Looking for some awesome reads to inspire your kids to put down the devices and go outside? I’ve compiled a list of top outdoor titles for children ages third through ninth grade, roughly. Local librarians also weighed in.
We’ve read and enjoyed these titles as a family. All include strong characters, engaging plots, and superlative story-telling. All have stood the test of time. (You may detect a big canine bias here. Because everything is better with dogs. Including the Great Outdoors!)
So. Here, in no particular order, are my 100% unscientific, completely subjective recommendations for 20 awesome outdoor classics for older children:
My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George.
Sam Gribley is terribly unhappy living in New York City with his family. So he runs away to the Catskill Mountains to live in the woods—all by himself. With only a penknife, a ball of cord, forty dollars, and some flint and steel, he intends to survive on his own. Sam learns about courage, danger, and independence during his year in the wilderness, a year that changes his life forever.
The Call of the Wild, by Jack London.
Set in Yukon, Canada, this short adventure novel was published in 1903 and set in the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s, when strong sled dogs were in high demand. The central character of the novel is a dog named Buck. Abducted from his comfortable home and life as a pet, Buck must face and overcome the brutal realities of frontier life if he’s to survive.
The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.
An American classic—and Pulitzer Prize–winning story—that shows the ultimate bond between child and pet.
Dove, by Robin Lee Graham with Derek L.T. Gill.
The true story of a sixteen year-old boy who sailed his 24-foot sloop around the world. Five years and 33,000 miles later, he returned to home port with a wife and daughter and enough extraordinary experiences to fill this bestselling book, Dove.
Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry.
Paul and his sister Maureen live on Chincoteague Island with their grandparents. They help their grandfather raise and train ponies and dream of owning a pony of their own some day. How can they make their dream come true? A Newbery Medal winner.
Summer of the Monkeys by Wilson Rawls.
Fourteen year-old Jay Berry Lee never thought he’d see a tree full of monkeys in the Cherokee Ozarks of Oklahoma. But the animals have escaped from a circus. There’s a big reward for anyone who finds them, and Jay’s family needs the money. But first he has to catch them.
Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss.
When the Robinson family is shipwrecked on a remote island, they build a new home with everything they need to survive in their tropical paradise. An oldie but a goodie.
Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George
A Newbery Medal Winner, this classic is about an Eskimo girl lost on the Alaskan tundra and how she survives. A riveting story, with top-notch writing.
The Little House Series, by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
The nine books in this classic series tells the story of the author’s real childhood as an American pioneer. Cherished by generations of readers, the series offers a unique glimpse into life on the American frontier and the unforgettable family who lived them.
Call it Courage by Armstrong Sperry.
The sea took Maftu’s mother when he was a baby. So he feared and avoided the sea until everyone branded him a coward. Unable to bear the taunts any longer, Maftu sets out to conquer his fear and face the sea in his canoe. He’s alone except for his little dog and pet albatross. A storm lands him on a desert island. This is the story of how Maftu’s courage grows and how he finally returns home.
Gentle Ben by Walt Morey.
The Alaskan wilderness is a lonely place for Mark Andersen, especially after the death of his brother. But Mark finds a friend in an Alaskan brown bear named Ben. The two form a special bond, but the townspeople are determined to destroy it. It is only through the strength of an enduring friendship that Ben—and Mark—have a chance of being saved.
Lost in the Barrens by Farley Mowat
A Cree Indian boy and a Canadian orphan living with his uncle, the trapper Angus Macnair, are enchanted by the magic of the great Arctic wastes. They set out on an adventure that proves longer and more dangerous than they could have imagined.
Big Red by Jim Kjelgaard.
Before Old Yeller or Where the Red Fern Grows, there was Big Red. It’s a classic boy-and-dog story of adventure and friendship in the wild mountains of Pennsylvania. Big Red is the first of three books Kjelgaard wrote about Irish Setters.
Little Britches book series by Ralph Moody.
An autobiographical account of Ralph Moody’s early life in the vicinity of Littleton, Colorado. Grit, courage, and ingenuity are needed to make a life and build a home in this wild frontier. The book was the basis for a 1970 Disney movie starring Steve Forrest, Vera Miles, Ron and Clint Howard and released under the title, The Wild Country.
Sarah, Plain and Tall, by Patricia MacLachlan
Set in the late nineteenth century and told from young Anna’s point of view, Sarah, Plain and Tall tells the story of how Sarah Elisabeth Wheaton comes from Maine to the prairie to answer Papa’s advertisement for a wife and mother. Before Sarah arrives, Anna and her younger brother Caleb wait and wonder. Will Sarah be nice? Will she sing? Will she stay? A Newbery Medal winner. If you enjoy Laura Ingalls Wilder books, you’ll love this!
Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O’Dell.
Don’t make me explain this.
Lassie Come Home by Eric Knight.
Lassie is young Joe’s beloved collie and constant companion. But when Joe’s father loses his job and hard times ensue, Lassie must be sold. Lassie escapes her new owner returns home to Joe three times, until she’s finally taken to the remotest part of Scotland. The journey home is far too long for a dog to make alone. But Lassie isn’t just any dog.
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson.
Ahoy, matey! All aboard for this quintessential pirate story, featuring a hidden treasure map, a young boy, and cut-throat mutineer Long John Silver.
Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen
A 1988 Newbery Honor Winner, this is the first book in the Hatchet series. It begins when the small plane Brian is flying in to visit his estranged father crash-lands in a lake in the middle of the Canadian wilderness. Brian has to survive on his own with the only tool he has: a hatchet given to him by his mother. The tool proves invaluable. A compelling, engaging read.
Also by Gary Paulsen: Haymeadow: Fourteen-year-old John Barron spends the summer taking care of the family sheep in the haymeadow. He’s alone, except for two horses, four dogs, and 6,000 sheep. John must rely on his own resourcefulness, ingenuity, and talents to survive this summer in the haymeadow. And Winter Dance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod. Paulsen and his team of dogs endure snowstorms, frostbite, dogfights, moose attacks, sleeplessness, and hallucinations in the relentless push to go on.
Born Free: A Lioness of Two Worlds, by Joy Adamson.
Set in Kenya, this compelling true story chronicles the mutual affection and bond between an orphaned lion cub, Elsa, and the Adamsons, who loved her enough to let her go. Powerful, poignant, and timeless.
Probably the most moving and inspiring “animal story” I’ve ever read. For my full review, click here.
Other noteworthy outdoor classics for kids:
Woods Runner, by Gary Paulsen
Old Yeller, by Fred Gipson
Where The Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls
For more recommendations, see The Ultimate Outdoor SUMMER READING LIST.)
What would you add?