Category: f. TRAVEL

Treasure-house … the American Children’s Rare Books Collection

Thanks to a SCBWI (Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators) bulletin advising their American members to contact the librarians at the Library of Congress Children’s Rare Books Collection in Washington DC and arrange a tour, I did so too – well, I was there and I’m a member of SCBWI’s Australian branch.

Two days earlier in that city and I could’ve joined a group of American children’s authors on their tour of the collection. As that was not to be, the librarians organised for me to have my own personal look a week later.

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The Reading Room of the Children's Books Collection

The librarian, Jackie shows me some of their treasures housed inside that magnificent Jefferson Building – like the smallest book … a copy of “Old King Cole.” It’s about the size of the full stop at the end of this sentence. The pages can be turned only with the aid of a needle.

Just as intriguing are the New England Primers from the late 1700s. These fascinating little textbooks were how children learned to read: small enough to fit in their hands, full of moral and historical lessons as they learned the ABC.

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New England Primer circa 1790

The pictures are tiny block prints; they were updated every decade or so to ‘modernise’; but the most intriguing thing is the story of ‘The Burning of Mr JOHN ROGERS‘ contained within the Primer’s pages. This was a era when the Americans still hurt from their war with Britain.

Regarded as a martyr Mr Rogers was burnt at the stake in 1554 by the Catholic Queen, Mary. The Primer’s words relate how his wife and nine children watched him burn. Every time the Primers were updated, this story remained word perfect, and the pictures always have the nine little faces peering out at their burning father. Moral story indeed.

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The burning of Mr John Rogers
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In the whale's belly - Pinocchio

I could also tell you more about a very early Pop-up version of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi and the fact that this first ever edition by a publisher who latched on to a goldmine in this book format, has no mention of Collodi’s authorship at all. I’ll just show you the pictures.

Oh, and another thing, I gave Jackie copy of my junior fiction, Secrets of Eromanga to pass on to a school library she might know – but she’s putting it in the Foreign section of the Children’s collection instead. They are sent the shortlist of the Australian CBC Awards apparently … seems as though I’ve snuck in through the back door. 🙂

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Jacqueline Coleburn from the Children’s Rare books collection – enthusiastic and willing to share her knowledge to an Aussie visitor.


City of light and enlightenment…

Ross is better at maths than me, but it goes something like this…. Melbourne has 600 people per sq km; Washington DC has 30,000 per sq km.  Try getting your head around these figures:
Melbourne, Australia    Area: 8,806 sq klms  Pop:  4 million
Washington DC’s metro   Area:  177 sq klms   Pop:  5.3 million

So why does Washington seem so uncrowded, clean and filled with space and light?

The Capitol Building_centre of American government

It could be the peaceful, wide streets with their autumnal trees, or the monumental, beautiful and well-preserved historical buildings in the city’s centre (trust the Americans to do things right) or the fabulous, easy-to-follow subway system taking away the need for masses of cars, or the height restrictions to all buildings – no skyscrapers here, unless you count the needle of the Washington Monument.

It also could be the fact that many people live in apartments and condos. But it’s more likely to be that we don’t go into the ‘suburbs’ where the overcrowding and poverty are – this city has the highest crime rate in the US. While we’re there a friend of my sister is held up by a couple of teenagers with a gun as she walks along the street near her home – it was a ‘transitional’ area though, not quite gentrified enough. They took money and that was all.

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Up on my sister's apartment's roof.

There are many beautiful things to see in Washington DC. Buildings… imagine Canberra on ‘history-steroids’, with an unlimited amount of money since the 1790s to devote to the architecture. And boy, didn’t those city fathers (no mothers?) get it right.

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Entrance hall_the Library of Congress_Jefferson Building

My favourite is the Jefferson Building – a tribute to Thomas Jefferson. It houses the Library of Congress and it’s here I meet the librarian of the American Children’s Rare Books Collection, Jacqueline Coleburn. But I’ll follow up on that little story in the next blog.

Washington DC is a most lucky place if you are enthused about science, art, music, literature, space travel, flight, photography, journalism, history, people … what else is there? Oh, yes, sport, but I can include that as well.

For it is in this city, in a splendid, tree-lined boulevard where you’ll find most of the famous Smithsonian Institution – and the treasures contained within them all.

The National Gallery of Art, the National Museum of the American Indian, the National Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of Natural History, the Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and the list goes on.

