In 2019, the US Senate officially designated June as “Great Outdoors Month”. The first Saturday of the month (this year June 5) is also National Trails Day. This is a great time to celebrate the beauty around us, to think about the best ways to protect it, and to spend time in it. You might enjoy national parks, local walking trails, or a patch of garden in your backyard. You also might enjoy reading about it.
There are lots of books out there about nature, so I’m limiting it to longer works of fiction. I’m including books for kids and adults about animals, plants, hiking, living in the wild, or anything else relating to nature, and I’m leaving out picture books like Owl Moon or the works of Eric Carle and any kind of nonfiction book. If you’re a nonfiction reader, you can find books about animals like the works of James Harriot, hiking memoirs like Bill Irwin’s Blind Courage, and much more. Any of those could be separate lists.
My ranking is a combination of how well they fit my current theme and how well I liked them. It’s far from an exact science, but I hope you’ll find some books on here that you’ve enjoyed in the past or will enjoy in the future. Let me know in the comments below what your favorite nature books are.
10. The Odyssey by Homer
This one is the lowest on the list because it’s actually a series of adventures, and only some of them are related to nature. There’s a whole subgenre of adventure stories that deal with men at sea. As with any other story, the protagonist might struggle against his fellow man, nature, himself, or any combination of those things. The Odyssey has all three. As Odysseus travels home from war, a storm wrecks his ship and launches a series of trials that he has to think or fight his way through before he gets home. A few more of these are sea-based, while others take place on various islands. Even if the percentage of the book that takes place in nature is relatively small compared to other books on this list, it’s still a fun ancient fantasy adventure. (It’s also technically a poem, not a novel, but it’s still a long work of fiction, so I’m counting it for the list.)
9. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
This story is about the symbiotic relationship of a girl and a garden. As she and others tend to the garden, they help it thrive and the experience shapes them into kinder, stronger people. That isn’t just a premise designed for this book. The act of caring for something else, whether it’s a pet or a plant, can help ease stress for a lot of people. If you want some natural beauty in your life, you might want to consider gardening, or even starting with a house plant or two. They can make a lot of difference in a home.
8. The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford
I grew up in the 90’s, and during that time, the Disney channel often showed the movie Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey. There was even a sequel that didn’t come on as much. At the time, I simply assumed that this was an original story, but years later, I learned that it was actually based on a book that came out in 1961 called The Incredible Journey, and that there was even an old movie version of the same name from 1963. Any and all of these are worth your time, though I should note that the older movie is closer to the book. The Disney remake swaps the ages and personalities of the dogs and changes the gender of the cat, so I was confused when reading the book and couldn’t get the voices straight in my head. I’m not sure if other 90’s kids had the same problem, but I have to imagine I’m not alone. The actors who dubbed over the animals had very distinct voices.
7. The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King
This is the story of a girl named Trisha who gets separated from her family while hiking the Appalachian Trail and battled against the elements and her fears that something awful is out in the woods with her. She stays focused by thinking about her hero, baseball player Tom Gordon, as she struggles to find her way to safety. As someone who enjoys both the Appalachian Trail and baseball, I naturally connected to Trisha, and I got sucked into the vivid descriptions of the forest that you would expect from Stephen King. This story is quite a bit shorter than his usual fare, which was probably a good thing in this case. There wouldn’t have been enough plot or characters to stretch it out longer, and it maintained the level of suspense well at this length. Unfortunately, it wasn’t really as scary as I was hoping it would be, and the final confrontation was over too quickly. If not for that, it would’ve been higher on my list, but as it was, it was still a good book.
6. The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling
I’m bending my list rules again. This is technically a book of short stories, not a novel, but at least they’re all based around a nature theme. Most people know the story of Mowgli – the boy raised by a wolf pack – thanks to the many movie adaptations, but this book has a lot of material left highly altered or completely untouched by the movies, so there’s still something for you here. There’s also a series of other animal-related stories here, with the most famous being “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi”, the story of a mongoose protecting his human family from a series of cobra attacks. If you want to watch it, I would highly recommend the 1975 animated version from Chuck Jones. It’s only about half an hour long, and it does a great job at capturing Rikki-Tikki-Tavi’s joy and curiosity as well as the tension when snake attacks are imminent.
