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Travel at Home With the Best Books From Around the World

This year vacations are more likely than ever to become staycations, but — other than not working — how is spending a week loafing around the house much different than what you’ve been doing for the past few months? Marcel Proust wrote, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” Make your next vacation a literary one, and let your eyes do the traveling with the gift of a great story. Involve the whole family in choosing a destination and books everyone will love. Read and then go beyond the reading with lively family discussions of your discoveries. Check out a cookbook that’s inspired by your chosen locale and involve the kids in creating menus and meals that will add to the virtual escape. Round out the experience with movie nights centered around your destination of choice.  

We talked to Lynn Lobash, associate director for reader services from the New York Public Library, about pulling together destination-specific reading lists that will capture the imagination of adults, teenagers, and younger kids alike. (Check with your local librarian for some extra expert guidance, too.) We chose three landing places — Portugal, the Grand Canyon, and Tokyo — and asked Lobash for her suggestions for younger kids, hard-to-please teenagers, and adults. We’ve included links to sites for purchase, we also encourage you to support and check out your local library. Many have shifted to electronic lending, so you can easily access your tome of choice on your smartphone, tablet, or laptop. 

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Portugal is literally and figuratively the gateway to Europe. Nestled on the eastern side of the Iberian Peninsula, Spain’s neighbor has a unique culture that had a huge impact on the exploration of the New World in the 15th century. The nation has also become a symbol for modern Europe with a rapidly-expanding tech-based economy and a youthful energy that locals credit to its relaxed immigration policies. 

Ready to start reading? Lobash’s pick for kids is The Lizard by Jose Saramago. “It’s an allegorical picture book that imagines a monstrously outsize military response to the appearance of a lizard,” says Lobash. “The ‘superb creature’ is first spotted in the Lisbon neighborhood of Chiado.” For the teens in the family, she suggests The Arm of the Starfish, by Madeleine L’Engle (the creator of A Wrinkle In Time). “Young Adam Eddington becomes entangled in international intrigue involving murder and kidnapping when he takes a summer job in Portugal assisting a noted marine biologist whose scientific findings are fought for by world powers,” Lobash describes. 

Lobash goes on to suggest these adult titles that are still appropriate for family discussion. The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel, is “an allegorical novel in three parts, set in the fictional High Mountains of 17th-century Portugal and beyond. The characters explore questions of loss and faith while tackling ghosts in the contemporary world.” For nonfiction fans she suggests Journey to Portugal: In Pursuit of Portugal’s History and Culture by Jose Saramago; “Part novel, part guide book, and part travelog by Portugal’s preeminent writer.”

The Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon
David Ilécio/Pexels

One of the United States’ most visited natural parks, the Grand Canyon is one of those places that will make even the most seasoned traveler pause to take in the arresting views. Beyond the scenery, the park also offers strenuous hiking, vast biodiversity, and a rich history. The first human inhabitants came thousands of years ago, and it’s easy to see why. 

Lobash suggests introducing your kids to the site with Grand Canyon by Jason Chin, a stunningly illustrated story of a magical father-daughter hike. Hole in the Sky by Pete Hautman should appeal to older kids. “In a future world ravaged by a mutant virus, sixteen-year-old Ceej and three other teenagers seek to save the Grand Canyon from being flooded while trying to avoid capture by a band of renegade Survivors,” Lobash describes. 

She suggests A Multitude of Sins: Stories by Richard Ford, where the story Abyss is set in the Grand Canyon. “A collection of short stories that explores the theme of love and intimacy looks inside the relationships between men and women — both in and out of marriage — and the sense of right and wrong.” The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon by Kevin Fedarko offers a non-fiction alternative. “It’s the epic story of the fastest boat ride in history, on a hand-built dory, named the ‘Emerald Mile,’ through the heart of the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River.” 


Aleksandar Pasaric/Pexels

Tokyo offers Western visitors a mix of the familiar and the different. In so many ways it’s just like visiting any major metropolitan city like New York or London; yet Japan’s history as a secluded island nation — including the Sakoku period, from 1689 to 1853, where it isolated itself from the outside world — allowed the evolution of a unique culture. Destinations like the colorful Tsukiji fish market, day trips to Kyoto, and contemplative walks through Buddhist temple complexes provide a magical escape. 

I Live in Tokyo by Mari Takabayashi is Lobash’s pick for a child’s Tokyo experience. “Seven-year-old Mimiko introduces her family and describes their activities on special days throughout the year.” Then, with Sailor Moon Vol. 1 by Naoko Takeuchi, Lobash introduces us to the art of manga, Japan’s superlative graphic comic book art form. “Usagi Tsukino is a normal girl until she meets up with Luna, a talking cat, who tells her that she is Sailor Moon. As Sailor Moon, Usagi must fight evils and enforce justice, in the name of the Moon and the mysterious Moon Princess.”

Tokyo Ghoul by Sui Ishida is a slightly more salty manga tale for teenagers. “Ghouls live among us, the same as normal people in every way except their craving for human flesh. Ken Kaneki is an ordinary college student until a violent encounter turns him into the first half-human half-ghoul hybrid. Trapped between two worlds, he must survive Ghoul turf wars, learn more about Ghoul society, and master his new powers.” 

For adults, Lobash proposes (which has been made into a Japanese language film). “The tragic death of their best friend has a profound influence on the passionate relationship between Toro, a serious young college student in Tokyo, and Naoko, an introspective beauty.” 

People Who Eat Darkness: The True Story of a Young Woman Who Vanished from the Streets of Tokyo and the Evil that Swallowed Her Up by Richard Lloyd Parry is Lobash’s non-fiction pick. “The true story of the disappearance and murder of Lucie Blackman in Tokyo, following every step of the investigation, while offering a grim portrait of her suspected killer.”

Hopefully, it won’t be too long before we can get back to having “normal” vacations again. In the meantime, engaging in a literary staycation should not only be enriching, but will make an actual visit much more interesting. Bon Voyage!  

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