If you’re trying to get your progeny excited about the outdoors, there’s a whole stack of new adventurous kids’ books coming out this summer. They look good to me, but neither am I a child nor do I have a child, so I recruited my favorite toddler—Sawyer, my best friend’s kid—to help me figure out what the youngs are into these days. Sawyer is three. He likes fishing, dogs, going places on imaginary airplanes, and wearing shorts instead of pants. This winter, he learned to ski. (Note from Sawyer: Fast!) Sawyer is mega-smart, and I am constantly trying to bribe him into telling me that I’m his favorite unofficial aunt, so I enlisted him in some children’s book reviewing disguised as bonding time.
Here’s how it worked: I went over for dinner. Parentals did bath time while Aunt Heather did dishes and finished the wine. We commenced with the standard pre-bedtime reading routine. Sawyer shared his review of each book. Mom, who has had to invent, like, 8 million voices in the past three years, weighed in on readability and how to raise a good dude through stories. Finally, yours truly discussed literary merits. Here’s how it all shook out.
‘Run Wild’ by David Covell
David Covell’s rhyming, highly sensory book follows an indoor kid into the wilds of Maine in summer. The plot is loose—um, go outside?—but apparently you don’t need a plot if you’re three and you get voices and splashy noises instead. It was the most fun to read. It’s goofy and messy, and the language is simple enough that an early reader could take it on themselves. Run Wild was the first book I pulled out, which might have added to the effect, but Sawyer oohed over the watercolor-and-crayon cover, as did the adults in the room.
‘National Parks of the USA’ by Kate Siber and Chris Turnham
This is the book I’d be most likely to keep on my own kid-free shelf, thanks to Chris Turnham’s simple, graphic illustrations, but I was surprised it was a hit with the kiddo, too. “I like animals,” Sawyer told me helpfully, when asked for his opinion. It’s jam-packed, encyclopedia-style, with facts about Yosemite and the Everglades—minks are the size of small house cats!—but the narrative is broken down by park, so you can engage with it however you want. It would be a good one to throw in the car for road trips. “It’s not like I would read all of this to him,” Mom says. “Right now, it would just be a look at pictures, but it would work for a lot of different ages and you could have it for a long time.” (Full disclosure: Author Kate Siber is an Outside contributor. This had no bearing on how much we three liked the book.)
‘Chip Off the Old Block’ by Jody Jensen Shaffer and Daniel Miyares
The toddler feedback was that the rock at the center of the story, Chip, who is on a mission to connect with his fellow geologic formations, was a cool dude, but going to South Dakota seemed like a questionable travel choice. This was Sawyer’s favorite book of the lot, which I cosign, because I also like stories with relatable narrators. It was peppered with rock puns—which Mom and I rolled our eyes at but Sawyer totally missed—and I’m not sure how much of the intended geology lessons actually came through. But for a book with an educational backbone, it still has a narrative a kid can get behind.
‘Mighty Mira’ by Chloe Chick and Natalie Kwee
I was initially skeptical about the uneven iambic pentameter in Chloe Chick’s book about Nepali ultrarunner Mira Rai, but it turns out I am an uptight jerk and kids love rhymes. The book, which follows Rai as she becomes a runner, comes with a heavy dose of female empowerment. (It’s part of a series about athletes, including surfer Layne Beachley, from girl-positive organization SisuGirls.) It was the simplest graphically and the most heavily messaged, but the book ends with a sense of victory, which the little dude was into. Maybe subtlety doesn’t kick in until you’re four.
‘Grandma Gatewood Hikes the Appalachian Trail’ by Jennifer Thermes
Multiple books have been written about Emma Gatewood, who, at 67, became the first woman to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail solo. This one felt like a kid’s book that was secretly for adults who have hiked or want to hike the AT in particular. It felt both overly busy and exceedingly literal, and the pages were too crowded to hold Sawyer’s attention. “It’s hard to get a kid to care about a grandma,” my wise friend said. This was a miss for Sawyer, but it might be a good story for older kids who like hiking and can read for themselves.