Open a book – and let the vacation begin

I would do almost anything to avoid plugging a DVD into my dashboard on a family road trip. While my childhood car rides weren't always joyous – I served as a human partition between two ever-squabbling brothers – I'm convinced those trips built character.

Our family discovered a better strategy for fasten-your-seat-belt entertainment when our daughters, Meg and Carolyn, were both under 4 years old.

My husband planned a Vermont ski trip at the same time that our town library set about moving to a new building with the plea, "The more books borrowed, the less we'll need to move." Dutifully, I filled a tote bag with picture books about snow.

Early into our blustery seven-hour drive, I learned that the secret to keeping Meg and Carolyn occupied did not lie in crayons, toys, grapes, or even in my planned last line of defense: M&M's.

The secret was Brave Irene, a girl who journeyed through a fabulously difficult snowstorm to deliver a gown to a duchess in time for a ball. Thank you, William Steig and the authors of the other snow stories in that tote bag.

I learned from the teachable moment. Now, before we gas up for a road trip, I visit the library.

Sometimes I find a great book on tape; we listened to one of our all-time favorite tapes during the ride to Old Sturbridge Village, an outdoor history museum in Massachusetts. In "Running Out of Time," by Margaret Peterson Haddix, modern tourists secretly view families living in a reconstructed 1840 village (the kids in the village don't even know they live in the past).

The book's perspective turned visiting the old schoolhouse and homes in Sturbridge into an adventure. (I've learned that tape listeners in the back seat usually want a hard copy of the book, too – and that having the book in hand while listening to the tape is a super tool for early readers.)

Our portable library for that Massachusetts trip also included "The Basketball Hall of Fame's Hoop Facts and Stats," to shape a few unlikely gals into hoop enthusiasts before our visit to the Hall of Fame; "The Boy on Fairfield Street," for our drive-by of Dr. Seuss's boyhood street in Springfield and mingling with the bronze statues at the Dr. Seuss National Memorial; and "The Very Hungry Caterpillar." We actually own one of the 20 million or so copies of this book and read it for the zillionth time before arriving at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst.

We mix fiction with nonfiction, picture books with chapter books, laughs with tears. When we traveled to the Ridin-Hy Ranch in New York's Adirondack Mountains last summer, we unraveled an A to Z Mystery, "The Ninth Nugget," about a group of kids who spend a week at a dude ranch.

My daughters saw a lot of themselves in the cowgirl wannabe heroine from the picture book "Hannah Mae O'Hannigan's Wild West Show." And we all learned from a visual dictionary packed with horse facts some real-life ranchers may not know.

My family loves having those big picture reference books around to browse through during quiet moments on our trips. Once, while we were in our cabin, one of the kids interrupted with this question, "Mom, did you know an adult horse has 40 teeth, including canines? Are those doggy-shaped teeth?"

Before the trip, I hide our books in a tote bag we've dubbed "The Diversion Bag." Talk about mysteries – the girls delight in the suspense of wondering what books I've found in the library to set the scene for their trip.

Once, a library story inspired our trip, rather than the other way around. Meg believed she resembled a plucky Revolutionary War- era girl named Maddy Rose in "The Scarlet Stockings Spy," a story centered around Betsy Ross's house in Philadelphia. We donned scarlet stockings, drove to the City of Brotherly Love, and walked the historic streets pretending to be Maddy Rose.

Happily, sisterly love can be a product of the Diversion Bag. Last October I hit the juvenile literature jackpot when a keyword search for "Cape Cod" and "wedding" turned up "The Wedding Planner's Daughter," a book set on the Cape. The girls and I screamed when, reading aloud in the back seat, we learned the characters were planning a wedding at the very hotel we were traveling to – to attend a wedding!

When Meg and I woke early the morning of the wedding, I grabbed the book to read the ending. "Not so fast, Mom," said Meg. "Wait for Carolyn to wake up. She'd be crushed if we finished it without her." No wedding hymns, however lovely, could have sounded more beautiful to me than those considerate words.

Even with the Diversion Bag, sisters are susceptible to back-seat bickering. But I'm grateful for the many hours we've spent growing closer on car rides rather than yearning to be apart.

I knew the girls were grateful for our literary car rides when, last winter, we traveled nine hours to Quebec and then had to make the trip home the following day because of a family emergency. A few weeks later we packed ourselves and fresh books back into the car for another nine-hour ride to finish our vacation. During the 27th car-cramped hour of this vacation, we pulled off the highway to head up the mountain to our resort. Meg looked shocked and asked, "Are we there already?"

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