Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
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What are the best children’s books about outdoor adventures? The books that inspire and that teach kids about nature, the elements and exploration? The books that take kids into ancient woods, wild frontiers or fun summer adventures? As March celebrates both World read Aloud Day and World Book Day, I compiled a list of our favorite fiction children’s books in the outdoors arena. All these books feature children as main characters and I’ve added the books’ publication dates so that you can have an idea of the historical context. Not all these books would be written today, but they’ve fascinated generations of boys and girls for good reason. They all tell great stories. Happy reading!
Best for survival skills outdoors
Hatchet (1987) is a young adult survival novel set in the Canadian wilderness. Written by Gary Paulsen, an accomplished outdoorsman, the book grips the reader from the beginning to the end which is something of a feat when you consider the absence of dialogues. Stranded in northern Canada after a small plane crash, a 13-year old boy learns how to survive with only a hatchet. He learns to identify edible plants, learns how to hunt and fish, builds his own shelter and learns how to keep a fire alive despite hostile weather conditions. You’ll never look at hatchets quite the same way!
My Side Of The Mountain (1959), by Jean Craighead George, also shows a young boy surviving by himself in the wild but this time it’s by choice. Unhappy in apartment in New York, young Sam escapes to the Catskills Moutains and learns how to live off the land. Learning to deal with solitude and danger, Sam also discovers how to befriend racoons and how to teach a duck hawk to hunt for him.
Though classified as dystopian YA, The Hunger Games (2008) by Suzanne Collins has lots to offer in terms of outdoor survival skills. Katniss Everdeen hones her survival skills in the local woods around her town and that’s where she learns to master tracking, archery and hunting. She also learns about plants and as the story unfolds, that proves quite useful. Technically, she doesn’t survive in the outdoors because the “arena” where the Hunger Games take place is an man-made creation, but it’s easy to see how Katniss adapts her outdoor skills to a new environment.
Best for Robin Hood fans
You’ll be hard-pressed to find more Robin Hood in spirit than Brendan Chase (1944) by Denys Watkins-Pitchford alias B.B. Set in the 1930s in the lush British countryside, the book follows three teenage brothers who escape their aunt’s manor to go live in the forest “until they run out of food or until they are ready to return to civilization.” Think of it as an experiment and a very successful one too. The boys absolutely want to live like Robin Hood and his band of merry men, learning archery, making rabbit clothes and hiding in the trees. This book would be a great read-aloud for younger children too.
Set in England, Rowan Hood: Outlaw Girl of Sherwood Forest (2001) blends the story of Robin Hood’s daughter with a world of fantasy. After a tragic fire that kills her mother and destroys her home, Rowan dresses as a boy and sets out on a quest to find the father she never met – Robin Hood. I like a strong girl character who knows the woods and that Rowan girl certainly is skilled with a bow and arrows.
Best for island adventures
Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons relates the summer adventures of two families of children in the Lake District in England. The kids sail their own dinghies on a mountain lake, wild camp on one of the islands of the lake (they even build their own fire and cook their own food) and get to cross the lake at night. It’s the adventures that great kid summers should be made of and it can certainly inspire a few lake adventures during your summers. The film and TV series aren’t half bad either.
Stranded on a desert tropical island with your whole family? Look no further than Johann D. Wyss’ The Swiss Family Robinson (1812). When a Swiss pastor, his wife and kids are shipwrecked on an island, they learn to survive on the island’s fruit, plants and animals. The book peppers a series of family adventures with lessons in tropical botany, fierce wildlife and extreme craftsmanship. Oh, the treehouse that they build with swinging bridges and bamboo water pipes! The language of the original book being quite hard to read, you might want to look for good quality “modernized” versions or audiobooks. And once you’ve read the book, the Disney movie is quite fun to watch with the kids.
Island of the Blue Dolphins (1960), by Scott O’Dell, takes the reader to an island off the California coast where a young Native American girl is stranded for years. Based on a true story, the book shows the you g girl taking on traditional male activities, such as hunting or canoe building, to survive. It also shows the girl taming wild feral dogs, exploring the island and building a shelter out of whale bones near a cave. That the actual cave might have been discovered by archaeologists in 2012 only adds to the appeal of this great book but the truth, Island of the Blue Dolphins is already a classic and has won many awards.
Best for Nordic adventures
The Call of the Wild (1903) by Jack London certainly invented the Nordic adventure genre. Set in the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush, the book follows a domesticated dog who, stolen from his ranch in California, is sold as a sled dog in Alaska. Forced to fight for his survival, the dog reverts to a wild state and at the end of the book, follows a wolf into the wilderness. Described with London’s masterful prose, the harsh Alaskan outdoors take center-stage in this incredible adventure. Many of London’s books take place in the unforgiven expanses of Alaska and your kids might also like White Fang or the short stories including To build a fire.
Sherry Shan’s Ice Island (2013) also takes place in Alaska. The main character, a teenage girl named Tatum, dreams of racing the Iditarod with her sled dogs. She befriends a Yupik boy who also loves racing with dogs and both get lost in a blizzard during a training run with their dogs. Forced by snow to take an alternate route, the children face tough decisions and extreme weather. Kids will love the very realistic and authentic feel of this adventure.
This list is just a start and I’ll keep adding to it so check it out regularly!
What are your favorite children’s books with outdoor adventures, the ones that you can’t wait for your kids to read?