Think back on the books you remember from your elementary and junior high years – those first forays into another world. Think about the stories that had you hiding a flashlight under your pillow so you could keep turning the pages well past “lights out.”
For many of us at the Outdoor Recreation School, the books that come to mind are tales of wilderness survival and outdoor adventure. We got our first taste of exploring the unknown while safely curled up by a fireplace in our cozy living rooms.
We lived vicariously – feeling the loneliness of years spent on a remote island, the elation of catching the first fish with a makeshift hook and line, and the adrenaline of being stalked by a pack of wolves.
It’s hard to say which came first – our love of the outdoors or our immersion in these intrepid tales – but we undoubtedly found inspiration and entertainment in the bold pursuits of these explorers, pioneers and self-reliant kids.
As many of us are spending more time alone than usual, now is a great time to explore new worlds through literature. We thought we’d share a few of our childhood favorites in hopes that they might catalyze another generation of young adventurers. Look for these books at Hennepin County Libraries, the National Emergency Library or your favorite book store.
1. Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell
This is a fictional story of a real native Nicoleño girl who lived alone on San Nicolas Island in the Channel Islands from 1835-1853. Through courage and self reliance, she finds contentment in solitude while also discovering the value of human connection.
“Imagining paddling a canoe away from the only home you’ve ever known, on a multi-day journey to a place you’ve never been is both terrifying and thrilling to me. That’s only one small part of this story, but it speaks volumes about the fortitude of this young woman. I highly recommend the 2010 version with introduction by Lois Lowry for some important context.”
— Allie Dart, Recreation Specialist
2. Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
This is a classic tale that’s on every list of young-adult adventure literature for good reason.
“A boy finds himself alone in the north woods with nothing but his hatchet and no chocolate! Discover how he survives 54 days using his positive mental attitude and some basic knowledge.”
— Nick Sacco, Recreation Specialist
3. Brian’s Winter by Gary Paulsen
An alternate ending/sequel to Hatchet, Brian’s Winter follows the protagonist’s efforts to survive through fall and winter.
— Recommended by Anne Jaeger, Recreation Supervisor.
4. My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George
Sam, a 14-year-old from New York City, learns to live off the land while spending a year alone in the Catskill Mountains.
“I wasn’t much of a reader as a kid, but I remember being so captivated by this book that I voluntarily read the two other books in the series. Little did I know how solitary time in nature would become such an enriching part of my adult life.”
— Allie Dart, Recreation Specialist
5. Paddle-to-the-Sea by Holling C. Holling
Travel from the land of a First Nations family near Lake Nipigon, Ontario, to the Atlantic Ocean on this epic journey of a tiny wooden canoe called Paddle-to-the-Sea. Holling beautifully depicts countless details of the natural world as seasons change and Paddle-to-the-Sea makes its way through streams, ponds, rivers and the Great Lakes.
— Recommended by Grant Armour, Recreation Specialist.
6. Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Immerse yourself in frontier life in the Upper Midwest in this book and the rest of the Little House series.
“I loved reading about Laura’s adventures playing outdoors and the simple joys in pioneer life.”
— Heather Gordon, Recreation Specialist
Many of these books were written at a time when the protagonists in outdoor adventure stories were often boys. We know there are many more recent stories that are equally thrilling and feature more diverse characters. Outside Magazine recently published a list of excellent adventure tales with female, non-binary and/or transgender lead characters that may also resonate with young audiences.