Tales of surviving in the wilderness are both educational and inspiring to young readers, who have less contact with the natural world than ever before.
Last night I finished reading Island of the Blue Dolphins aloud to my son, who’s in second grade. It was a great favorite of mine as a child; I read it at least a half-dozen times, but this was the first time I’d resurrected it as an adult. What a wonderful experience it was for both of us. He was mesmerized by the descriptions of the young woman’s survival tactics, abandoned on an island off coast of California. I was fascinated by her mental fortitude; what I took for granted as a young reader was suddenly far more impressive from my older perspective.
I began thinking about the many adventure stories that captivated me as a kid, and the power these stories possess to educate and inspire future generations of children. This is especially important in a time of increasing removal from nature and the lack of knowledge about how to fend for oneself when the supports of society are no longer there.
These stories differ from the post-apocalyptic genre that’s increasingly popular among young people. I view them as more positive celebrations of our world, that hopefully make one want to protect the beauty and wonder of the planet around us, rather than accept, apathetically, its slide toward destruction and extinction. Here are some of my favorites:
1. Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George
Miyax is an Inuit teenager, only 13 years old, orphaned, and unhappily married. She decides to run away to find her pen pal in San Francisco, but ends up lost in the Alaskan wilderness. As she becomes accepted by a wolf pack, she is forced to reexamine her self-identity.
2. Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
This is the story of a young boy named Brian whose plane crashes in the Canadian wilderness, killing the pilot. He is left with nothing but a hatchet that he must use to survive -- challenging when you don't have many survival skills to begin with.
3. The Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder
These famous stories of life on the American frontier are ever-delightful classics. I remember being captivated by the descriptions of Pa building windows, fashioning leather door latches, oiling his gun, and hunting. The family wanders far, from the forests of Wisconsin to the Kansas prairie, enduring disastrous fires and vicious winters. They live in a dug-out on a riverbank in Minnesota, a homestead in South Dakota, and eventually an apple farm in Missouri. I was also a big fan of the Rose Years, books following the life of Laura’s daughter Rose Wilder.
4. The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare
Set in the 1700s, this Newbery award-winner tells the story of an apprehensive young boy named Matt who is left to guard his family’s new homestead in the New England wilderness. When his gun is stolen, Matt will have a difficult time surviving on his own, which ends up bringing him closer to a tribe of Native Americans.
5. Shantymen of Cache Lake by Bill Freeman
Set in the 1870s, two teenagers from Ottawa, Ontario, head to work in a lumber camp in Algonquin Park, in order to make ends meet. It’s a riveting story about the rough life of lumberjacks, their demanding foremen, and the inherent danger of felling enormous white pines to be shipped downriver to build cities and ships around the world.
6. My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George
A boy named Sam Gribley runs away from the life he hates in New York City to the ruined farm of his great-grandfather in the Catskill Mountains. There he survives alone, with minimal tools and a pet falcon named Frightful.
7. Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
A tale of a joyous childhood summer spent sailing in the Lake District of England, this novel is based on Ransome’s own family. Two groups of children each have their own sailboat, and spend much of the summer fending off an imagined pirate, camping, fishing, exploring, and adventuring in general, while trying to capture their enemy’s boat.
8. The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss
A family is shipwrecked in the East Indies while on route to Australia. According to Wikipedia, this novel was “intended to teach [the author’s] four sons about family values, good husbandry, the uses of the natural world and self-reliance.” Morals aside, it’s a great adventure story that I read multiple times as a kid, fascinated by the idea of having to survive so far away from society.
9. A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter
Impoverished, unpopular Elnora Comstock grows up in the wetlands of northern Indiana, where she collects moths to pay for her education. She loves nature more than anything. The book was written as a protest by the author against the logging, oil extraction, and draining for agricultural purposes that were taking place in the Limberlost Swamp at the start of the 20th century.
10. Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell
The main character, Karana, is a young Native woman who's left by her tribe on what's now called Isla de San Nicolas, just off the coast from Los Angeles. She builds weapons, a home, hunts for squid and sea elephants, tames otters, birds, and wild dogs, and endures natural disasters. Her story is inspired by that of a real woman who spent 18 years alone on the island.
What are your favorite adventure and/or survival stories for children?