Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Realizing a Different Sort of Bucket List: A Librarian Travels to England By Way of Narnia, Middle Earth and Wonderland

Every librarian has a literary bucket list: places they wish to visit because they are connected to a favorite book or author.  My list is nowhere near complete, though I did manage to make headway this past summer.  British children’s literature has a special significance for me; they are the pioneering classics that serve as touchstones for the genre as a whole today.   I was fortunate to spend two weeks examining the origins of the stories so many of us have grown to love.  The experience was a balance of structured didactic and self-directed exploration. 

The first week was spent as a participant of the Oxford Teacher Seminar, in a course entitled “Literature and the Fantastic.”  It was an analysis of the forefathers of fantasy fiction--Lewis Carroll, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien, as well as two of their modern successors, Philip Pullman and J. K. Rowling.  The course itself was relatively rigorous and informative, but the in vivo experience of walking down the streets and through the halls that these authors used to weave their stories added a new dimension to understanding their novels.  Indeed, to see the landmarks that figured imaginatively into their tales gave historical and contextually creative meaning to their works. The second week was spent in London experiencing various aspects of the cultural birthplace of notables such as J. M. Barrie, Michael Bond and Beatrix Potter, as well as sampling icons of British history relevant in children’s literature. 

Upon applying and being approved for a travel grant to undertake this study I quickly realized that, while I have read all of these stories, I was little prepared to optimize the opportunity before me.  In preparation I reread the titles I had not read in a long time including Alice In Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass, the Chronicles of Narnia, both Lord of the Rings and His Dark Materials trilogies, selected titles from J. K. Rowling, Roald Dahl and Beatrix Potter.  I was fortunate to find Mark J. West’s book A Children’s Literature Tour of Great Britain, which helped me to establish realistic goals for my two weeks from what could be an exhaustive exploration if one had unlimited time. Another serendipitous finding was Charlie Lovett’s NY Times article "Finding Alice's Wonderland in Oxford," which essentially provided me with a step-by-step guide for the Lewis Carroll portion of my trip.  Finally, in my prep work I discovered the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre.  This was an invaluable resource for locating information about Dahl’s life as well as his writing process, which prepared me for my day trip to the author’s hometown, Great Missenden.  I left the museum with a treasure trove of ideas to share with my students for celebrating Dahl’s centennial anniversary.

Even though my luggage has long been unpacked, I continue my self-study of British children’s literature, by exploring women writers of fantasy, particularly E. Nesbit and Philippa Pearce. My long-term goal is to be able to add to my reader’s advisory repertoire of authors of different ethnicities and cultures dedicated to writing fantasy for children.  On a more personal note, I continue to indulge my childhood love for Dahl, the author that inspired my literary bucket list, as I read the latest biography, Love From Boy: Roald Dahl’s Letters to His Mother

Angela Perna
Librarian, St. Hilda's & St. Hugh's 

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