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Best collection of dinosaur fossils I've ever seen

Sorry, New York, these galleries and museums beat yours hands down. The mind and the sense boggle – there’s Amelia Earhart’s plane, and the authentic Wright brothers’ one as well; beaten gold masks stolen by the Spanish from ancient Indians; the best collection of dinosaur bones I’ve ever seen; and sticking with the BIG theme, a massive, red and blue Alexander Calder mobile hanging from the ceiling of the National Art Gallery.

Alexander Calder mobile

But the very best thing of all about these Smithsonian Institutions is that they are all FREE and open to all who walk through their doors. Why? Because of an enlightened scientist from Britain.

In 1826, James Smithson, a British scientist drew up his last will and testament and named his nephew as beneficiary, but should the nephew die without heirs (as he would in 1835), the estate should go “to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.”

James Smithson never visited America, never corresponded with anyone in that country. Did he do it, as some think, out of revenge against ‘the rigidities of British society, which had denied Smithson, who was illegitimate, the right to use his father’s name’.

Or was this a man who believed in the Enlightenment ideals of democracy and universal education?

After visiting most of the Smithsonian collections over 10 days, and before my feet went on strike, I’m believing he was truely an enlightened man.

Thank you very much, Mr Smithson.


New York … where the wild things are!

You’ve heard of how All roads lead to Rome – in the U.S. it’s a bit like that, except … All roads lead to New York. New York City on Manhattan Island.  Manhattan

And what an island it is – nothing prepares you for the noise of a multitude of people; the architecture – immense, classical, modern and every style inbetween. The stink wafting from the sewers beneath the roads; brilliantly design and efficient subway system; honking, impatient drivers; some of the world’s best art galleries. Gotta love this city!

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New York firey at work

Our hotel, the Comfort Inn on Central Park West is comfortable, quiet, cheap for NY, in a leafy street in a block opposite Central Park and around the corner from where John Lennon was shot. It’s also close to most of the galleries and museums I want to see.

And our luck holds true – this year is the 400th anniversary of Dutch explorer, Henry Hudson’s journey from Amsterdam and in 1609 ended up on a small island, known locally by the Lenni Lanape natives as Mannahatta. So this year, the Dutch Government lent one of their most famous paintings to the Metropolitan Art Gallery for the occasion – Johannes (Jan) Vermeer’s The Milkmaid.

I’ve seen images of The Milkmaid, in art books, but paper images never do justice to the real paintings. This is no exception – it’s another heart-stopping moment in art for me. (Yes, I know, get a life, Sheryl!)

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Waiting for the dog-walker

We join the reverent group staring at the work in a room dimmed to protect the assembled Dutch masters. It even has its own security guard standing next to it – a stern-faced, black American dressed in black … no one gets too close to the work, no photographs even without flash.

The canvas is small, intimate and beautiful – only 45.5 x 41cm – but it’s obvious why this painting looms so large in the imagination. Vermeer was 25 years old when he painted it in 1657-58 in his home-town of Delft. As an artist he was fascinated with light and with direct observation of his subject.

The Milkmaid

That excellent movie, The Girl with the Pearl Earring with Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson gives a good insight into Vermeer’s obsession with light, and setting up the scene, and mixing his own colours.  He was ahead of his time and his work even has its own art term now, the Delft School.

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Celebrating fall season

I can’t tell you about every wonderful, amazing, beautiful, stunning art work we viewed in New York – you’d run out of patience with my blog! Any art lovers out there? Guess what lined the walls of the twisting Guggenheim Museum? All of Kandinsky’s works! In glorious technicolour. Ahhhh.

But for lovers of children’s books reading this blog – here’s a treat. And yes, it was another serendipitous moment.

We happened across The Morgan Library & Museum in Madison Ave – a collection put together by another dead, wealthy, magnate, Pierpont Morgan. (Think pages from William Blake, Jane Austen, Bob Dylan, Beethoven and Mozart scores, Oscar Wilde letters to his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, Hemmingway, and paintings by Picasso, Rembrandt,  to name a few.)

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In a special room are the original working pencil sketches and drafts of Maurice Sendak‘s Where the Wild Things Are – a story familiar to millions of readers.  The drafts show scribbles of a story filtering in his head, ‘Where the wild horses are’ and a wild boy who searches for them. They also show the appearance of Max in his wolf suit.

At the bottom of the paper, Sendak gives up in disgust . “Drop this story for time being—I’m forcing it, and it won’t be forced.” After another try at a verse story about Max and the wild things Sendak scrawls ALL BAD!!!

