Classic Nature and Outdoor Adventure Fiction for Kids and Families

Classic Nature and Outdoor Adventure Fiction
for Kids and Families
by Sara L. Ambarian
Copyright 2011
Ah, summer! Every season provides us with its own joys and opportunities, but for most of us,
summer invites us outdoors for some leisurely fun and/or active adventure. With the weather
warming up, homework winding down, and family trips in the planning stages, what better time
than now to start getting in the mood with great nature and outdoor adventure fiction choices for
all ages.
When I was growing up, many of our family’s favorite books were classic books that were
nature-oriented or took place largely in outdoor settings. They were great books to set the pace
for the low-key wholesome adventures we had in the summertime. Our children have also
enjoyed these books, and they served as a pleasant counterpoint to the more high-tech pursuits
they also enjoyed.
I assume that there are some more contemporary titles that are inspiring, but I personally like the
old-fashioned ones which are low-tech, innocent and wholesome. They foster the kind of happy
restless feeling Richard Hovey expressed in his work, “I Have Need of the Sky”:
I have need of the sky,
I have business with the grass;
I will up and get me away where the hawk is
Lone and high,
And the slow clouds go by.
I will get me away to the waters that glass
The clouds as they pass.
I will get me away to the woods.
That is what summer feels like to me. If that is
what it feels like to you and your family (or
what you would LIKE it to feel like), perhaps
some of the following works will entertain
and/or inspire you.
Most of these authors and titles are available at your local library. I also include links where you
can access some of them on-line for free. I list them generally by age of interest, starting with
young children first. However, what books are appropriate and appealing for different aged
children is a rather subjective and individual matter; so I suggest you preview any title you are
not familiar with before recommending it to any specific child.
It should also be noted that many older fiction books contain comments and themes which may
not meet current standards of “political correctness”. Every author is a product of their time, to
some extent; so sometimes it takes an appreciation of historical perspective in order to
understand them. Again, please preview these books if you are not familiar with them, to
determine what you feel is appropriate.
Beatrix Potter, various works (1902-1930)-As most of you know, Beatrix Potter was a very accomplished English author, illustrator, and
conservationist. In her 20s, she was also recognized by the scientific community for research she
did with fungi and lichens, and studied both archeology and geology. In her later years, she
continued her lifelong love of animals with sheep breeding and an expansion of her farm
property. Potter told engaging stories based on actual animal behaviors, which appeal to both
young and old.
Robert Louis Stevenson, A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885)-Whether it’s make-believe in the nursery, an expedition in the garden, or a trip to the shore,
Robert Louis Stevenson’s poems capture the magic and adventure of childhood with true
understanding and pleasing cadence. Many of the poems are very short, too, encouraging
children to remember and recite them. I especially think The Flowers is great for garden
explorers, but view all the poems at The Poet’s Corner:
Thornton Waldo Burgess, various works (1910-1965)-Many of us remember the tales of Peter Rabbit (another one, not Potter’s, which I always found
confusing), Reddy Fox, Grandfather Frog and Mother West Wind. The inspiration for these
characters came from this Massachusetts native’s childhood outdoor jobs and lifelong love of
nature. These simple, fun stories are appropriate for the whole family.
For more on Burgess and information about the Thornton W. Burgess Society sites and activities,
Read his stories on-line at:
A.A. Milne, World of Pooh/When We Were Very Young (1924-1928)-Winnie-the-Pooh, Christopher Robin’s “silly old bear” and his friends know a thing or two about
enjoying the countryside and one another. “Don't underestimate the value of Doing Nothing, of
just going along, listening to all the things you can't hear, and not bothering.” That’s just about
the essence of summer sometimes, isn’t it?. Maybe it is time to head out and play some
Poohsticks, and to make your song “more hummy” with “a few tiddely poms”.
For miscellaneous Pooh fun, visit:
You might want to make some of these Honey Gingerbread Cookies to take along on your next
adventure in case you get “rumbly in your tumbly”!
