So what do we do for fun when we’re not traveling? We read about traveling! And sometimes we read about traveling while we are traveling. Because let’s face it, reading offers insights and experiences that are different than (and complementary to) what we get in person.
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Here are three recommended series that will capture your kid’s imagination, whether they are supplementing actual travel or offering an armchair adventure.
Lonely Planet Kids
The specialty of Lonely Planet is travel guidebooks, of course, but their kids’ books take things in a different direction, with titles that are gorgeous to look at and chock full of bite-size, kid-friendly info.
City Trails is a Lonely Planet Kids series that allows kids and their families to explore certain world cities—seven, so far—following thematic routes. Along the way, they discover secrets, stories and offbeat sights (as well as some of the expected favorites).
In Washington DC, for example, one trail tracks down the capital’s most famous resident ghosts, while another goes below the city’s surface (literally) into tunnels, caverns and underground art spaces. City Trails are kind of like guidebooks, in that they provide a route to follow and sights to see, but they contain enticing secret spots and fun facts that will not be in your guidebook (and I’m a guidebook author, so I should know!).
Another Lonely Planet Kids series, Unfolding Journeys, tracks some of the world’s most intriguing travel routes—through the Canadian Rockies, down the Nile River, along the Great Wall of China. The pages actually unfold into a six-foot-long illustrated frieze that highlights sights, animals and activities along the way. It’s a fantastic visual for anybody undertaking such a journey, whether in real life or just on the page.
Most of the books by Lonely Planet Kids are not destination specific, but rather thematic. In the encyclopedic Animal Book, for example, your little animal-lover is bound to learn something new about their favorite creature (eg, a sloth descends from his tree only to poop) or to discover a new favorite (the oddball Indian pangolin, perhaps?).
A budding paleontologist will learn which dinos lived where in the Dinosaur Atlas, also packed with colorful illustrations and actual-size photographs (including a T-Rex tooth!). Other books focus on How Cities Work and How Animals Build. Fantastic illustrations, lift-up flaps and fold-out pages draw the kids into fascinating, foreign worlds—even if they can’t visit in person.
The You Wouldn’t Want to Be Series
We first discovered this series when my children were going through a mummy phase. They were obsessed with mummies as monsters, but we turned it into an educational opportunity by learning about Ancient Egypt. The book You Wouldn’t Want to be an Egyptian Mummy was a favorite.
This gem details the process of mummification, including embalming, removing the organs, stuffing and wrapping the body. “Handy hint: A hooked instrument is used to pull the brain out of the head through the nose. Do not try this at home.” The book also covers what a mummy needs for a blissful afterlife, what the tomb robbers are after, and more. Intriguing stuff, and perfect for a trip (actual or virtual) to Ancient Egypt.
Later, during a trip to Mexico, we enjoyed You Wouldn’t Want to Be a Mayan Soothsayer, where we learned about the complexities of the Maya number system and met some of the more terrifying Maya gods. Other books in the series provide all the gory details of life as a secret agent, Viking explorer, a Roman gladiator, a medieval knight, a ninja warrior, etc.
If you’re traveling, it’s a great way for a child to delve deep into one aspect of the history in your destination. And if you’re not traveling, it’s still a great way to discover how fascinating (and sometimes disturbing) history can be.
The Magic Tree House Series
Mary Pope Osborne has amassed legions of fans since she started writing the fictional Magic Tree House series back in 1992. Now up to 56 books, the series has been translated into 32 languages and has sold some 100 million copies. The chapter books are super engaging and highly educational—and they offer many of the same benefits of travel itself.
In the series, Jack and Annie are a brother-sister duo who find a magic tree house filled with books in the woods near their house. The magic, they discover, is that they can travel through space and time to visit the settings of the books. So each story finds Jack and Annie traveling to a new place and period in history, from the late Cretaceous period (65 million years ago) in Dinosaurs Before Dark, to the year 2031 (35 years into their future) in Midnight on the Moon.
They travel the world from Imperial China to the Wild West. Each adventure involves some precarious situations, some problem solving and some new friends. There’s enough action to keep the children’s attention over the course of 10 chapters, and enough education so that we all usually learn something new.
One thing that I appreciate about the series is the author’s willingness to suspend her disbelief (and ours) about folklore, religion and mythology. When Jack and Annie travel to Ancient Egypt, they help the mummy Queen Hutepi find her Book of the Dead, so she can pass on to her afterlife. When they go to Ancient Greece, they are rescued by the winged horse Pegasus.
Jack and Annie learn about the legends by living them—and so do the readers. Get it? In the Magic Tree House, the books transport the children to other times and places; and in real life, books can transport children to other times and places too.
Shortly after we commenced reading the MTH books, my son bemoaned “I wish we had a Magic Tree House like that.”
I said “We do. The library.” (Cue the eye roll.)