Student Research, Study Abroad, Undergraduate English

From Beatrix Potter to Harry Potter: A Research Trip of a Lifetime!

KensingtonGarden

Kensington Gardens

It’s 8 o’clock in the morning and the Potter-to-Potter class has finally landed at Heathrow Airport. We clear customs, grab our luggage, and make our way to the hotel. After checking our bags, we wait for our three o’clock check in time by taking on London. We started by exploring the area around our hotel. High Street Kensington Tube Station was a two-minute walk from the front door. Kensington Gardens, a quiet space inside the bustling city, was within walking distance. After exhausting the exploration of our new neighborhood, we split up to find different ways to stay awake for the rest of the afternoon. This is where we began our adventures in London.

In the weeks leading up to our adventure, the thirteen of us sat in OEC and read through an extensive list of British children’s literature, from Beatrix Potter to Harry Potter and so much more. We discussed what a book needed to have to be considered children’s literature, and how children’s literature in Britain is different from that in America. The focal point of the class would be our archival research project, where the research was to be done in London! Determining what my project would be required brainstorming early on. Dr. Bouwman assigned the projects as anything broadly related to British children’s literature. We could examine a specific author, or a specific setting, or we could try to answer questions about British children’s literature as a field. I am researching how the expectations of children’s authors have changed since the early 1900s. Other students are looking at how different manuscripts evolved into the books we know today, or how authors depicted different settings from our novels. By the time we were leaving for London, we were ready and excited to tackle the research.

Beatles

The Beatles

On our first full day in London we explored the British Library, where we would eventually get our own reader’s cards and have access to their archives. We looked at the Library’s Treasures Gallery where we were able to see historical artifacts such as the Magna Carta, a suffragette’s notebook, Da Vinci’s notebook, and even some handwritten Beatles lyrics! It was so unbelievable to be standing in a single room that contained so much history from so many fields. This was a great introduction to the history of London that prepared us for the experiences we were about to have.

The next day, we met with two children’s editors from Tamarind Publishing, an imprint of Penguin Random House. This was definitely one of my favorite experiences. I plan to be an editor in the future, and seeing the offices at Tamarind was an incredible introduction to the publishing world. When we had lunch with them, I was able to find out what expectations they face as publishers of children’s literature, which helped with my research project. We learned a lot about what kind of power book publishers have, and also what their limitations are when it comes to promoting change. It was especially inspiring to hear both editors say that the most important end goal for them was publishing an authentic story. Later in our trip, we would be meeting with three different children’s authors, and we would keep this impressive goal of authenticity in mind.

Beatrix Potter

Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit

During our first week, we also had a chance to visit the Victoria and Albert archives, where the majority of Beatrix Potter’s work is kept. We were able to see Potter’s original artwork and some of her correspondence with publishers regarding what they referred to as the “Bunny Book.”

Over the weekend, we made our way by train to Oxford, where we would be staying at St. Edmund’s Hall. Our first stop was the Bodleian Library, where we were able to see some of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis’s work. As a writer, it was fascinating to see the difference between Tolkien and Lewis’s writing processes. Lewis appears to have done most of the editing in his head before writing out a nearly final copy of his work. Based on what we saw, Tolkien was more meticulous about editing, and would only write his work in pen once it felt complete. We could see the erased and rewritten words in pencil in early manuscripts of the Lord of the Rings! I was not only fascinated by the different writing styles, but also inspired. So often, after reading a great book it feels as though the words come directly from the writer’s mind with no work in between. To see that writing, even for the greats, is a process of writing and rewriting and editing takes some pressure off any first draft. This same lesson was reaffirmed after meeting with a few authors.

Bodleian Library, Oxford University

Bodleian Library, Oxford University

On our first day back from Oxford, we took a day trip to Great Missenden. There, we met with Lucy Coats, the author of Cleo, which was one of the contemporary books we read for class. I really enjoyed this meeting because Lucy was so passionate about her topic. Cleo is a fictionalized story of the early life of Cleopatra. Lucy was so excited to discuss her love of Cleopatra and the mythology she studied. The next day we got to meet another author, Kate Saunders, who wrote Five Children on the Western Front. This book was a continuation of E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It. Saunders was incredibly enthusiastic about telling her story and the inspiration she had after reading Nesbit’s book. It was so exciting to see that the passion for each author’s project was authentic, and they were both thrilled to share their experiences with us.

While in Great Missenden, we were also able to look at the Roald Dahl archives. We flipped through pages and pages of legal paper that contained Dahl’s process of writing Matilda. We found that in Dahl’s earliest drafts, Matilda was actually a nightmare of a child, and Ms. Honey had a gambling problem! This is, of course, much different from the poor and innocent Matilda we read today accompanied by a loving and caring Ms. Honey.

Harry Potter World

Howarts Castle model, Wizarding World of Harry Potter

A trip to England focused on children’s literature would not have been complete without a visit to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I am one of about four students on this trip who had not read all of the Harry Potter books growing up. We read the first book of the series in class, and based on class discussions, I learned that a large part of the success of the franchise was reading it as a series while you grow up with the books. Although I was a bit of an outsider in this world, the movie- making and world-building shown at this attraction were incredible.

This class was an eye-opening experience of children’s literature as not only something nostalgic, but also something well-worth studying in an academic field. Seeing original drafts and artwork from authors we read was a great opportunity to understand how the writing process works and how a book goes from a writer’s mind to the copies we have in our homes. After our great adventure in London, we were ready to write our research papers.

Rachel Smith

Rachel Smith is a junior at St. Thomas. She is an English Major, Business Administration Minor, and American Culture and Difference Minor. In the future, Rachel plans to become an editor. 

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