Even the best of them have self-doubts. 

Stuck in Depew with nothing to do….

Never heard of Depew? No, neither had I, but if one travels from Chicago to Niagara Falls via Buffalo on AMTRAK, the inside of Depew Railway Station becomes very familiar.

We’re used to waiting for planes and trains now – there’s always something to do to fill in the time in the cities. Depew-Buffalo should be no exception. It’s the main crossroad rail link to Chicago, Canada, New York and Boston. We’ll catch the 3.30pm train to Niagara Falls, Ontario.

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Depew Rail Station

How was I to know Depew Rail Station is not in the middle of Buffalo? It’s on the fringe. And we were there after an 11 hour rail trip (overnight sitting up in Coach class) from Chicago, and now with 7 hours to kill on a Sunday.

Conversation with Depew’s Station Master….

‘So, what’s there to do in Depew?’ I say. The station only has a softdrink, packets of crisps and chocolate dispensor and we’re starving.

‘The Mall’s just down the road,’ he says.

That sounds promising. We can at least get something to eat and a cup of tea in a Mall. Maybe. Well, if desperate, there’s always dripolator coffee.

‘How far to walk to the Mall?’ I say. ‘About four miles,’ he says.

Walking to Depew Mall loses its appeal. Ever adventurous, Ross says, ‘Let’s head down the road a bit, there’s sure to be a cafe or something.’ So we set off with our packs on our backs in the early morning, chilly autumn sunshine.

The rail station is close to the light industry area. Of course, nothing is open. Not even the houses along the street – we see no people, no cafes, except a dog that follows us for a while.

After thirty minutes I’m freezing. So we head back – I’ve remembered the stale bread-roll and smoked pistachios in my pack. We won’t starve. Then Ross sees a large building with activity – cars parking and people heading inside.

‘Hey, we’ll get a cup of coffee in there,’ Ross says.

‘Maybe it’s a church,’ I say. ‘I don’t want to go in there.’

‘C’mon, be adventurous,’ says Ross.

So we go inside. It’s an ice-hockey rink and the game is starting – Depew’s teenagers – v – Visitors. Parents sit behind the glass to watch. We buy hot chocolate and salty pretzels and join them.

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Pretending to be a 'hockey-mom' - eat your heart out Sarah Palin.

Neither of us watch much sport on TV so we don’t know much about ice-hockey except that it’s hockey on ice. Then the man next to us hears my foreign accent and asks where we’re from. We learn a little more about ice-hockey from him, and from the action behind the glass. It’s fast, rough, noisy, skilled and exciting.

And the hot chocolate is good.

The moral of the story?

It’s good to be adventurous, especially when stuck in Depew with nothing to do.


Water + Glacier + Limestone = Niagara Falls

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I should add GRAVITY to the equation. Niagara Falls is familiar to many of us, mainly through images in books and movies – like Harrison Ford in The Fugitive, Marilyn Monroe in something or rather (an old B&W movie) and the scene on that bridge between Canada and the US in The Untouchables. It’s also one of the world’s honeymoon destinations.

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Canadian side: Horseshoe Falls + the 'Maid of the Mist' boat

Niagara (split across a border) is a glitzy town too, and according to some National Parks people we talk to, shows the worst of what can happen to a national park through self-interest and desire to make money.

And this is the impression when you walk through parts of the town – on both sides of the border, even though the Canadians consider their’s is the best view of the Falls (they’re right).

Fun parks, MacDonalds, noise, restaurants by the hundreds, hotels big and small and thousands of tourists – everything designed to distract and extract money from one’s pocket.

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'Maid of the Mist' or drowned rat in blue?

But nothing prepares you for the real Niagara Falls – their sheer force, their roar as the waters of the Great Lakes pour over the 53m drop, and the mist that soaks and, depending on the wind direction causes a permanent rainfall. The larger Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side are about 790 m wide, while the American Falls are 320 m.

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the rush of water to the edge has a hypnotic-dragging-you-in feeling

We come to the Canadian side.

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I’ve chosed a room with a breathtaking view, right into the Horseshoe Falls and decide on the spot – Niagara Falls is definitely worth making the detour to experience close up.

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Niagara Falls town, Ontario, Canada

If you’re like me and you’re curious about how geological features came to be, check out the info in Niagara Falls – it’s all about the power of water over rock – the mightiest, most persistent and enduring force on this earth, maybe?