The Life Canon
Reading for pleasure when you’re young can be a challenge. Chances are that if your parents don’t turn you off to the whole concept by preaching from dreary, socially conscious picture books (the ice caps are melting, the animals are dying, let’s all have some recycling fun!), your high school English teacher will ruin some truly great works (Catcher in the Rye or For Whom the Bell Tolls) by having you memorize any symbolism that might be helpful on a No Child Left Behind test. It’s a shame, because books, far more than movies or television or video games, impose a very useful obligation on the reader: the joy of exercising your imagination. They help you navigate around the youthful shoals of insipidness and set you on a path of adventure.
My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George
For any kid who’s ever daydreamed of ditching the family and living alone in the wild, this 1959 classic is a must. Told from the point of view of a 12-year-old who chucks it all to live in a hollow tree, this is a deeply affecting—and remarkably nuanced—rendering of this most primal of childhood fantasies.
The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
One of the first novels to realistically depict the true horror of war, this slim volume grapples with the question that has haunted young men since the beginning of time: When the shooting starts, will I be brave? If Crane provided a slightly too tidy answer, he also penned the first great American antiwar novel.
A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby
Newby proves, in this grandfather of the modern travelogue, that all you need for a rollicking good time in a sketchy corner of the world is pluck, determination, and a hapless straight-man companion to make fun of along the way.
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
Despite what cruise-ship companies might tell you, adventure is only adventure when it involves an element of risk—which also means that sometimes things can go terribly, fatally wrong. If you ever find yourself theorizing, “I’m sure the flames will go out long before I hit the water,” read this beautifully executed cautionary tale first.
The Adventures of Tintin by Hergé
The original graphic novels, this series recounts the peril-filled exploits of Tintin, boy reporter, and his snarky little dog, Snowy. Start with The Crab with the Golden Claws: opium smugglers, plane crashes, marauding Bedouins, and a demented, alcoholic sea captain who mistakes Tintin for a giant bottle of champagne. What’s not to love?