If you’re a parent, you’ve realized by now that not every kids’ book is worth its ink. Early on, much of it is like Benadryl on paper. (Ever notice how many kids’ books end with the protagonist dozing?) Don’t get me wrong—reading your child to sleep is great when you want to kick back, eat some ice cream, and watch Westworld. But sometimes you want to read your kid a book that makes her sit up straighter, makes her heart beat faster, makes her worry and wonder. You want an armchair adventure when she can’t be outside having one of her own. For this, we have compiled the following list of books guaranteed to induce daydreaming at any age.
Newborn to Age 2
The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown
An irascible young rabbit tries to run away from home in a series of escalating complex schemes, repeatedly underestimating the pluck and devotion of his mother, who tracks him down in a trout stream, atop a mountain, on the ocean’s waves—and even in the circus.
We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury
The dog and the baby are the only characters in this book with the mental agility to imagine where a bear hunt might actually lead this hapless family, whose adventures take them through (never over or under) rivers, forests, mud, and more, until they all finally flee, in terror, back home to bed.
The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats
A boy named Peter proves that you don’t need a thermal base layer or vibration-dampening skis to make the most out of some overnight freshies. You need a snowsuit, your feet, and maybe a stick. All the rest can be imagined when winter turns your neighborhood into a new world waiting to be explored.
Ages 3 to 5
Amos and Boris by William Steig
When a mouse named Amos builds a ship, packs his supplies, and sets sail on the open ocean, he’s “full of wonder, full of enterprise, and full of love for life.” Then disaster falls, as disaster does, and the mouse must face his cosmic frailty before being rescued. Years later, the mouse gets a chance to return the favor.
Kamik’s First Sled by Matilda Sulurayo, illustrated by Qin Leng
A young boy named Jake wants to train his puppy, Kamik, to pull a sled over the tundra. All the dog wants to do is play. Thanks to some advice from his grandmother, Jake and Kamik are soon careening across the snow on a sealskin sled. But can the boy and his dog find their way home through a blizzard?
SkySisters by Jan Bourdeau Waboose, illustrated by Brian Deines
Two Ojibway sisters step out into a winter’s night to find the northern lights. Along the way, they learn the art of reverence. They also learn that adventure is not always what you do, but what you let happen to you, like when you lie quietly atop Coyote Hill, waiting for the sky spirits to dance.
Ages 6 to 8
Stickeen by John Muir, retold by Donnell Rubay, illustrated by Christopher Canyon
Originally published by John Muir in 1909, this classic true story is abridged here in a kid-friendly version with dramatic illustrations. Muir’s story, set atop the glaciers of Alaska, tells us what adventures may unfold when you leave camp one stormy morning with an ice ax, some bread, a notebook, and one brave little dog.
Nim’s Island by Wendy Orr
A girl named Nim and her scientist father live on a deserted island like the Swiss Family Robinson, but with solar panels, email, and cellphones. Then Nim’s father sails off to study plankton and disappears. To survive, Nim must use all her skills and get some help from a new email pal, a friendly iguana, and a maternal sea lion.
Crow and Weasel by Barry Lopez, illustrated by Tom Pohrt
Crow and Weasel are young men when they set out, against their parents’ advice, to travel farther north in the North American plains than any of their people had before them. Along the way, they learn about their connection to the land, respecting stories, and giving thanks. More than most, this book captures the complexity of sharing an adventure with a friend.
Ages 9 to 11
Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell
For his 1960 novel, O’Dell takes inspiration from a true story in which a Native American girl spent 18 years alone on the island of San Nicolas, off the Californian coast. The narrative departs from history, and the telling of it by a white man should be scrutinized, but Karana’s story of solitary survival is an enduring classic of young adult adventure.
My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George
Fenced in by the concrete and humanity of the Big Apple, 15-year-old Sam Gribley does what many New Yorkers dream of doing: He quits the cramped city for an abandoned farm in the Catskills, where he posts up in a hollow hemlock and lives off the land. The boy makes friends with animals while he endures a terrible snowstorm and profound loneliness.
Tintin in Tibet by Hergé
Easily the best of the Tintin series, this graphic novel tells the story of the scrappy young journalist, Tintin, his trusty dog, Snowy, and his irritable companion, Captain Haddock, as they trek into the Himalayas to look for a friend who may have survived a plane crash. It’s a masterfully illustrated adventure full of tension and humor.
Ages 12 to 14
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
One of the most popular young adult adventure books ever written, this novel tells the story of a 13-year-old boy forced to survive in the Canadian wilderness with nothing but his wits and a hatchet. Whether you’re 13 or 31, it’s impossible to read this and not feel like you are Brian Robeson, leaning over a nest of bark, desperate to transform sparks into fire.
Going Solo by Roald Dahl
Celebrated for his imaginative fiction, Roald Dahl led an adventurous life of his own. This autobiography picks up his story at age 22, when he sails to Tanzania to work for Royal Dutch Shell. When World War II breaks out, Dahl joins the Royal Air Force and barely survives a fiery crash in the Libyan desert.
Downriver by Will Hobbs
When 15-year-old Jessie’s father sends her to an outdoor education program for troubled teens, she and six others rebel by stealing a raft and taking off down the Grand Canyon. Then come the rapids and helicopters in hot pursuit.
Ages 15 to 17
The Call of the Wild by Jack London
Jack London practically invented the American young adult adventure genre with this novel of the Klondike Gold Rush, told through the eyes of a sled dog named Buck. The dog finds a kind master in Jack Thornton, but in the hardships they endure, it’s difficult to decide which is crueler—nature or mankind.
Peak by Roland Smith
As a passionate climber, 14-year-old Peak Marcello can’t resist when his absentee father invites him to attempt Mount Everest together. If he summits before his birthday, Peak will be the youngest person to have climbed it. But what are his father’s true intentions, and are the risks worth taking?
Banner in the Sky by James Ramsey Ullman
Rudi Matt’s father died attempting to climb the Citadel, the last unconquered summit of the Swiss Alps. Now, at age 16, Rudi wants to post a first ascent with his father’s red shirt as a flag. Based on the true story of the first climb of the Matterhorn, this 1954 novel remains a riveting mountaineering tale.