Have you ever noticed how kids love themes? Themed birthday parties, weekly camp themes, bedroom themes – you get the idea. We have been taking themed trips since my kids were very young, and it seems to make our short getaways more special somehow.
We recently went on a themed getaway, but I didn’t realize it until the second day, when I noticed a definite thread running through our trip: Everything was related to children's books (otherwise known as kid lit). If you love children’s literature (and really, what’s not to love?), Western Massachusetts is the place to go. Springfield, Northampton and Amherst hold the secrets of favorite writers and illustrators like Dr. Seuss, Eric Carle, and Emily Dickinson. Here's an itinerary to discover those secrets and hidden gems. If you enjoy this children's literature getaway and want to try another book-lover's vacation, take a look at this itinerary with literary stops from Hartford to Boston (and just reverse it).
Begin your quest in Springfield, the birthplace of the father of contemporary children’s literature, Theodor Seuss Geisel, A.K.A. Dr. Seuss. In the quadrangle of the Springfield Museums, you’ll find the Dr. Seuss Sculpture Garden. The delightful and whimsical metal sculptures have been joined by a new addition, a wooded maze made of thousands of twigs. A word of warning: Your kids may want to play in the maze all day. (Actually, a second word of warning: some of the twigs are sticking out and can scratch little legs.)
The newest of the Springfield Museums, the Wood Museum of Springfield History, is a must-see. You’ll first notice a fascinating series of panels on the first floor that make connections between Dr. Seuss books and his childhood in Springfield. His illustrations of police officers on red motorcycles? The motorcycles were most likely inspired by Indian Motocycle, and you can see the real thing on the second floor of the museum. However, the Hasbro Games exhibit on the first floor is where you and your kids will probably spend the most time. Designed by the same engineers who created 5 Wits, it’s like stepping into larger-than-life games. The challenges are both physical and mental, and they are seriously fun. When you've had your fill, if you love antique cars as much as my family does, you’ll definitely want to take a look at the museum’s stunning collection before you head to the next museum in the quadrangle.
Fans of the Percy Jackson series will appreciate the sculptures of Greek and Roman mythical characters in the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum (Not to be confused with the D’Amour Art Museum, which is also in the quadrangle. We went through the entire D’Amour Museum before realizing we were in the wrong art museum!). My kids had a great time trying to identify each god without looking at the names. A bonus in the museum is the Art Discovery Center on the second floor. Be sure to make your way up there if you are visiting in the afternoon.
On a kid lit vacation, a visit to the library certainly seems in order. Right next door to the art museum is the Springfield City Library, housed in a beautiful and architecturally interesting building.
Next up: A walk through downtown Northampton, a college town where great dining options abound. Northampton is also home to the R. Michelson Galleries, truly a hidden gem. Housed in a former bank building, the huge, two-floor gallery holds treasures more precious than gold. It’s the children’s book illustrations tucked away in the back corner of the first floor you’re here to see. In addition to works by Dr. Seuss you won’t likely see anywhere else, the gallery shows an extensive collection of artwork by favorite children’s book illustrators. Copies of the books the illustrations come from are placed nearby, and no one seems to mind a bit if you and your child park yourselves on the floor and read a few stories. There’s also a nice selection of beautifully illustrated books for purchase, many of them the work of the gallery’s owner, Richard Michelson.
On the second day, make your way to Amherst, which happens to be my family’s favorite Massachusetts town. It’s a mecca for bibliophiles and foodies alike.
A visit to the beautiful Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art is fun any time, but you may want to time your visit to coincide with one of the special story times with picture book authors like Lita Judge, whose work includes the gorgeous and very sweet book, Red Sled. Most days, kids can create art in the studio and you can read together in the library. I recommend spending some time in the gift shop, which has an excellent selection of children’s books and related merchandise. Pack a lunch – the space outside is a lovely picnic spot, and offers lots of green space for the kids to run around. If the weather isn’t cooperating, there is a snack room inside with vending machines that have refreshingly healthy options.
After a visit to the Eric Carle, make your way downtown to visit the Emily Dickinson House. Of all the great classic poetry, Emily Dickinson’s is probably the most accessible to children. The museum is in the house where poet Emily Dickinson was born and lived most of her life, and it’s on the same grounds as The Evergreens, home of the poet’s brother and his family. You can pay to take a guided tour of the house or just visit the welcome center for free. The welcome center contains lots of interesting artifacts and background on Emily Dickinson's life and times.
In addition to your kid lit destinations, your kids will appreciate a walk through downtown Amherst, with stops on Pleasant Street at the candy shop and The Toy Box, a nice independent toy store. For lunch or dinner, I recommend Bakus African Restaurant, where the food is superb and the owner makes you feel like you’re a guest in her home. For dessert, visit the ice cream parlor just down the street (where you can also find reasonably-priced and incredibly delicious gluten-free cookies).
Finally, what better way to end a kid lit getaway than with a visit to a bookstore for souvenirs? Also in downtown Amherst, Food for Thought Books has a comfy kids’ area with a unique and thoughtful selection of books. See if you can find the sweet little book, The Mouse of Amherst, a fictional story of a poetic mouse who corresponds with Emily Dickinson. We bought it, along with some great books about social justice, as mementos of our time in Amherst.