Man vs. nature makes for some of the best all-time reading material. Drop a boy into the woods with only his hatchet. Leave a girl to fend for herself on a fish-shaped island. These stories of grit and survival are some of summer's classic best reads, whether on a long car ride or by flashlight in the backyard tent. Wherever they're read, they will hopefully inspire boys to strike out on some adventures of their own.
This classic story follows the adventure of Buck, a St. Bernard/Scotch shepherd mix who gets kidnapped and taken as a sled dog to the Yukon during the Klondike gold rush. Accustomed to a pampered life, Buck must face the savage dogs and brutal conditions of the north. As he changes hands from one owner to another, he learns to not only survive, but grow into a dog worthy of his ancestors.
When the ship with her entire tribe abandons her, the young girl Karana must learn to survive on her own. From building a home of whale ribs and burning out her own canoe to befriending the wild dog who killed her brother, the story of Karana’s solitary years is unforgettable. We especially like the audio version, narrated by Tantoo Cardinal.
Perhaps one of the most beloved survival books of all time, "My Side of the Mountain" tells of Sam Gribley, who runs away from his crowded New York City apartment to his grandfather’s abandoned land in the Catskill Mountains, There, he lives in a tree, makes pancakes out of acorn flour, and trains a beloved falcon, Frightful. While the audio book is excellent, the paperback version includes illustration details of Sam’s fishing hooks, animal traps, and wild-plant diet.
Louis Zamperini is a trouble maker turned Olympic runner whose dream of breaking the 4-minute mile is shattered by the arrival of WWII. Drafted into the air force, Louis' plane is shot down over the Pacific Ocean, where he survives 47 days at sea only to be captured as a POW in Japan. This true story of suffering and forgiveness is an unforgettable page turner. The young adult version leaves out some of the harsher details of the original, contains simplified language, and is shortened by about a third.
Brian Robeson is on a flight to visit his father in northern Canada when the pilot suffers a massive heart attack. Forced to crash-land the plane, Brian escapes with nothing but the new hatchet his mother gave him as a parting gift. Using his one tool of survival, Brian must learn to fend for himself against an unforgiving landscape.
Teenager Alec Ramsay nearly drowns on a sea voyage after visiting his uncle in India. Saved by a wild Arabian horse which he calls the Black, the two are stranded on a desert island where they must learn to trust one another. When Alec returns home to New York with his horse, he pairs up with a retired horse breeder to train the Black for the race of the century. The audio book version of this classic 1940s story is good as well.
When her father dies, Julie, an 13-year-old Eskimo girl, is sent to live with her aunt, who weds her to a feeble-minded boy in San Francisco. Unable to bear such a life, she runs away to the Alaskan tundra, where she must fend for herself by hunting, trapping, and making her own clothing. Utterly alone in the wilderness, she learns to communicate with a wolf pack, and develops a special bond with a young wolf pup named Kapu.
This story, written in the early 1800s by a Swiss pastor, was immortalized by Walt Disney’s classic 1960 film. The book follows a family shipwrecked on an island, which they quickly dub “New Switzerland.” The mother, father, and four boys soon learn to live off the land, hunting game and building the treehouse of every child’s dreams. The original story was written by Wyss for his four sons and is meant to be a lesson in morality, nature, and self-reliance. Because of this, it gets didactic at times, but still makes for a good read, especially when paired with the movie.
Twelve-year-old Matt is left alone to maintain his family’s Maine homestead while his father travels back to Massachusets for his wife and daughter. Left alone, Matt must defend his property from fire, wild animals, and the uncertain Native Americans who live in the woods. This is coming-of-age story about friendship and the doing away with prejudice.
***A note on editions: Some of the more dated books, like "The Call of the Wild" and "The Swiss Family Robinson," contain verbiage that can be hard for young readers. Like I mentioned in my post How to Raise a Reader, we like to start with the Illustrated Classics as an intro to the story. They also make good out-loud reading for younger boys. In addition, a good audio version can really bring these stories to life.