On the Road with Miss Rumphius: A Children’s Book Tour Through Coastal Maine and Islands

Nita, my youngest daughter, shyly climbed onto the swing in the dim, cavernous barn and began to pump her legs. High, higher, soon she was flying to the rafters, looking exactly like Fern in Garth Williams’s illustration Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. If I could have peeked into her imagination just then, perhaps I would have heard contented grunts from Wilbur down in the piggery and seen an intricate web being woven by the world’s favorite spider, Charlotte.

Nita and I were on a quest. We were scouring the Maine Coast for sites and signs of her favorite children’s books. E.B. White, Barbara Cooney, Robert McCloskey, Rachel Field, Margaret Wise Brown—these authors and more have lived in and taken inspiration from Maine’s isolated and hard beauty.

Maine, as everyone knows, is an excellent place to vacation with children who thrive on outdoor adventure. But you can find more than beaches, mountains, wildlife, and forests; emanating from the Maine woods are echoes of some of the most beloved children’s books of all time. By combining visits to some of these evocative sites with a reading of the books and related activities, you can weave together outdoor activities with literary exploration, creating a vacation that will increase your children’s sense of the fun of literature and build family memories that will last forever. Today, a picture of Nita riding on Fern’s swing is a prominent feature in our collection of family photographs.

All of the following locations are on or near the coast. For an historical perspective of life near the sea, begin your trip with a few hours at the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath, about forty minutes northeast of Portland on U.S. Route 1. Here you can learn about the craft of wooden boat building, the proud heritage of tall-masted schooners, the lore of the lobstering trade, and more. Children particularly enjoy climbing in and out of the various boats exhibited for that purpose.

Then head back onto U.S. Route 1 for about twenty minutes and turn off at the exit for the twin villages of Damariscotta and Newcastle. Drive slowly down the ramp, for ahead you’ll spy a distinctive square steeple topped with four gilded fleurs-de lis. This steeple appears in Barbara Cooney’s classic picture book Miss Rumphius (Penguin 1982), as do many spots in this area.

In the picture book, Miss Rumphius vows three things, “To travel around the world, to live by the sea, and to make the world more beautiful.” (Like her heroine, the late Barbara Cooney had a waterside cottage on the Damariscotta River.) To fulfill the third promise, Alice Rumphius walks about the countryside scattering lupine seeds. If you are lucky enough to visit in mid-June, you’ll see thousands of lupines adorning the fields, descendants perhaps of seeds planted by the woman who provided the inspiration for the title character. Stop in at a garden center to purchase a packet of lupine seedlings so you can plant your memories at home. You might also want to make a stop at the Maine Coast Book Shop on Main Street in Damariscotta. They have a close affiliation with Barbara Cooney and always carry a good supply of her books.

Another of Barbara Cooney’s books, Island Boy (Penguin 1988), is full of imagery from this region. The islands of this area were settled long before the mainland (some before Plimoth Plantation!), and island life is still a rich element in the Maine imagination.

As is so well depicted in Island Boy, life on an island is a unique existence. While you’re visiting the coast of Maine, make a point to get out on the water, for our coast is only fully appreciated from that perspective. So, after you’ve visited Damariscotta, drive down the Pemaquid peninsula on Route 130 to New Harbor and board the Laura B. ferry to Monhegan Island, ten miles out to sea.

Monhegan is inhabited year-round, but in the summer the population swells with artists. Well-known New Yorker cartoonist Charles Martin used Monhegan as the setting for a series of picture books. In Summer Business (Greenwillow, 1984), Sam Saves the Day (Greenwillow, 1987) and others, resourceful island kids tackle and solve problems. Bring these books on a treasure hunt to find the island locations pictured by Martin. Along the way you’ll see ospreys and other sea birds, lobster boats and sailing sloops, dramatic cliffs, artists’ studios, deer, wild roses, and an historic lighthouse/museum. You can make a day trip to Monhegan from New Harbor, Port Clyde, or Boothbay Harbor. Or make reservations to spend the night at one of the island’s inns.

Farther down the coast (as you go northeast along the coast of Maine you call it going “downeast” because, due to the prevailing wind, you’re traveling “downwind,” an important benefit for sailors) you’ll soon get another chance to travel by ferry to an island. Stay on U.S. Route 1 past Damariscotta (but take a quick glimpse of the river as you pass over it; along its banks are the ancient oyster heaps or shell middens built up by feasting Indians for thousands of years), and travel on to Rockland in Penobscot Bay, about forty minutes down the coast. Here is the home of the Vinalhaven ferry. You’ll find that Vinalhaven is a year-round community that has retained much of the flavor of a Maine fishing village. You’ll want to bring bicycles or a car, as the island is too big to traverse on foot. Vinalhaven was once the summer residence of Margaret Wise Brown, author of many classics such as Goodnight Moon (Harper, 1947), The Runaway Bunny (Harper, 1972), and The Little Island (Doubleday, 1946). It’s a good bet the latter was inspired by one of the many small islands dotting Penobscot Bay. While on Vinalhaven you can swim in old granite quarries and watch eagles diving for bluefish in secluded ocean inlets. Don’t miss the Lanes Island Preserve, a marvelous place for a picnic and exploring.

