Ah, the lazy, hazy days of summer! So I read a whole slew of summer-themed books to write this post and bizarrely, I ended up most drawn to the older ones (as in published in the late nineties or early two thousands) instead of current ones. But after rereading and evaluating them I realized that they all depict the valuable theme of being resourceful and using the gifts of the natural world to play and learn. None of the characters enjoy any screen time and barely even play with toys; instead they use their imaginations and what they find outside to make the most of their summer vacations. Wouldn’t we all love to say this about our own kids?
Best for ages
The Dangerous Snake and Reptile Club, written and illustrated by Daniel San Souci
This book is an easy read and accompanied by hilarious illustrations. The author’s note tells us that he based this book on his own childhood adventures and it appears that he based his illustrations on his own childhood as well. While he published the book in 2004, the characters all look as if they live in some warped version of the 1970s. Certainly my son fails to see the humor in the illustrations but I’m tempted to laugh aloud while reading. In this story, a family with three boys takes its summer vacation in “Lake County” where the boys spend their time searching for fascinating natural specimens. Their spoils are a “dinosaur” bone (aka beef bone), a jar of tadpoles, and a king snake. When they return home, they’re inspired to search for more common wildlife like newts, salamanders, and garter snakes and use their clubhouse to start a Dangerous Snake and Reptile Club. Soon they realize that they can charge neighbors ten cents to visit their collection. I like this simple story because it reminds me of when I was a kid and spent endless days outside stating various clubs with my friends, making signs and writing charters. The story also reminds me to notice and point out insects and lizards and birds when I’m walking with my son. And yes, parents, by the end of the story the boys have released all of their captive wildlife so no need to give the cruelty-to-animals speech after reading this book with your child.
The following three are best for ages
The Raft, written and illustrated by Jim LaMarche
I love this book because it focuses on a boy’s first truly rich experience with the natural world and shows how it changes him. Not surprisingly, the author of this book also based his story on his own childhood. The narrator Nicky is shipped off to his reclusive grandmother’s riverside home for the summer. He’s unhappy about it because there’s nothing to do there. At first he’s pouty and whiny, unlike all of our children when they’re bored, of course. ☺ But then he finds an abandoned raft drifting downstream, and as the summer unfolds, Nicky discovers just how fulfilling a summer spent near river wildlife can be. Left to his own devices, he learns to be patient and to self-entertain. He delights in listening to, watching, and even interacting with the rabbits and foxes, cranes and herons, and turtles and fish that inhabit the river and woods near his grandmother’s house. Along the way, Nicky develops a meaningful bond with his “river rat” grandmother who had always seemed so strange to him. It turns out that she has much to teach him about the dynamics of the animal world and the joys of the natural world. This book is perfect for us parents who want our kids to look away from their screens at some point and look out the window and around in the backyard. I have a little creek behind my house (admittedly it’s a drainage creek), and while we don’t see cranes and river otters like Nicky, we can spot herons, deer, squirrels, and various birds. Reading this book always inspires my son to run out to the back porch and start looking.
The Pink House at the Seashore, written by Deborah Blumenthal and illustrated by Doug Chayka
I grew up less than an hour from the Jersey Shore (yup, that one) and loved going to the beach every summer, so I was thrilled to be reading my son a book about summers at the shore. But I didn’t love this book upon first read; over time, however, the story did grow on me. I’m recommending it because my son loves it. He keeps asking me to reread it, which is how it came to grow on me. The story begins with a family returning to its beach house in September because a few days before, a terrible storm hit the area and left little standing. The family of four is devastated to discover that its beach house was destroyed; it had been in its family for generations. While the family members do recover from the loss, they continue to feel and mourn it throughout the story. The theme of loss is not the focus of the story, but it does effectively present this important theme in a way that is accessible for kids. A sweet moment is when the daughter, upon hearing her mother cry softly because she misses the house, hugs her mother and promises that she will build her one just like it someday. The next summer the family brings a big tent to a nearby spot and proceeds to spend its summer living in it, looking out at the same view. I like how all the family members are forced to use their imaginations and resources to recreate some of their old summer traditions as well as invent new ones. This story is endearing and hopeful, and subtly illustrates the importance of strong family bonds. I think that I would have missed the value of this book if not for my son’s persistence. It just goes to show that sometimes, they do know better than us.
The Moon Over Star, written by Dianna Hutts Aston and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney
This book gives me chills. The story is so perfect and the language is so lovely, but most of all, the book convincingly depicts a time in American history when we didn’t know as much and hadn’t seen as much as now, so the first moon landing in July of 1969 was an event that brought together the whole world to listen and bear witness. The story flawlessly juxtaposes narrator Mae’s simple childhood pleasures at her grandfather’s farm with the nation’s awe and excitement over the first moon landing. Mae’s grandfather has worked the farm all his life and disapproves of the government’s investment in the space program when so many Americans are in need right here at home. But young Mae is excited by the moon landing and dreams of becoming an astronaut herself one day. Ultimately, Mae’s life-worn and bone-tired grandfather is drawn in by her optimism and ambition and he encourages her to keep dreaming. The story is educational in its presentation of basic facts about the first moon landing, but kids won’t even notice that they’re learning because they’ll get lost in the poetic imagery of summer pleasures. This story tugs on my heartstrings because it endearingly shows how the hardships and hard work of one generation allow future generations to dream and strive for more. And the language…:” Once upon a summer’s night in 1969, we spread blankets and folding chairs on the edge of our yard, where the buffalo grass grew thick and soft. The cornstalks whispered while we gazed at the pearly slice of moon, and the stars, gleaming like spilled sugar.” Can you beat that?
Please share with me your favorite summer reads, or your thoughts on inspiring our modern and tech-savvy kids to experience and enjoy the wonders of nature!