Whether your kids are old enough to read or just old enough to understand a story when you read it to them, there are plenty of good books out there to get them into the outdoors—books about shipwrecked families, homesteading, hunting dogs, dogsledding dogs, and crazy primal societies where boys turn into beasts (see #3). Many have become movies, but books let imaginations roam without commercials. So, here are 16 classic outdoor books for the little adventure seeker in your life.
*Many of these books are available in the public domain. If they are, I have linked the titles to Librivox where you can download text and audio versions absolutely free.
If there was one book to get your child thinking about what they might do if they were ever stranded in the woods alone, then this is it. The first of the Hatchet series, this book starts with Brian as he boards a plane from New York City to visit his father in the Canadian wilderness. Brian carries with him a hatchet given to him by his mother. Along the way, the pilot has a heart attack, and the plane crashes. Brian must grow up fast to survive. It’s an easy read, but it does deal with adultery and divorce. There are plenty of topics to discuss as Brian makes plenty of mistakes trying to stay alive.
If your child has ever expressed a desire to run away from home, I suggest you not give them this book. Twain’s classic takes the reader on an adventurous, mischievous roller coaster along the banks of the Mississippi River. Huck’s father is about as bad as they get, and as a reader, you root for Huck to break free from his father’s abuse. All the lying, cheating, and looting happen for a reason, so it might be a good idea to read this with your child. It’s a fun, playful read on the surface, but it oozes commentary on slavery and the southern reconstruction after the Civil War. The language can get a bit touchy.
3. Lord of the Flies
I’ve known parents who feel their little boy is the most angelic creature to walk foot in the cul-de-sac. They’ve never read Lord of the Flies. To understand how the human condition can go from refined civilization to impaling a wild boar’s head on a stake to appease an island monster, you must read this book several times. And thankfully, it’s a good read. It’s a great introduction to symbolism, but it is pretty violent, so I’d suggest it for more mature readers who don’t get many nightmares.
If Lord of the Flies shows everything wrong with humanity, Swiss Family Robinson is the complete opposite—no wonder Disney made the movie back in 1960. For this family stranded on a deserted island in the East Indies, it’s all about pitching in, making lemonade out of lemons, and any other uber-positive saying that comes to mind. They make being stranded with your immediate family the best thing ever. Of course, nothing bonds a family faster than battling menacing pirates. Luckily, the father, William, is a master survivalist, strategist, and optimist.
5. Little House in the Big Woods
For better or worse, many a summer afternoon of my childhood was spent waiting for that instrumental theme song for Little House on the Prairie. Little did I know the television show was based on a series of children’s books chronicling 1870s life in the Big Woods near Pepin, Wisconsin. The first book, Little House in the Big Woods, recounts day-to-day homesteading life through the eyes of five-year-old Laura Ingalls Wilder. If your kids whine about doing the dishes, this is a nice little reminder of how kids used to have it. So quit your whining.
Jack London is a pretty good storyteller. His accounts of the Yukon may have lured as many young men to the frozen north as the prospect of gold during the late 1800s. A common theme of his books like White Fang and Call of the Wild deals with the wild and civilized world, often blurring the line between the two. In White Fang, a young wolf-dog pup bounces between the wild and civilized, finally finding solace in…well, you’ll just have to read the book.
7. My Side of the Mountain
A disgruntled young boy from New York City, Sam Gribley, took off to the Catskill Mountains by himself. Apparently, he was an ace survivalist in a former life, because he’s able to train animals, tan deer hides, and live entirely off the land. I couldn’t do it but good for him. The book is written from Sam’s point of view, and there’s an interesting section on hunters who help provide Sam with deer meat when they lose track of their wounded quarry. It’s a whole lot of fiction and needs to be read with a grain of salt, but it is a fast read and one that will have your kids yearning to get outside and make a snare trap of their own.
8. Old Yeller
Texas in the 1860s was pretty wild. Bears and wolves roamed the countryside. When Pappy leaves his family’s homestead to drive cattle to Kansas, a yellow dog miraculously shows up at the door to help out. There isn’t an American over 50 who doesn’t know the story of Old Yeller. Kids should give it a read, too. It’s a good read as brothers fight and makeup, Mama gets the last word, and Old Yeller becomes a hero in Pa’s absence. It’s simple, to the point, and harkens back to a time when dogs were dogs that would fight off angry bears. Beware of the tear-jerk ending.