When you’ve returned to the mainland, jump back on U.S. Route 1 and drive a few miles up the road to Rockport, hooking a right down to the harbor. There you’ll see the real home of a seal named Andre, the main character of the eponymous book by Lew Dietz (Down East, 1979). (By the way, Rockport is not to be confused with the setting for the movie about Andre, which was shot on the coast of California.)

After you’ve inspected the late Andre’s home port and peered over the railings of any windjammers tied up to the dock (consider taking a day sail, if time and budget allow), swing back onto U.S. Route 1 and head for the Camden Hills State Park (several miles beyond the bustling town of Camden).

       All I could see from where I stood

       Was three long mountains and a wood;

       I turned and looked another way,

       And saw three islands in a bay.

Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote these opening lines to her poem “Renascence” as a teenager in Rockland in the first decade of this century. Abandon your car, stretch your legs, and take a mile-long hike up Mt. Battie in the Camden Hills to see a similar view. Bring along your binoculars and a copy of Millay’s poem, and while you munch your snack at the summit, imagine yourself a literary-minded Maine girl at the turn of the century. When you’ve returned to the real life and the bottom of the mountain, you can view Millay memorabilia at the Whitehall Inn in Camden.

Then it’s time to return to U.S. Route 1. Meander through Belfast, Bucksport, and Winter Harbor. Then turn down Route 15 to Blue Hill and Deer Isle, home of E.B. White and Robert McCloskey, among other prominent authors.

Blue Hill and surrounding villages will seem quiet after the traffic and crowds of Camden, yet there is much to see and do here. E.B. White’s farm, where he wrote Charlotte’s Web (Harper, 1952), is on one of the main roads from Blue Hill to Deer Isle. Perhaps there’s still a swing in the barn same as when Fern “lived” there, though the house and barn now belong to another family. If you happen to plan your trip around Labor Day weekend, you can attend the Blue Hill Fair, a real country fair like the one where Wilbur the pig was awarded his $25 and “handsome bronze medal.”

Then pull out your copy of McCloskey’s One Morning in Maine (Penguin, 1952) and head for Buck’s Harbor. It’s in the town of South Brooksville on Route 176. You’ll be astounded to see that Condon’s Garage is still there, some forty years after Mr. Condon joked with Sal about her new tooth. After you’ve scouted the harbor (keep an eye out for a dory with two little girls, a hard-rowing man, and a busted engine), get back in the car and drive across the big bridge over Eggemoggin Reach and out to the western tip of Little Deer Isle, where you can look back at Buck’s Harbor and imagine what a long “pull” it would have been to row that distance.

Another McCloskey book to help you savor island living is Time of Wonder (Penguin, 1957). If you drive to the southern tip of Deer Isle to the town of Stonington, you can take a boat excursion among the islands and see many sights similar to those seen by Jane and Sal as they skippered their sailing skiff in nearby waters. And don’t forget to find a beach where you can try your hands at clamming. If you’re traveling in early August, you might like to do some blueberry picking a la Blueberries for Sal (Penguin, 1948) at Bayview Farm on Ridge Road in Sedgwick. Keep an eye out for wandering bear cubs!

If you’ve gotten as far downeast as Blue Hill, you might as well go a bit farther to visit Mount Desert Island (this Desert, by the way, is pronounced “dessert”) and Acadia National Park. Author Rachel Field spent her summers on Sutton’s Island, just south of Northeast Harbor. Her historical fiction Calico Bush (Macmillan, 1931), a great family read-aloud, tells the story of a mid-18th century family and their “bound-out” girl who settled on Swan’s Island, which can be reached today by ferry from Bass Harbor. Consider taking the ferry, too, from Northeast Harbor, past Sutton’s Island, and hop off at Isleford on Little Cranberry, where the Little Cranberry Museum will give you a sense of island history.

These are just a few of the places and ways that you can partake of Maine’s rich heritage of children’s literature. As you wind your way along roads lined by beach roses or tall pines, you’re bound to make some more connections of your own.

© Barbara Burt

[Word count: 1775. Unpublished.]