Destinations: Beijing, Burma, Korea, Australia, Alaska
By Powell Berger
Every place we’ve ever visited has been made better by a book. Relatable teenage characters overcoming odds and introducing us to cultures other than our own open doors to exotic locales and make these new places familiar and welcoming. For us, travel planning goes something like this: pick the destination, book the flights, find the books.
For my first post on A Travelers Library, I’m excited to share the five best family travel books, the ones we immediately talk about when remembering our travels or planning the next adventure.
Forbidden City: A Novel of Modern China by William Bell takes the reader on a personal trek through the political nightmare of Tienanmen Square, all through the eyes of Alex Bell, a Canadian high school student who travels to Beijing with his father, a journalist. What starts out as an opportunity to miss school and explore China becomes a harrowing story of a western teenager embroiled in one of the most dangerous political uprisings of modern times. Separated from his father during the demonstrations, Alex has to fend for himself while also helping young demonstrators find safety. A riveting novel based on the true stories surrounding the massacre, Forbidden City delivers a powerful history lesson while leaving the reader on the edge of her seat until the last page.
Elephant Run, by Roland Smith also delivers a great history lesson, drawing the reader into the world of rubber plantations in Burma and the Japanese occupation of that gentle land. Nick Freestone’s mom fears for her son’s safety in their London home after the night bombings, so sends him to live with his father on their rubber plantation in the remote Burmese elephant village. Before Nick even settles in, however, Japanese soldiers invade the village, occupy the plantation and take Nick’s father hostage. To save his father, Nick and the Burmese villagers who work the plantation stage a daring and dangerous counter-attack, depending on their timber elephants to save the day. While the story keeps the reader turning pages to know that the Freestones prevail, its real beauty is in the lovely story of these beautiful elephants, their mahouts, and the deep bonds that hold them together.
A Year of Impossible Goodbyes, by Sook Nyul Choi is one of those books that never quite leaves you. My daughter and I still tear up occasionally when we talk about this one. Ten year old Sookan and her family endure the atrocities brought on their native North Korea during WWII by running a sock factory that supplies the Japanese army. The story unfolds in layers, painfully but with grace, unveiling the horror and cruelty of the Japanese soldiers occupying their village. The author handles the issue of comfort women with particular skill, remembering her audience of middle school children, but also not flinching from the atrocities endured by these gentle, proud people. Another page-turner, the book takes the reader through the double whammy – occupation first by the Japanese, then the subsequent horror that Russia inflicted after defeating the Japanese. The courage and determination of Sookan and her family to survive the horrors and ultimately escape to freedom is both inspiring and heart-breaking.
Walkabout, by James Vance Marshall is an Australian classic but rarely read by American audiences. Marshall tells the story of two American kids who survive a plane crash in the Outback and team up with an Aboriginal boy to save their lives. The author skillfully unfolds the history and tradition of Australia’s native people through these children’s fate. “Walkabout” is a treasured Australian tradition, where young people (usually men) leave home to explore and find themselves, walking about until they figure out their purpose on this planet. The story offers terrific insight into the plight of Australia’s aboriginal people and the issues of racism and discrimination that still exist today.
Touching Spirit Bear by Ben Mikaelsen takes the reader on an adventure through remote Alaska with Cole Matthews, an angry teenager whose rage leaves another young man fighting for his life. Out of options to rehabilitate Cole, the village leaders turn to Circle Justice, a native American tradition that attempts to rehabilitate hardened offenders through a community/victim/perpetrator program. Cole is sentenced to a one-year banishment to a remote Alaska island where he must fend for himself, under the watchful but stern eye of his Tlingit Indian parole officer, Garvey. Cole endures a gruesome bear attack that leaves him clinging to his life and survives on raw worms and other despicable foods, scenes set in gruesome, stomach churning detail. It is Cole’s encounter with the Spirit Bear that eventually sets him on a path to redemption, guided by his own demons, his past, and his determination to save himself. This coming-of-age story is poignant in both its harsh reality and depth of love and connection between an unlikely set of characters.
Note: To learn more about Powell and her family’s travels, and why she is a good judge of best family travel books, see this interview.
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