Robert McCloskey, Blueberries for Sal (1948)-Two “mothers” and two “children” head out to the blueberry pastures to pick some summer
snacks, but everyone is surprised with how the afternoon turns out. If you have ever been out
wild blueberry picking– swinging your pail and eating as many as you put in– you will be
enchanted by this book, if you don’t already know it. If you have never had this summertime
pleasure, the illustrations are amazingly accurate and engaging. This sweet picture book is
Rudyard Kipling, Just So Stories for Little Children (1902)-Our family’s favorite read-aloud from Just So Stories is “The Elephant’s Child”. I haven’t read
it aloud in more than a decade, but everyone in our family can still tell you it’s about going to
“the banks of the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees” to
satisfy the little elephant’s “'satiable curtiosity”. Even very, very young children find it funny
just from the way it is told.
Find your favorite Just So Story at your local library or on-line with lovely illustrations here:
For The Jungle Book (1894), Captain’s Courageous (1896), Kim (1901), a lot of other novels,
plus “If”, one of my favorite poems, from Kipling’s Rewards and Fairies, check
For more about Kipling, see:
Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden (1911)-This charming book is suitable as a read-aloud for fairly young children, as well as a great freereading book for elementary school readers. The Secret Garden has beautiful nature descriptions
and powerful message about the benefits of the outdoors. Life in the open helps to strengthen
Mary and Colin, both physically and emotionally; and Dickon has amazing skills with plants and
animals. The children’s secret outdoor project eventually rubs off on the adults and improves the
lives of everyone at Misselthwaite Manor.
Read online at:
Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows (1908)-What could be better for summer reading than making new friends, having unusual adventures,
and “messing about in boats”? This entertaining story has a little more “attitude” and humor,
and seems less tame, than some of its time; so it can be a good choice for kids with spunkier
personalities. It is also well-beloved by many grown-ups for its memorable characters and highspirited action.
For more information:
L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables (1908)–
Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery’s memorable heroine Anne’s sense of curiosity,
adventure, and kindness, set in a scenic and quiet turn-of-the-century setting, make her an
appealing summer heroine. I am sure many of you are fans of this series from the book, movie or
television versions already. If you have not read any of them yet, you have a treat in store.
Ernest Seton-Thompson, various titles (1886-1945)–
For “real boy” fiction, practical woodcraft information, and a feast for the eyes as well as the
ears/mind, the books of Ernest Seton-Thompson fill the bill. This naturalist, artist,
environmentalist and author was prolific in both fiction and non-fiction.
For more information about the author’s life and works:
For works by Seton-Thompson, search Hathi Trust using the far-left field with his name and
“author” as the field. Read on-line by clicking “Full View”:
Robb White, The Lion’s Paw (1946) /The Secret Sea (1947)-This is another great “real boy” (and “girl”) outdoor adventure fiction author. Unfortunately, his
work is sometimes hard to find, except at used bookstores and in libraries; but it’s worth the
hunt, especially if you like boats. (There is another Robb White who wrote some boat books and
articles, who is a boat builder. That is a different man, however, and may have contributed to
confusion about the author in question.) The Lion’s Paw was re-released for publication several
years ago, so that is probably the easiest to find. The Secret Sea is less-famous, but equally
worthy of your time, if you can find a copy. I have never read a Robb White book I didn’t love.
However, be aware that Up Periscope (1956), The Survivor (1964), Deathwatch (1972), and a
number of his other books are definitely for older kids (and probably usually for boys more than
girls), due to realistic adventure, wartime situations, etc.
Johann D. Wyss, et al, The Swiss Family Robinson (1812- 1879)—
This active and entertaining novel of a shipwrecked family has evidently become more and more
outlandish in its array of plants and animals through many revisions; but suspend disbelief about
the denizens of so many continents being serendipitously represented, and enjoy the fun and
family adventures. The story is full of great outdoor life themes – danger, survival, bravery, selfreliance, cooperation, creativity, spontaneity, etc. – and although unrealistic in its specifics, it
does provide a positive perspective on the wonders and resources nature offers. City and
suburban students may never have considered the food, shelter, tools, etc., which pioneers and
others from the past found at hand in the natural world around them. If you want actual
woodcraft or survival information, supplement with other non-fiction books, like The American
Handy Boy’s (or Girl’s) Book. For an escapist novel which makes you want to go out and
explore, however, The Swiss Family Robinson is a definite winner.
