1. Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome, 1930
The summer adventures of two families of children who sail, camp, fish, and pirate together in the Lake District of England. Inspired by the stories of Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island, the kids make an enemy out of their uncle James Turner, nicknaming him Captain Flint and conspiring against him to teach him a lesson about ignoring his nieces. Delightful!
2. Baby Island by Carol Ryrie Brink, 1937
Robinson Crusoe meets the Babysitter’s Club: 12-year-old Mary Wallace and her 10-year-old sister Jean are on an ocean liner on its way to Australia. Their love of babysitting leads them to caring for the adorable children of two families on board. Then the ocean liner wrecks (!) and the pair manage to make it to a deserted island (!!) with four babies (!!!!!!!). They make a home on the island for themselves and the little ones.
3. Call It Courage by Armstrong Sperry, 1940
The story of a 15-year-old Polynesian boy named Maftu who was afraid of the sea and was branded a coward. No longer able to bear the bullying, he set off on his canoe with his dog and pet albatross, determined to conquer his fears. A storm leads him to a deserted island where he must fend for his life. An inspiring coming-of-age story.
4. The Black Stallion by Walter Farley, 1941
Alec Ramsay finds a wild black stallion at a small port on the Red Sea, and the two begin to understand each other and keep each other alive. The survival part of this story makes up the first (and best!) part of this book, and it is followed by the story of the “taming” and racing of the Black Stallion, and the continued bond between the horse and Alec. Begat an entire series of books beloved by horse fans of all ages, as well as an actually beautiful movie made in 1979.
5. Daughter of the Mountains by Louise Rankin, 1948
A little girl living in Tibet, Momo, receives the Lhasa terrier she has always dreamed of and names it Pempa. Then thieves steal her dog and plan to take it to Calcutta to sell him. Momo embarks on a trip down the Great Trade Route and into the plains of India to save her beloved dog. A courageous animal-loving protagonist and a lovingly described locale American kids may not be familiar with. Perfect!
6. My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George, 1959
Sam is a 12-year-old boy who hates his family’s cramped New York City apartment and decides to run away to his great-grandfather’s abandoned farm in the Catskill Mountains. He reads a book about wilderness survival and uses his fledgling skills to stay alive: camping, hunting, and even making a peregrine falcon named Frightful his pet and hunting companion. Inspired an entire generation of kids including probably Richie Tenenbaum to be fascinated by falconry, and was named to the the Newbery Medal Honors list in 1960.
7. Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell, 1960
Based on the TRUE STORY (!!) of Juana Maria, a Nicoleño Indian who was left stranded on an island for many years in the 19th century. The book’s young Karana stays behind on an island after her tribe departs and has to navigate a new wild life with a pack of feral dogs and the other animals that she inhabits the island alongside. The book won the Newbery Medal in 1961.
8. Incident at Hawk’s Hill by Allan W. Eckert, 1971
Set in 1870, this book tells the story of 6-year-old Ben, who gets along better with animals than he does with people. He wanders away from home and survives for months in the wild, bonding with a female badger who helps him get by. The author was a naturalist and it shows in the realistic and respectful depiction of nature and wildlife in this book. Warning: It will make you cry!
9. Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George, 1972
A deserving winner of the Newbery medal of an unhappily married Eskimo orphan who runs away, hoping to reach her San Francisco pen pal. Thirteen-year-old Miyax (Julie to her “white people” friends) becomes lost in the Alaskan tundra with no food or shelter, and has to examine who she really is. A pack of wolves begins to accept her into their pack, and her life will be forever changed. Often challenged in school libraries because of its “adult themes,” Julie of the Wolves is an essential coming of age story that deals realistically with issues like alcoholism and feminism, while also telling a magical story of wildlife and adventure.
10. The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare, 1983
It’s 1769 and 12-year-old Matt is left on his own in the wilderness while his father resettles their family. He befriends a 14-year-old Native American chief’s grandson named Attean and learns to hunt and fish, and is eventually invited to join the tribe and move north. Some of the descriptions of native culture in this book are dated, but the underlying message is of acceptance and understanding.
11. Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, 1987
Thirteen-year-old Brian Robeson is flying on a bush plane to visit his father in northern Canada for the summer, but the pilot suffers a heart attack and dies. Brian manages to crash-land the plane into a lake in the forest, and emerges with nothing but his life and a hatchet. He spends the summer surviving in the wilderness with his hatchet and becomes a fine woodsman while struggling with memories of his parents painful divorce. The book was followed by a series of sequels about Brian’s various adventuring exploits which culminated in him fighting an actual bear.