5. My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George
Many young children fantasize about running away from home and living in the woods. In the author preface for this book, George tells a story about how she once tried to run away as a child. Her mother checked her supplies and let her walk out the door, but she very quickly returned. She then went through the same process with her own daughter. However, she also imagines an idealized scenario where a young boy is able to carry out his dream and live off the land. It has nature and hardship and hope and is wonderful for the imaginations of nature-lovers both young and old. It was also one of the books that sparked a strong desire in me to live out in the woods. Fortunately, I could see how that would realistically play itself out and never made a go of it. The idea of an adventure couldn’t outweigh the fact that I kind of liked my life how it was. I was far more tempted to try living in a museum after reading From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, but even that got a reluctant pass.
4. Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell
Loosely based on a true story, this book tells the life of a young girl named Karana who’s stranded alone for years on an island near California. She builds a home, tames some animal companions, and lives pretty quietly and resourcefully. She’s a likeable and determined character, and it’s easy to get sucked into her island world. There’s also a sequel called Zia, which is about Karana’s niece, who thinks her aunt is alive and is determined to find her.
Scott O’Dell found his way onto a lot of my school reading lists when I was younger, and I remember a lot more historical fiction from him, including more about people with a close relationship to nature. If you like this book, there’s more to find here. I’d recommend Sing Down the Moon in particular.
3. Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George
I was trying not to put more than one book by the same author on this list, but Jean Craighead George gets an exception. Raised by a family of naturalists, she spent a lot of time living off the land and caring for animals of various kinds, like her first pet, which was a turkey vulture. Naturally, animals and the wild permeate her writing in all the best ways. This particular book was inspired by her experience studying wolves and the tundra at the Arctic Research Laboratory in Alaska. This book and its two sequels (Julie and Julie’s Wolf Pack) tell the story of a young woman who runs away from home and finds herself living with a pack of wolves. After she leaves civilization, Julie forms an incredible bond with her new wolf companions – the kind that most dog-lovers want at some point. If you want a story about someone with a connection to animals, this is a great one.
2. Watership Down by Richard Adams
Growing up, I had a book called Tales from Watership Down, which was framed as a group of stories that some rabbits were telling each other. Some were stories from their own lives. Others were rabbit legends and mythology. I was very into bunnies at the time and read the stories over and over. Later on, I learned that this was a companion book to the novel Watership Down and eagerly ate up that one, too. Despite it being a book about rabbits, it’s actually an adult novel about rabbits who are essentially refugees fleeing a variety of bad situations, like human destruction or tyrannical rabbit leaders. They band together to survive and to stay free. If you’re a fan of worldbuilding, this one’s for you. The world of the rabbits is very well thought out. They have their own vocabulary, history, and culture, and it all makes sense in the context of their priorities. It’s done very naturally, too, and it doesn’t throw too much at the reader at once.
If you like Watership Down, you might also enjoy another book by Richard Adams called The Plague Dogs, which I have in my list of Top 10 Books About Doctors and Medicine.
1. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
I didn’t like this book the first time I read it. I had to read it as part of a high school English class, and at the time, it was a little too dark for me. Then I read it in two more high school classes and found myself appreciating it a little more each time. I reluctantly had to admit it that it told an interesting story and had some memorable characters. Over time, I started to appreciate the dark elements of fiction in general, whether it’s to create suspense or whether, like this one, it has something to say. In Lord of the Flies, a group of boys are stranded on an island and have to survive together. They start out as a fairly civilized, orderly group, but the longer they’re away from society, the more their rules (civil and ethical) start to deteriorate. It’s a well-written story that packs a lot of insight into human nature into a very short space, along with the basic story of their survival. It also seemed to be one of the influences behind Lost, so fans of that show might be especially interested.
These were all books that I enjoyed but weren’t quite as close to the topic as the others on the list, at least in my mind. They’re all about animals, though!
- Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry
- Redwall by Brian Jacques
- Lad: A Dog by Albert Payson Terhune
- Animal Farm by George Orwell