I have three kids, two sons and one daughter; one child who’s an avid reader and two reluctant ones. At the risk of sounding stereotypical, I imagine you can guess which kid enjoys getting lost in a book and which would prefer staring at a video game instead. It’s a constant battle, searching for a book that will engage my boys and hold their interest. I’ve found that a good ol’ fashioned adventure story is usually my ticket to success, and over the years we’ve collected quite a few favorites.
For younger children, picture books hold the key to their bookworm hearts. Here are some of our favorites:
Maisy Goes Camping by Lucy Cousins
This book takes me back to a cuddly toddler in my lap wanting to turn the pages quicker than I could read the words! Who doesn’t love a good Maisy book?! It was one of our favorites when my kids were much younger and I can still hear them laughing when Eddie the Elephant tries to fit in the tent!
The Camping Trip That Changed America by Barb Rosenstock
In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir went on a camping trip together in Yosemite. This trip was ultimately the catalyst to the formation of our country’s National Parks. A beautifully illustrated recount of their now famous trip and all the good that came after it. It’s a great book (for any age, really) to learn about this increasingly important time in our history and why it matters now more than ever.
Owl Moon by Jane Yolen
This book holds such a special place in my family’s heart. My late mother used to give my husband a book every Christmas to read to our kids, because she loved that he enjoyed reading to them. This was his gift from her one year, and aside from the sentiment attached to it, it’s a lovely story of a father and daughter who go “owling” on a cold winter’s night.
The Curious Garden by Peter Brown
Another book given to my husband by my mom. A beautiful tale of an abandoned urban garden that a young boy named Liam tends to and restores. The story plants the seed that a garden can be cultivated anywhere, even in the midst of an urban jungle.
The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree by Gloria Houston
This is quite possibly my favorite holiday book. My mother gave it to me when I was a child because I was always determined to find the perfect Christmas tree for our home at a nearby farm. Little did she know I would one day set roots near the community this story revolves around. Filled with beautiful illustrations and a powerful testament to the power of family and our longing for those not with us. I can’t recommend it enough for your family’s collection.
Potluck, Message Delivered: “The Great Smoky Mountains are Saved!” by Marci Spencer
This delightful book tells the tale of a homing pigeon named Potluck and his instrumental role in delivering a message about the newly formed Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It was written by an friend of mine, Marci Spencer, who is a gem in the world of environmental educators and an advocate for preservation. An educational and engaging read for kids, especially if they live near Great Smoky Mountains National Park or have visited it.
This selection of books is best suited for older readers or as a read aloud for the younger crowd, based on the content and their maturity level.
Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool
A tale of love, loss, and adventure. The Odyssey meets the modern world in this beautiful story of two unlikely friends in a boarding school who depart on an adventure of epic proportions during a break. It’s story telling at its best and surely one to capture your child’s imagination. Clare Vanderpool, the book’s author, is the recipient of a Newberry Medal for another one of her books, Moon Over Manifest, which we enjoyed just as much.
Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell
Oh, how I dreamed of being Karana, the novel’s protagonist, as a young child when I read this book (several times)! A Newberry Medal winner, her life will not leave your child’s memory soon. Based on the true story of a 12-year-old girl who was stranded by herself on her island home for 18 years. Karana’s quiet conviction and courage still inspire me. There aren’t many books my kids have wanted to read twice, but this is one of them.
Peak by Roland Smith
It’s difficult to capture the attention of a 13-year-old with any book, but this one did it for mine. The fictitious story revolves around the youngest person to ever attempt summiting Mt. Everest and it’s filled with action-packed adventure, combined with the complicated dynamics of family.
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
A classic and another Newberry winner. There are several books in this series, but Hatchet is the first and the best, in my opinion. A 13-year-old boy is the lone survivor of a light plane crash with only a hatchet and a windbreaker to survive. It captivates readers from the first chapter and leaves them craving more with each page. Aidan, my oldest son, has read it four times!
A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park
Based on true events, this book weaves the parallels of two children living in the Sudan during its ongoing tumultuous history: One of the “lost boys” of the Sudan in 1985 and a young Sudanese girl in 2008 who must walk two miles one way to obtain water for her family. It’s both an honest and insightful education as well as a story of hope and compassion. It was particularly poignant to read to our Ethiopian son, whose home country provides refuge for the Sudanese.