Even though I grew up in Alabama, I have never hunted raccoons. I never had the urge either. Blasphemy? Perhaps, but after reading Where the Red Fern Grows, I not only want to hunt raccoons, but I want to do it as 10-year-old Billy Colman. Readers are invited to watch Billy grow through hunting with his redbone coonhounds, Old Dan and Little Ann—the former is strong and brave, the latter, pretty and smart (no stereotyping here). Together, they are virtually unstoppable, except for that one time they treed a mountain lion. Even so, this is a great book to get into with your kids, or slyly leave a copy on their dresser.
What could be more wholesome than young teenagers and bears? After reading this book, you’d think Indiana had a bear behind every bend. Maybe they did. But Little Balser does his best to go toe-to-toe with many a bruin and finds himself in many a pickle because of it. This book is packed with many short stories about life in Indiana in the early 1800s. And it’s ripe with tiny witticisms that still ring true including this one: “Too many hunters spoil the chase,” said Balser. If Calvin and Hobbes hunted bears, I picture this book would look something like that.
11. Island of the Blue Dolphins
If you have a daughter, or if your son has ideas that girls are the weaker sex, have them read Island of theBlue Dolphins. Karana, the book’s protagonist, is fierce, but compassionate, taking on wild dogs, rival tribes, and Mother Nature. Karana tries to leave her isolated island in a homemade canoe, but two days out at sea makes her rethink that plan. Karana takes on cultural ideologies of a “woman’s place” and shatters them, not because she’s a raging eco-feminist, but because she wants to live.
It feels as though Disney has its paws into nearly every children’s adventure story fit to print. The Jungle Book is certainly no exception. It makes sense though, as Kipling’s animals come alive with personality, from Baloo the bear to the wolves of the Seeonee Pack. If you can get past the anthropomorphism, the adventurous stories center around Mowgli the “man cub” who is raised by wolves. Each tale illustrates a law of the jungle, and most tales speak of a moral code as well.
13. Bears on Hemlock Mountain
If you have a fourth grader under your roof, this is a good one, especially if you get an older version of the book with woodcut prints to illustrate it. This is a very simple book compared to Huckleberry Finn or Lord of the Flies, and its simplicity makes it ideal for the younger crowd. All the adults in Jonathan’s family claim there are no bears on Hemlock Mountain, but when Jonathan is sent to run an errand in the dark over the mountain, he finds out that adults can be wrong.
14. Stone Fox
I’m a sucker for tales of little ones who help save the family farm. What better way to do it than on a dog sled? In this David versus Goliath tale, 10-year-old Willy first hitches his dog up to the plow to harvest the family’s potato crop. And then to pay the back taxes, he enters a dogsled race where he goes up against musher Stone Fox. The version I have has fun illustrations. It’s a fast-paced read for eight to 11-year-old kids.
15. Tikta’ Liktak
Author James Houston went to the Canadian Arctic in 1948 to paint new landscapes. He found those landscapes, but more importantly, he found native people willing to share their way of life and lore with him. The result is Tikta’ Liktak, which is an Inuit-Eskimo tale retold and illustrated by Houston. A young Eskimo hunter is carried out to sea. He ends up on a rocky, deserted island but after much soul-searching, a vision, and trials, he resolves to find his way back home.
Mr. Crusoe is what singer-songwriter Kris Kristopherson might call a “walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction.” The shipwrecked, would-be merchant has dreams of trading slaves to make his fortune, and yet he saves a native man from cannibals. He goes on to subjugate Friday, instructing him to call him master. All British imperialistic allegory aside, Robinson Crusoe is a tale of mental and physical survival, with plenty of adventure thrown in. Crusoe’s character was likely based on Alexander Selkirk (1676-1721). He was a Scottish sailor who spent more than four years as a castaway. He asked to be left on a deserted island off the coast of Chile because he knew the ship he was on wasn’t seaworthy. And it wasn’t, sinking off the coast of Colombia. Defoe’s Crusoe has a rather bland personality in the book. Personally, I’d rather sip margaritas with Friday any day of the week.