Read it on-line here:
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Lost World (1912)—
Although it also has a high degree of fantasy, another good escapist outdoor adventure novel for
older readers (and parents/teachers) is Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (not to be confused
with Michael Crichton’s contemporary novel of the same name). Four men of different ages and
backgrounds brave the mysteries of an isolated plateau in South America which local natives
fearfully avoid. If you don’t already know what they find there, I will not spoil the surprise; but
a rousing, active wilderness adventure ensues. Your family’s summer activities probably (and
hopefully!) will not include fighting off carnivorous beasts and other death-defying escapes.
Nonetheless, The Lost World provides a high level of excitement and entertainment to fire the
spirit of your inner explorer.
Read it on-line here:
Mary Hunter Austin, The Land of Little Rain (1903)/The Flock (1906)-I was introduced to Mary Austin’s work in adulthood, thanks to a dear friend, and I regret the
years I missed enjoying it. Mary Austin wrote both fiction and non-fiction, but both read equally
well. Her beautiful descriptions of nature and a real feel for past times are unforgettable. In The
Land of Little Rain, Austin describes the Mojave desert and Owens Valley areas of California:
This is the sense of the desert hills, that there is room enough and time enough. Trees grow to
consummate domes; every plant has its perfect work. Noxious weeds such as come up thickly in
crowded fields do not flourish in the free spaces. Live long enough with an Indian, and he or the
wild things will show you a use for everything that grows in these borders.
For photos and biographical information on Mary Austin, see:
For access to some of her work and additional information:
Zane Grey, miscellaneous titles (1903-1963)-This author, best known for cowboy and gunfighter novels, wrote a number of stories for young
men, as well. They are not necessarily easy to find, but they are well-written and interesting tales
of baseball, horsemanship, hunting, etc. His historical novels about his ancestors in the frontier
days of Ohio, Betty Zane (1903) and Spirit of the
Border (1906), are perhaps good first novels to
try, if you cannot find his youth stories, listed
below. Zane Grey loved the outdoors and had
many exciting adventures himself, and it shows
in the detail and tone of all his writing. When
you visit the locale of one of his novels, as our
family has, you may well feel as if you have
already been there. His works would be worth
reading for the nature descriptions, if for nothing
else. The historical novels do include Indian war,
kidnapping, escapes, romance, and other grownup subject matter not probably appropriate for
pre-teens. They are based, however, on actual events; so, where age-appropriate, some people
may find them more “educational” than his outdoor adventures, cowboy stories, gunfighter
novels, etc.
For list of his youth fiction books:
Read Zane Grey on-line, including youth titles The Young Forester (1910), The Young Pitcher
(1911), and The Red-Headed Outfield (1920):
Gene Stratton Porter, miscellaneous titles, especially A Girl of the Limberlost (1909) /Freckles
(1904)/ Laddie, A True Blue Story (1913)-I personally do not think that nature fiction gets any better than what Gene Stratton Porter wrote.
Her books are simple, beautiful and refreshing escapes from a hectic and complex world. They
have engaging characters, interesting settings, and a true naturalist’s love and respect for the
world around us. Do not assume that these are “girlie” books, though, just because a woman
wrote them. The title characters of Freckles, Laddie and the Harvester are all strong, rugged,
outdoor men with lots to offer both male and female readers. Gene Stratton Porter’s books are
not for the very young, due to the grown-up themes of romance, misunderstanding, scandal,
crime, etc. However, even the more-adult concepts are handled in a delicate, family-friendly way
which some pre-teens and most teens should find tame compared to what is generally discussed
openly in modern society.
For more about Gene Stratton Porter’s life, writing, and naturalist activities, and to read selected
works on-line:
If you live in or near northern Indiana, I highly recommend you take the time to visit the Gene
Stratton Porter State Historical Site. This scenic property has beautiful views of Sylvan Lake, a
wonderful visitors’ center and gift shop, one of Porter’s beautiful homes, and shady and serene
grounds to wander.
For a feeling of the Limberlost for more adventurous folks, just south of the historical site is
Chain o’ Lakes State Park, with miles of hiking trails, canoeing and more. Once you get away
from the crowds, the woods and lakes of the outer trails feel much like the book locations.
Farther south, in Geneva, Indiana, is another home site for Gene Stratton Porter. Find out more
about the author on this website, as well:
Please see to learn more about
the author.
For additional lesson planning ideas please see