come… If they wish to know more nothing can stop them. Just persuade them to open the door which stands between us, that is all we ask you to do.’ This is in response to Woodstock’s anxiety that he cannot put everything into his film. 

In The Young Traveller in Japan (1958) Ann Thwaite, who spent some time living in this country, also prefaces her story by commenting: ‘Readers may notice that I have said very little specifically about the political situation in Japan. This is because it is too fluid and too complicated, and political comment and prediction seem beyond the scope of this book. I hope, however, that the books will hope to make sense of any news items about Japan that may appear from time to time in the English newspapers.’ Readers get a contemporary picture of daily life and customs as seen through the eyes of an English family living in Japan for a year as the father is lecturing at the university in Yokohama. Not all the titles in this series are so nuanced, however. For example, in The Young Traveller in Australia (1948) by Kathleen Monypenny, the children learn lots about flora and fauna but nothing about the Aboriginal people who inhabit the land.

An earlier series was The Twins, all written and illustrated by Lucy Fitch Perkins, beginning with The Dutch Twins which appeared in the USA in 1911. Each of these books contains stories in a particular cultural and geographical setting with a pair of twins – a boy and a girl – as the focal characters. Some appear to be timeless, although doubtless life will have changed considerably in most places since these were written. Some are very much set in the historical period in which they were written, for example in The French Twins (1939) and The Belgian Twins (1940) the effects of World War 2 are omnipresent. UK editions have the same Introduction by Rhoda Power, broadcaster and author of fiction and history books for children, of which some of the latter were co-written with her (perhaps better known) sister Eileen. She praises the series as a godsend for those looking for suitable presents for children as she believes they cover the bases for adults who have different ideas about what such books should encompass as well as appealing to many children’s tastes. A more in depth examination of these ideas related to this series and other such series of the past (I’ve also come across ‘Little People Everywhere’, 14 books which were published between 1909 and 1916) than I’m able to do here could be interesting. 

In Matters of Fact. Aspects of non-fiction for children (1972), Margery Fisher questioned what ‘these story/fact hybrids’ are for – ‘Is their first objective to give a geography lesson’ – ‘Or are these fictional tours designed to fire a child with a desire to see the world for himself and to understand people of races other than his own?’ She also says that ‘travelogues for children must be very personal and vital to earn a place on a child’s list of favourites’. This last comment made me think about the fact that travel books for children are rarely written in the same way as for adults and question what the difference is between a travel book, a guide book for travellers and a geography information book. The first is usually a much more personal, first person account. The last often a book produced for the education market – often a series written by one person who has researched the country but may not have been there. We’ve thankfully moved on from the appalling ‘Let’s Visit’ series published as recently as the 1980s. Beverley Naidoo highlighted the racism in Let’s Visit South Africa (1967) which ‘told readers that ‘The Kung Bushmen have a tiny brain. Their language sounds more like the chatter of baboons than the talk of men’ and ‘Apartheid is a fascinating experiment.’ ‘  https://beverleynaidoo.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/IBBYconf2014-keynote.pdf  And I can remember that in Let’s Visit Iraq, the Kurds were described as ‘wild men’ who lived in the mountains in the north of the country! However, one thing that series did do, however badly, was publish volumes on many individual countries. This is rare nowadays. Series will usually only include a limited range of individual countries and many areas of the world will only be covered by a region or whole continent in one book. The choice of countries is evidently dictated by what publishers believe will sell and this is generally related to the school curriculum.

What can be considered as a travel book for children can vary enormously as a glance at these various lists reveal: 

https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2021/feb/07/10-childrens-books-take-kids-on-a-journey-travel-escape

https://travelmamas.com/best-travel-books-for-children/

https://www.cntraveler.com/galleries/2014-07-21/the-best-travel-books-for-kids

A recent glance at the shelves in the geography section of the children’s department of a large bookshop revealed few books about individual countries apart from reprints of M. Sasek’s ‘This is’ books first published in the 1950s and many of the remaining books were large format volumes comprising double page spreads about different cities around the world. The trend towards highly visual non-fiction books has led to travel books for children being thin on accompanying text and perhaps the way children find out about countries and cultures around the world has shifted to other media. There is clearly an appetite for travel books of various kinds for adults and many TV documentaries where (usually) men from Michael Palin to Michael Portillo explore the world. Did the documentary about India and Pakistan researched by Mr Woodstock in Geoffrey Trease’s book have a real life equivalent and are there such films and programmes for children today?

I think it’s likely this is a topic I’ll be returning to as I explore further current travel literature for children and adults and continue to delve into its past.

Currently reading:

Around the World in 80 Trains by Monisha Rajesh

Beyond the Fragments. Feminism & the Making of Socialism by Sheila Rowbotham, Lynne Segal and Hilary Wainwright

Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths by Maisie Chan

2 thoughts on “Travel Books for Children

  1. Really interesting article, Ann. Also, I’m amazed that you’re reading that ancient text by Sheila Rowbotham et al. One that has been on my shelf for SO many years! 😊

    Like

  2. I should have said, Sue – it’s a revised edition of ‘Beyond the Fragments’ from 2013! It includes the original 3 essays from 1979 plus 3 newer ones.

    Like

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