Illuminating the City of Light

LHS grad's book tells how to enjoy 'Paris with Kids'

Talk about serendipity.

Midway through her search for an agent, first-time author Valerie Gwinner stumbled upon a publisher for her book at a most unlikely locale: a Cub Scout campout.


Special to the Journal-World

Valerie Gwinner, who grew up in Lawrence and graduated from Lawrence High School in 1978, has written a book about enjoying Parisian vacations with children in tow. She'll reveal her tips and sign copies of "Paris with Kids" during a Wednesday appearance at The Raven Bookstore, 8 E. Seventh St.

Unlikely but not inappropriate.

Gwinner's first book, "Paris with Kids," essentially revolves around her two sons. She and her husband -- both enthusiastic Francophiles -- have been toting the boys to France since they were small enough to be carried in backpacks.

Their friends thought they were crazy for including their children in their Parisian jaunts.

"They were so surprised because Paris has this image as this romantic destination, which it is, but it also is a great place to take kids," says Gwinner, a Washington, D.C., resident who grew up in Lawrence and graduated from Lawrence High School in 1978. She was Valerie White back then.

"It's an incredibly family-friendly, kid-friendly place. I discovered whole aspects of it I didn't pay attention to when I didn't have kids."

Like the fact that French grocery stores sell baby food jars of sole meuniÃre and canard à l'orange. (The better to appreciate all the sophisticated cuisine France has to offer as indiscriminate tots become epicures).

In "Paris with Kids" (Open Road Publishing, $14.95), Gwinner goes beyond the average guidebook to offer an intimate and ultra-accessible primer on traveling with children in the City of Light.

Beyond survival guide

Gwinner relates history, legends and anecdotes for those who crave context. She also offers tips on how to enhance museum experiences, how to engage children between restaurant courses and how to transform visits to landmarks and monuments into full-family adventures.

"One of the things I think is important is to give people as many options as possible about places to go," Gwinner says. "What if you go to the NÃ'tre Dame Cathedral and there's a huge line? Do you just give up and go to some other part of the city? No. There's a lot of other stuff you can see and appreciate nearby."

So in her chapter on the Louvre, for example, Gwinner gives a whole list of fun things for kids, some of which have nothing to do with being inside the largest, most intimidating museum in the world. Families can rent a toy sailboat at the central fountain in the Tuileries; visit Paris' biggest toy store, Au Nain Bleu; or draw pictures from the Pont des Arts.

Among the most practical information in the book: lists of French holidays, common business hours, emergency phone numbers, English-speaking or bilingual hospitals, places to eat and lodge and where to buy diapers, bottles, formula and other baby products.

The book also includes a few key French expressions that will help visitors get by. First-timers might want to put "Où sont les toilettes?" ("Where are the restrooms?") high on their list.

Gwinner peppers each chapter with "fun facts" ("The Louvre's Glass Pyramid is made of 118 glass triangles and 675 diamond shaped pieces of glass"), "parent tips" ("If you think that you will only be able to drag your child to one church in Paris, the Sainte Chapelle is the one to see") and activities near popular attractions that kids will enjoy.

France for life

Gwinner's love affair with France began as a child, when she spent summers in Paris with her parents, both of whom were professors at Kansas University. Her mother, Anta White, still lives in Lawrence.

Gwinner then lived in France for six years after graduating from Wellesley College.

"I recommend it to any 20-year-old," says Gwinner, who got a master's degree in French history during her stint living abroad. "There was certainly the romance, and it was just a really rich intellectual and cultural environment that I found really appealing."

Gwinner even married her husband, Britt Gwinner, in France. The couple started traveling with their first son, Jeremy, when he was an infant. Now he's 13, and his younger brother, Addison, is 9.

A rewarding lesson Gwinner has learned vacationing with the older children of other families is that even though they might not let on at the time, exposure to other cultures tends to have a big impact on youth.

A friend's 15-year-old son who remembered visiting the D-Day beaches at Normandy is now 18 and applying to West Point.

"One of the reasons is because he said he was so moved by the D-Day beaches," Gwinner says.

"You can have a very profound influence on kids by just showing them some other part of the world and kind of opening their eyes a little bit more."


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