Posting a vacay photo on Instagram is great, but when was the last time you sent a postcard while traveling? Or the last time you got a postcard from someone on vacation?
In her new children’s book, Julia and the Art of Practical Travel (Alfred A. Knopf) out this month, Lesley M. M. Blume, the author of 10 books including Let’s Bring Back, Modern Fairies, Dwarves, Goblins & Other Nasties, and the best-selling Cornelia and the Audacious Escapades of the Somerset Sisters, has created a bold 11-year old heroine, Julia Lancaster, who reminds us how enchanting it is to stay connected with the new people you meet and to document and share travel adventures the old-fashioned way—with snail mail and in Julia’s case, a beloved Brownie camera. In Ms. Blume’s imaginary world, beautiful and bizarre things happen—like seeing a New Orleans’ voodoo queen in action or looking for gold or being charged by wild boars—and practicality is in the eye of the beholder.
Julia is the story of a young girl who sets out on an adventure-ridden road trip in the 1960s with her aunt to find her wanderlustful mother after losing her wealthy grandmother. After selling the grandmother’s house in Windy Ridge in Hudson Valley, her eccentric aunt and Julia travel in an old station wagon weighed down by Oriental carpets and steamer trunks of silverware and candelabras, just the thing, we learn, for en route picnics.
There are plenty of female protagonists in classic children’s literature but few, despite the elegant trappings, are as gutsy as Ms. Blume’s girls.
“Every one of my novels for children features a bold, mischievous young female, and they’re all deeply complicated girls,” Ms. Blume said in a recent interview. “But they’re all created in the spirit of more traditional Secret Garden-esque tales, rather than the latest crop of female Disney protagonists, whose flouncy defiance bores me to sobs. My characters are all smart young ladies with deep internal lives, and great curiosity about the world around them. Like all of us, they have fears, but they conquer their fears in often unlikely ways. Julia is a peculiar mix of snobbery and openness.”
Julia is also a philosophical child and the road trip begins with her observing “the day that my life at Windy Ridge ended and my life everyplace else began.”
The book is influenced, in part, by her visit to Grey Gardens while on assignment for a magazine. At the time, she was pregnant with her first child Oona, now 20-months old. Ms. Blume, in fact, describes her new book as “Grey Gardens meets On the Road.”
Oona is proof that Ms. Blume inspires others to share their travels with mail and treasures; Oona got her first postcard even before she’d been born. “Whenever one of our friends traveled abroad, he or she would bring back an item of clothing for the baby, so we could start making her an international creature right from the very beginning,” said Ms. Blume. “She has dresses from France, hats and fur boots from Sweden, a little caftan from India. I envy her wardrobe and the story it tells. She’s gotten cards from England, Poland, Iceland, and beyond. We’re saving them all for her. If she ever accuses us of having given her a terrible childhood, at least we can offer up the cards and caftans as evidence that we tried to make it quite wonderful indeed.”
That is not to say Ms. Blume shuns social media. “I have to be honest, I love my Instagram,” she admits. “It imparts adventure in a totally different way. But there is nothing like pulling a sheath of bills from the mailbox and seeing a missive from another land nestled there. Its how Christmas morning feels when you’re a kid.”
What does Ms. Blume have to say about packing for a trip?
“It’s all about impractical details,” she said. “I mean, bring underwear, credits cards, and a passport, of course, but for God’s sake, bring evocative things, too. Like a kimono—a hotel breakfast is so much more luxurious when you’re wearing one—or a silk eye mask, or a pair of wonderful vintage heels. You’ll feel so much more romantic traipsing around Paris in beautiful heels than clumping along in a pair of sneakers. Maybe tote along some beautiful books to lend atmosphere to your digs. I had a French friend who used to travel with a battery powered record player with him everywhere, long before record players were co-opted by hipster culture. He set it up once while we were on a beach in Oman and we listened to Fred Astaire at sunset while crabs scampered across the sand. It was incredible.”
All road trips must come to an end, and Ms. Blume takes readers back to the magnificent house where Julia lived in Windy Ridge.
“My time at Grey Gardens greatly informed Julia, especially the idea that a house could be so closely woven into a family’s identity,” said Ms. Blume. “Houses have souls and characters, too, and even moods. Windy Ridge, the ancestral home in Julia, is like that too.”
Travel is wonderful, but at the end of the day, there’s no place like home.