Summer smiles and there's the urge to pile in the family car and hit America's highways.
Then there's the counterurge: to avoid passing those hours cooped up in the family car looking for a q word for 200 miles, refereeing displays of territorial instinct in the back seat or playing car bingo on some interstate where the bingo squares ought to read "curve in road," "break in trees" or "signs of life." It's enough to keep the car in the driveway.
Still, getting there can be half the fun. Here's a simple idea to make travel time not only endurable but memorable: Read aloud books set in the regions your family is exploring.
What first possessed me to bring books on a car trip to Disney World escapes me now, since merely glancing at a map en route invited instant carsickness. However, as I plunged into the first book I discovered a little-known phenomenon -- long stretches of highway don't offend a sensitive stomach. Reading was a breeze.
As the plot thickened, the miles (literally hundreds) flew by. The car was blissfully quiet. The kids (then 10 and 13) couldn't argue about who touched whom and follow the plot at the same time.
When the kids asked for more I was pleased. When my husband called for more I was impressed. But when we all cried over the trials of the overprotected heroine in Understood Betsy (by Dorothy Canfield Fisher), I was sold. I read until my voice gave out. Then we played car bingo.
Whether your family is ready for picture books or novels, matching books to itinerary adds a new dimension to travel. No longer is the countryside whizzing by just a view. It's peopled with characters and their hopes, fears and foibles. Books can scale mountains, step inside shacks or carry travelers into local hearts and minds where maps can't always go.
Reading itself gets a new dimension that can be starting. We were reading Rifles for Watie (by Harold Keith) and engrossed in Civil War intrigue skirmishes along the Arkansas River near Fort Smith when suddenly we found ourselves driving over that very river into that very town.
Unexpectedly finding ourselves "on the spot" was a delight. Was it as we expected? "No!" recalls my son resoundingly. Confronting the actual scene measured fantasy against reality, past against present. First thoughts of "This isn't how I imagined it!" were followed by "This is where this sort of incident really happened." The impact of the moment is still vivid today.
Reading regional novels can also beef up school curriculums that haven't always covered what your children are encountering. On our cross-country trip, my son hadn't yet studied U.S. history in school so the Gold Rush, the Dust Bowl and the Little Bighorn meant nothing to him. Books can painlessly help fill in some gaps.
Here are some things to consider: * Try varying types of books: historical and contemporary novels, humor, tall tale and biography. We had less success with mystery and fantasy because there is usually less character development and regional flavor and consequently less emotional involvement to spur those cries for more. For a change of pace, we'd break out Two-Minute Mysteries (Donald J. Sobel) and take turns at solving the cases -- the youngest getting first crack. * Tailor your book choices. For a horse-crazy kid, Misty of Chincoteague (by Marguerite Henry) about taming a wild island pony might be just the thing. A trip exploring the outdoors could be enhanced by My Side of the Mountain (by Jean Craighead George) about a boy surviving alone in the Catskill wilds. * Bring extra selections so children can choose among them. Then feel free to discard one if it's had its chance and it's a loser with your family. Ask your librarian for advice selecting books. Start with a reasonable length for your family, but don't be afraid of longer books. Chapters break up the reading and the unfinished story lures you back. * Reading regional books can be applied to all ages.Aim at an older child's comprehension level when possible.It's surprising what little ones can understand and enjoy, but check occasionally to see whether they're following and explain in their terms so they don't lose interest. * You'll want a strong articulate reading voice. Be patient if children want to take a turn, but if it doesn't work out assure them it doesn't mean they aren't good readers. Be sensitive to pronunciation errors though I confess we found them a source of amusement too. The "sill-a-hoots [silhouettes] on the wall" was good for quite a few family laughs. * Taped books for car cassette recorders may work well for you. Book stores and libraries stock them, although the selection may be limited. * For a reader prone to carsickness, sitting in the front seat is easiest on the stomach. Try reading only during long straightaways and close the book during curvy stretches or stop-and-start traffic in town. (You'll be wanting to see the sights then anyway.) * Checking out library books for an extended trip can pose a challenge. Check your library's lending policy and explain your needs to your librarian. They are wonderfully helpful. Mine suggested we find a senior citizen to check out our books because seniors don't have to pay overdue fines. Or buy the books. A few will do. We got all the way around the United States on five.
Reading aloud is worth a try even if everyone in your family car is able to burrow into his or her own separate book for the duration. A shared book adds to the family store of memories, and the driver will love being in on the fun.