In my early teens the family television broke, and I spent the summer reading books about mystical journeys through India and harrowing expeditions up the Congo. My life changed forever. C.S. Lewis once wrote that adventure stories have a vital role in saving kids from “the slumber of cold vulgarity.” Thanks to IPhones, YouTube, etc., cold slumbers are common. Imaginations die-off, and indifference rules the day.
For parents who want to take their kids exploring, this is especially frustrating. As a middle school English teacher, my students constantly remind me of the truth in Lewis’s words. Kids who fall in love with tales of adventure begin to yearn for adventures. They see themselves in the story and want a piece of the action; a mountain to climb, a wave to charge, a cause to fight for. These 10 soul-stirring novels are powerful testimonies to the challenges, thrills, and wonder in coming of age in the outdoors.
Take me to the River by Will Hobbs – Young dirtbags will love Will Hobbs. Rafting, mountain biking, climbing, and fool-hardy expeditions fill the pages of the Colorado author’s 19 young adult novels. In Take Me to the River, Dylan, a boy from Asheville, North Carolina, unites with his river-rat cousin for a wild raft trip down the Rio Grande. An encroaching hurricane delivers big water, and misadventures in Mexico lead to a run-in with a mysterious fugitive. Hobbs’s books are edgy yet cautionary, imparting on the reader that adventure is not about an end point but the challenges along the way.
The Cay by Theodore Taylor – After German U-Boats sink a passenger liner, Phillip Enright finds himself with an old, black West Indian man drifting on a raft somewhere off the coast of Panama. Timothy and Phillip beach on a deserted island, and so begins the boy’s crash course in survival. When sudden blindness threatens Phillip’s self-worth, Timothy cunningly teaches him skills and self-reliance. Thanks to the sacrificial leadership of Timothy, Phillip ultimately learns the tremendous power of things you cannot see but only feel; namely, wisdom, friendship, and love. Theodore Taylor, a native of North Carolina, dedicated the book to Martin Luther King Jr.
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen – In 2007, a 12-year-old Boy Scout survived four lonely nights in the mountains of North Carolina. The boy said he applied the lessons he learned in Hatchet throughout the ordeal. Paulsen, alongside Jack London, is the lead dog in the world of YA outdoor literature. His stories sober youth to the harsh realities of the wilderness and tempt them to seek out challenges that test their mettle. In Hatchet, protagonist Brian Robeson spends 54 gut-wrenching days in the Canadian wilderness. With a hatchet as his only means of survival, Brian must summon his courage and attune to nature if he wants to live. Brian’s transformative experience mirrors Paulsen’s, who amidst a troubled childhood found solace in both nature and in books.
South Sea Tales by Jack London– In 1906 Jack London built his own boat and set off on a year-and-a-half voyage through the South Pacific. London navigated Hawaii, Bora Bora, Samoa, Fiji, and the Solomons before most Americans had ever heard of these places. London surfed with kings, dodged headhunters, and fought off disease. The voyage inspired eight short stories replete with menacing sharks, unworldly pearls, deadly typhoons, cannibals and missionaries, heroes and scoundrels. The South Sea Tales include some of London’s best portraits: the fearless missionary John Starhurst, the cruel German slave-trader Max Bunster, and the noble Otoo of Bora Bora. Upright men and rough-house villains struggle in a palm-fringed world of hardship and violence. Such worlds are signature Jack London. South Sea Tales is a faster Call of the Wild, sharp as a reef-ringed atoll.
The Education of Little Tree by Forrest Carter – Forrest Carter, author of The Outlaw Josey Wales, scandalized legions of fans when his true identify came out in the early 1990s. For decades Carter won the hearts of readers who felt disillusioned with the relentless march of modernity. When Carter’s personal history revealed that he had actually been a card-carrying white supremacist, many, including Oprah Winfrey, pulled The Education of Little Tree from their shelves. Perhaps it is impossible for this poignant Cherokee coming-of-age story to exist apart from its author. Or, perhaps Little Tree’s education in the ways of his ancestors, the cycles of nature, and the power of compassion will ultimately teach us something markedly different than what the real-life Carter stood for.
Navigating Early by Claire Vanderpool – When Jack Baker’s mother suddenly dies, and with his father away at WWII, the 13-year-old finds himself at a military boarding school in the woods of Maine. Baker forms an unlikely friendship with an eccentric outcast named Auden Early. Early is a genius mathematician, whose unique ability to interpret the number PI (3.14) inspires an epic journey. The pair hunt for clues along the Appalachian Trail, learn to fly-fish, and search for the Great Bear, a mysterious creature who may hold the answers to the tragic personal losses that both boys have experienced.
The Land I Lost by Huynh Quang Nhuong – Imbued with boyhood majesty and rich culture, Nhuong recollects his youthful escapades around his mountain village in central Vietnam. Nhuong’s stories captive young readers as his daily encounters with the animal kingdom both tantalize and frighten. Misty tales revolve around hungry crocodiles, the deadly horse snake, and a trusty pet water buffalo named Tank. The story also shares the warmth of family and community. Nhuong’s world is indeed rich, and sadly one that would be jeopardized.
Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George – In 1972, George and her son Luke travelled to Barrow, Alaska to research wolves for a magazine article. Luke George’s newfound love for the Alaskan wilderness, and the wolves’ remarkable ability to communicate with scientists inspired George to write this Newberry Medal-winning novel. Miyax, a young Eskimo girl, rebels against her traditional upbringing and attempts to run away. She soon finds herself lost and fighting to survive. The experience puts Miyax in the company of wolves and forces her to rely on her indigenous skills.
Storm Warriors by Elisa Carbone – On the Outer Banks of North Carolina an all-black lifesaving station stood apart as the best in the Coast Guard. Tasked with patrolling the Graveyard of the Atlantic, the Pea Island Lifesaving Station saved innumerable lives, a thankless job during southern reconstruction. A native of the southeast, Carbone tells the story of an African American boy who dreams of becoming a surfman in the treacherous waters of racism and hurricanes. Nathan, who moved to the Outer Banks to escape the KKK, aspires to join the Pea Island crew. He shadows the surfmen, who teach him to bodysurf and mend wounds; yet, Nathan has much more to learn on an island that never sits still.
Island of Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell – In 1853 a boat captain from Tennessee discovered a native woman on one of California’s Channel Islands. The Lost Woman of San Nicholas had lived on the island for 18 solitary years. This real-life story inspired historical fiction writer Scott O’Dell to craft a Crusoe-esque masterpiece. As O’Dell tells it, a skirmish between greedy Russian fur traders and the native islanders of Ghalas-at leads the tribe’s search for a new home. Karana, seeing her brother missing, swims back to shore. The pair are now stranded on the Island of the Blue Dolphins. With resiliency, compassion, and respect for the earth, Karana hacks out an existent and even forms some surprising friendships.
Since boyhood Phil Morgan has loved maps, adventure, travel, culture, history, and good stories. He studied the liberal arts at Hillsdale College and has since worked as an ocean lifeguard, a staff writer for Eastern Surf Magazine, a newspaper editor, and a raft guide. He currently lives in Hendersonville, North Carolina, where he teaches English, writes, and explores the surrounding wilderness. His favorite authors are Jon Krakeur, Jack London, Mark Twain, Paul Theroux, and William Shakespeare.