Adventures with the Parkers National Park Series by Mike Graf
I’m not going to lie, these books will never contend for a Newberry Medal; however, the series does provide a nice overview of many of our more popular National Parks through a fictitious story. The Parker family is a constant in each book, visiting a national park for fun and adventure with the inevitable climactic mishap along the way. We have read most of them just before visiting the specific National Park the book is based on, and they have served as a nice learning tool for all types of things about the parks (history, flora, fauna, geography, etc).
The entire Little House series of books kept me in their spell a good part of my childhood. My children followed in my footsteps, devouring each one when they were younger. Reading them even prompted a trip to the Ingalls homestead in De Smet, South Dakota! Tales of a bygone Pioneer era and a wonderful account of one family’s life during this time in our nation’s history.
Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls
You can’t make a list of children’s books that revolve around outdoor adventures without including this one. A beautiful tale of a boy and his dogs. Another one of those books that my kids have read more than once, even if it does make them cry each time they read it.
My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George
Another classic, but well worth the read. A pre-teen boy decides that life in the city just isn’t for him so he sets of to live in the wild. The storyline itself isn’t necessarily the most plausible of plots, but the magic is there all the same.
The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare
A 13-year-old boy is left to fend for himself in his family’s newly constructed cabin in the 1700s while his father leaves to bring the rest of the family back to their new home. An unlikely friendship is formed between him and a Native American child his own age from a nearby tribe. My kids were captivated by this story when we read it aloud several years ago. This book was a Newberry Honor book and the same author wrote The Witch of Blackbird Pond, another classic.
Raft by S.A. Bodeen
This one caught my eye in the Scholastic flyer my kids brought home from school (and who here doesn’t love that kids still get sent home with these?! I think I enjoy picking books out just as much as the kids!) Aidan, my oldest at 14, is enjoying this book currently. It’s a tale of survival after an after plane crash over the Pacific Ocean.
This list wouldn’t be complete without our favorite nonfiction books. In my opinion, they are the best way to teach kids without them even realizing they are being taught something!
Find the Constellations, by H.A. Rey
Does this author’s name ring a bell for you? Perhaps the image of a monkey in a red sweater accompanied by a man in a yellow hat came to your mind. Curious George, anyone?! This lesser known book by Rey is my favorite book ever to learn the constellations in the night sky (and that goes for adults as well as children!). The reader feels as if Rey himself is there to guide you, as the book has a conversational tone that’s hard to beat when covering a topic that can become quite frustrating if the teacher isn’t skilled in teaching. Not the case here and it’s truly one of my favorite books in our entire home library.
The Stars, a New Way to See Them by H.A. Rey
Yep, another H.A. Rey book about the stars. This book provides a bit more detail about the constellations and the stories behind them, as well as giving a more comprehensive lesson in basic astronomy. It’s my personal favorite of the two books, but my kids gravitate more towards the other one. An older child (middle school age and beyond) may enjoy this one more from the onset, or this one would be a great follow up purchase if your younger child enjoys Find the Constellations.
Want to get your kids excited about what they might find on a hike? Give the an illustrated field guide to study. Many a time I have seen the book above on my coffee table, pulled from its home on our bookshelf, to study the pictures inside. This particular series revolves around Great Smoky Mountains National Park but you can easily find one for any region you live in or want to explore. They make a great keepsake gift for a child to carry with them into adulthood.
Bear in the Backseat, Adventures of a Wildlife Ranger in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park by Kim DeLozier
This is a great read for both older kids and adults. Kim DeLozier is a retired National Park Ranger who has many an exciting tale to tell about his job as wildlife ranger in Great Smoky Mountains National Park! It’s a great way to educate your kids on the sly about wildlife biology and environmental stewardship.
Walking the World in Wonder: A Child’s Herbal by Ellen Evert Hopman
This is not a book that my kids have ever read cover to cover, but I’ve seen my daughter, Paige, reading it many times. It’s a wonderful and simple introduction to 67 edible and medicinal plants with suggested activities included as well.
There you have it, our favorites! It is by no means a comprehensive list. Feel free to comment below and share yours or your kids’ favorites that center around the Great Outdoors. Happy reading and please share the love on Pinterest or Facebook if you think others could benefit from these ideas!