No Place Like Home: Books Can Create a Strong Sense of Place

I was born in India and lived in five different countries—England, Ghana, Cameroon, the United States (New York City), and Mexico—before moving to California when I was in seventh grade. While my classmates sang that line about the “land where their fathers died” and faced the American flag, I pictured a village in Bengal, oceans away. But was that place home any more? Not really. According to psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, author of the classic The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (Knopf, 1976), young readers respond to a certain story because they recognize it as a “symbolic rendering of [their] crucial life experiences.” It’s probably not surprising, then, that many of the books I read again and again as a child shared one attribute: they offered a strong sense of place. Hungry for home, I sought literary roots in places as diverse as Prince Edward Island (L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables), Minnesota (Maud Hart Lovelace’s “Betsy-Tacy” series), Yorkshire (Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden), and New England (Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women). It wasn’t that I was looking for a culture to replace my own; these books helped me understand what it is to have a deep connection to a particular place on the planet. I’m delighted that so many books exist these days about kids growing up between cultures, but I’m certain that immigrant readers don’t want to read only about that experience. When librarians and teachers ask about the best titles for these children, they’re sometimes taken aback by my answer: “Stock your shelves with the best contemporary multicultural reads by all means, but kids who no longer live in the land of their roots also need books that create a strong sense of place, and it doesn’t really matter where the book is set.” Displaced youngsters want to know what it feels like to have roots. Surprisingly, a few classic books from your parents’ childhood might be one way to satisfy this desire. The best writers from the past were masters when it came to creating a sense of place. If you serve immigrant, internationally adopted, or bicultural young people, you may already have noticed their affinity for traditional, old-fashioned tales. One reason is because such fiction provides a historical and cultural understanding of North America, the land they call home now. Another is that the values reflected in these stories might better match the conservative values in their own families. Good books, whether classic or contemporary, combine three techniques to create an enduring literary home for the displaced child. They evoke the use of more than two senses when describing a place, they use details about place to illuminate plot and character, and they create a setting that reflects and echoes the broader theme of the story.

Engaging the senses

Oral or written stories can accomplish something that a blockbuster movie can’t, no matter how much money is lavished on the big-screen version. A movie relies solely on sight and sound to transport us to another place. But by courting our imaginations through evocative language, a storyteller invites us to see, hear, taste, smell, and touch, taking us to other settings with all of our senses engaged. In Farmer Boy (HarperTrophy, 1981, originally 1933), Laura Ingalls Wilder calls us to a 19th-century farm in upstate New York, where the scythes make a swishing noise, the sweet-smelling hay is soft and cool underfoot, and meadowlarks sing. In the same paragraph, a rabbit bounds out of the way of the mowers, sweat trickles on Almanzo’s brown skin, and cold, frothy eggnog slides smoothly down his throat, completing our five-senses immersion into the scene. Today’s best books continue to exploit the multi-sensory power of literature. Susan Patron, in her charming Newbery Award-winning book, The Higher Power of Lucky (S&S, 2006), transported even a New Englander in January (me, when I read the novel) to the hot, high desert town of Hard Pan, CA, where the main character is eavesdropping outside an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Check off the senses the author asks us to engage: “She stood up, her neck and the backs of her knees sweating, and mashed wads of hair up under the edges of her floppy hat. She carefully angled an old lawn chair with frayed webbing into her wedge of shade…Flies came, the little biting ones; she fanned them away with her plastic dustpan. Heat blasted off the Dumpster. There was a little silence, except for the wobbly ticking noise of the ceiling fan inside and people shifting in their folding metal chairs…Lucky’s hands smelled metallic, like the thin arms of the lawn chair; they felt sticky.” (pp.2-3) Watt Key, in the final chapter of Alabama Moon (Farrar, 2006), uses the power of sensory writing to describe another orphan’s homecoming after years of living in the wild with his antiestablishment parents. As his uncle turns the radio dial to a country station and “plays it low,” the truck passes fields of “rich, black dirt, plowed up nearly to the road,” cool spring air sweeps across Moon’s face, and he inhales the scent of soybeans and corn “strong in the cool dusk.” We smell, touch, listen, taste, and see with Moon, realizing with relief that his destination is a civilized place where land is tilled, music made and enjoyed, and families are nurtured in “white farmhouses surrounded by tall, green pine trees.”

