A Guide to the Real-Life Homes of the Heroes of Children’s Literature
We mapped the real places that inspired the best kids’ books.
On this map, you will find the real world locations where the heroes of books you might have read early in life lived out their adventures. On the Upper East Side of Manhattan, just a few blocks from Gracie Mansion, Harriet the Spy is forever taking notes about her neighbors and eating tomato sandwiches. In Portland, Oregon, Ramona Quimby is tormenting her older sister. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, Ponyboy Curtis is coming out of the theater, about to be attacked by a rival gang.
For a kid, made-up worlds can seem as real as actual places, and real-life cities can seem as fantastical as any fictional town. For Betsy and Tacy, in Maud Hart Lovelace’s classic Betsy-Tacy series, Milwaukee is “no ordinary city. Milwaukee was their secret.” One day, in Betsy’s dark buggy shed, the two tiny heroines pretend to ride out of town until they see Milwaukee’s towers in the distance, as exotic as can be:
“That’s right,” said Tacy. “I see palm trees.”
“The people will wear red and blue night gowns, like they do on the Sunday School cards, most likely,” Betsy said.
“Maybe there will be camels,” said Tacy.
But just like there is a real version of Milwaukee, there is a real version of that shed, Betsy’s “small yellow cottage,” and Tacy’s “rambling white house,” down the street—they are in Lovelace’s hometown of Mankato, Minnesota. You can go there and see for yourself.
So many of the worlds that seem adventurous and magical when you read about them as a kid are based on real-world and very specific places. Even when the author is clear about where the story is set, many young readers don’t have anything to hang that knowledge on—your sense of how to reach Narnia (through the closet, clearly) might be more obvious than how to reach Boston.
So perhaps it comes as a surprise that the Nolan family, in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn lived on Lorimer Street in Williamsburg. That the Island of the Blue Dolphins, from the eponymous 1960 novel, is actually one of the Channel Islands off the California coast. That Caddie Woodlawn, in her “big house on the prairie” and Laura, in her “Little House in the Big Woods,” were practically neighbors in Wisconsin.
For this map, we have restricted ourselves to literary heroes who happened to live in North America—Maniac Magee, Anne of Green Gables, Holden Caulfield—and even though the original idea was to feature children’s books, we included some more likely to be filed under “young adult.” How could we resist revealing the location of V.C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic or Bella Swan’s hometown of Forks, Washington? We also focused on books that could be linked to a specific town, street, or even house.
But there are so many more stories that are set in specific but more loosely defined locations, or beyond the necessary boundaries of this project. The Yearling is in central Florida; the Murry family farmhouse in A Wrinkle in Time is somewhere in Connecticut. There could be a rich and thickly dotted map representing the British Isles: The Dark Is Rising; The Golden Compass; Winnie the Pooh; Ballet Shoes; Paddington Bear; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; Harry Potter—all have settings inspired by real-world locations. A world map would show Heidi in the Alps, Pippi Longstocking in Sweden, the Swiss Family Robinson in the East Indies.
Finding these connections, between the spaces of childhood fantasy and the cities and streets of adulthood, can make otherwise ordinary places seem special again. In one of the books that follows Betsy-Tacy, Betsy eventually makes it to Milwaukee, and though there are no palm trees or biblically dressed people, it still has a hold on her—it’s never an ordinary city. The places on this map might have once seemed mythical. One of the great pleasures of growing up is being able to explore in real-life the world that you could only imagine as a kid.
Thanks to Lauren Young and Jack Goodman for the data mapping.
This story originally ran on September 27, 2016.
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