5 Wilderness Novels for Your Junior Thoreau
I was eight when I first went away to a rustic girls’ camp in Maine. An enthusiastic tomboy with a propensity for climbing trees and building forts, I was completely dazzled by this wilderness escape. At the end of the week I wanted to steal a canoe, row over to the other side of the lake, and live off the land for the rest of my life. Instead I went home and proceeded to obsessively read wilderness survival novels. With The Kings of Summer in theaters, I was reminded of my lingering affinity for classic tales of survival and self-reliance. These are a few of my childhood favorites.
Gary Paulsen is well known for his outdoorsy children’s novels. In Hatchet, thirteen-year-old Brian Robeson is stranded alone in the wilderness following a deadly plane crash. With a small ax his only survival tool, he learns to live off the land the hard way. Paulsen also published an alternative reality sequel. Brian’s Winter was written on the premise that if Brian had not been rescued after fifty-four days, he would have had to survive winter in the wild. Hatchet is twenty-six years old now and is a true children’s classic.
The Island Keeper by Harry Mazer
Most wilderness fiction is targeted towards boys, an unfortunate oversight by the publishing industry. Luckily, thirty-two years ago Harry Mazer wrote a wonderful survival escapist novel featuring a rich, overweight sixteen-year-old girl who runs away from home in a desperate attempt to prove that she can take care of herself. Armed with few supplies, Cleo camps out on a small deserted island in Canada for the summer. Just as she is preparing to return home her canoe is destroyed, leaving her stranded for the winter.
Lost on a Mountain in Maine by Joseph B. Egan
In 1939 twelve-year-old Donn Fendler separated from his family while hiking Mt. Katahdin and was lost in a dense sea of fog. For nine days he wandered through the wilderness suffering from hunger, exposure, and unwelcome encounters with local wildlife. Any wilderness aficionado will appreciate this true story, but those who have spent time in mountains of Maine will be particularly enthralled by the account of what happens when a familiar landscape turns from an escape to a prison.
The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss
The Swiss Family Robinson was one of my favorite stories as a kid. It follows the ordeal of a family stranded on an island in the East Indies following a shipwreck. It was originally published in 1812 by a Swiss pastor who framed it as a moral story intended to promote family values, self-reliance, and good stewardship. Since then there have been a few adaptations—both in literature and film. Perhaps the most enjoyable part of this classic is the description of the family’s treehouse, complete with a library. It’s the stuff of kids’ dreams.
My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George
Another modern classic is Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain, a story about a boy who runs away from his parents’ small New York City apartment to live in a hollowed-out tree on his grandfather’s farm in the Catskill Mountains. Accompanied by his pet peregrine falcon, twelve-year-old Sam successfully lives off the land and eventually learns how to balance his love for rustic living with his desire for human relationships.
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