Illuminating plot and character

While seeking to engage our senses, good writers avoid self-indulgent, flowery descriptions that neither advance a story’s plot nor provide insight into character. In Virginia Sorensen’s classic, Miracles on Maple Hill (Harcourt, 1956; Odyssey Books, 2003), for example, we learn that Marly’s father is struggling to overcome his devastating World War II experiences. The family’s journey in winter parallels this bleak emotional landscape, and when their car wheels spin uselessly on a snowy hill, we intuit how stuck the family has been feeling. Eventually, the flowing of the sap and the excitement of sugaring brings spring to the land and healing to Marly’s family. Sorenson’s descriptions of spring, summer, fall, and winter always mirror the gradual changes taking place inside her characters. In Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Becoming Naomi León (Scholastic, 2004), the author is spare in her use of description, but it always moves the story along. Fleeing from an abusive mother, Naomi and her brother Owen are on the hunt to find their father. As their trailer enters the Oaxaca Valley, the author’s economical description underlines the inherent tension in Naomi’s situation and her task: “The shadows of the wispy clouds overhead made the entire valley look mottled, like a camouflage jacket.” When Ryan introduces the place where the visitors will stay in this unknown land, we see a washing machine that “hug(s) the side of the house,” “plastic clothespins shimmering in the morning sun,” and “a bougainvillea spilling over from a neighbor’s high back wall.” The nouns and verbs paint a picture and establish an ambience of security for readers journeying with Naomi. In Kirsten Miller’s tautly written page-turner Kiki Strike (Bloomsbury, 2006), Ananka Fishbein discovers a secret world beneath the streets of Manhattan called Shadow City. From the start, the author’s descriptions of place reveal Ananka’s ability to see things that are hidden from the rest of the world. The story opens with an outsider’s view of the strange hole in the mist-covered park beneath Ananka’s apartment. To describe the scene, Miller employs words and phrases that suggest concealment—“sealed,” “without catching sight,” “pulled blinds, “drawn curtains,” and “hidden.” A van embellished with a cross-eyed dragon “speeds past without even slowing.” In the next section, the same place is observed from an insider’s perspective. We “lean out” of a third-story window with the alert protagonist who notices a peculiar bulge on the fence, follows a length of orange rope with her eyes, and watches until a mysterious creature appears. With descriptions from multiple viewpoints scattered throughout the book, it’s not surprising that Ananka turns out to be a spy, an explorer, and an archaeologist, vocations that all depend on one’s ability to see. Kiki Strike also demonstrates that a setting doesn’t need to be real to serve as an escape. J.K. Rowling, like many other authors of fantasy literature, transports us into her magical world, filling her pages with detailed descriptions of place. That might be one reason why so many of us re-read the “Harry Potter” books—to settle once again into the squashy armchairs by the fire in the Gryffindor common room and sigh with satisfaction, knowing, “Ah! There’s no place like a literary home.”

Reflecting a theme

Stories that kids can sink roots into often use place to parallel an overarching theme. For example, my favorite book by Lovelace, of “Betsy-Tacy” series fame, Emily of Deep Valley (HarperCollins, 2000), is set in a slough. At first the marshland serves as a dispiriting backdrop for the protagonist, who has to stay home to care for her grandfather while her friends leave for college. But Emily loves the slough, despite the fact that it sets her apart from the rest of her peers, and we see its beauty through her eyes. Eventually, a path curling around the edge of the land leads Emily to her life-changing vocation: championing the Syrian immigrants who are being mistreated by others in her town. Two contemporary novels for middle readers also expertly use place to echo theme. Cynthia Kadohata’s Weedflower (Atheneum, 2006) draws a contrast between two kinds of soil. The first is the useless, debilitating dust of a Japanese internment camp hastily created on land stolen from a Native-American reservation. The second is the dirt tended by Sumiko and her Mohave friend Frank so that they might plant a garden that will last beyond the suffering inflicted on both of their peoples. Finally, in the contemporary, but old-fashioned, melodrama crafted by Laura Amy Schlitz, A Drowned Maiden’s Hair (Candlewick, 2006), the orphan Maud must overcome her fear of loving and being loved. Schlitz uses the ocean’s waves to mirror love’s magnificence and potential to destroy: “Farther out to sea, they weren’t waves at all, only mounds, like furrows in a field. Then, somehow, each mound rose to an edge, thin as the blade of knife. The knife-edge tilted, the wave coiled, and there was a moment when it seemed as if it must break—and yet it did not. Then a line of brightness, crooked and notched like paper catching fire, ripped across the top edge of the wave. The water crashed and erupted, droplets spurting straight up and leapfrogging off the surface of the foam.” (p. 173) Later in the book, Maud almost drowns when she goes in over her head but soon learns to manage and enjoy the waves. The sea is a constant backdrop during this search-for-love story; and it’s the place Maud is drawn to over and again, just as children who are on a similar quest are sure to return to this book.

No place like a fictional home

The mistaken buzz in the marketplace is that today’s techno-stimulated kids no longer have the patience to read long descriptions of setting. But place in literature, when created artfully, still has the power to satisfy some of the heart’s hunger for home. Hospitable stories that offer a connection to a place, whether real or imaginary, are the ones young readers will return to again and again—especially if they’ve been uprooted from their own places of origin.

Writing Workshop: A Whole New World

By Mitali Perkins After sharing some of these books with your students, ask them to try this writing exercise:
  1. Pick a place (the woods at night, a bustling cafeteria, the elevator in a skyscraper, a hip-hop club, etc.).
  2. Choose a human character (i.e., male or female; black, white, or another race; rich, poor, or in-between; old, young, or middle-aged, etc.).
  3. Pick an emotion (depressed, scared, furious, delighted, etc.).
  4. Describe the setting in one paragraph through your character’s eyes, using first-person present tense (I stalk into the elevator and glare at the kid who’s whining about pressing the buttons …).
  5. Choose details to reveal insight about your character; try to use the place as a symbol of something bigger going on in his or her life. Engage as many senses as you can, making sure you cover at least three.
  6. Extra time? Substitute a completely different character and emotion and rewrite the description of the same place. (If your character is a depressed Goth teen, rewrite the paragraph from the perspective of a cheerful old man.) Read both paragraphs. Notice that even though you’ve described the same place, you chose strikingly different nouns, verbs, adverbs, and adjectives.
Author Information
Mitali Perkins ( is the author of Monsoon Summer (Delacorte, 2004), The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen (Little, Brown, 1993), and Rickshaw Girl (Charlesbridge, 2007). She blogs about life and books between cultures on her virtual fire escape:

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