Friday, July 1, 2011

Free-range book list

I've been thinking lately about all the books I read growing up. In many of them, the kids are incredibly independent. So much so, that sometimes the parents never appear at all! But the kids are usually very responsible and seem to have a ton of fun. Plus, they get along surprisingly well! It's an interesting exercise to read children's books from 100 years ago and then read books from today. In the modern books, the parents appear all the time, whereas in the older books it seems the parents had other things to do rather than keep track of where their kids were.

I've been putting together a little list of some of the best. All of them would make good reading for adults or children. Parents can read them to get an idea of what kids were considered to be capable of a short time ago, and kids can read for pure enjoyment. I would heartily recommend all of these.

Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Okay, neither of these boys is exactly a role model. But they are both loads of fun, and it's amazing the stuff they figure out all by themselves.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis. And really all of the Chronicles of Narnia. Like all the other British books on this list, it's about a family of children on holiday from school. I have never actually read a British book that happened at school, except for that tiny bit of The Silver Chair. Is it their boarding-school background that gives them such independence and family spirit? Eh, who knows. But I love the way Peter takes the lead and helps his brother and sisters out, and how they all look out for Lucy. I wish all kids got along this well (except for the betraying one's family to the witch part, but no family's perfect, right?)

The Story of the Treasure-Seekers and The Wouldbegoods, by E. Nesbit. I love E. Nesbit. Her books are so charming, and British, and fun. Those Bastables sure do have a lot of freedom! And they admittedly use it to get in a lot of trouble. Pretty much every chapter is about a different disaster! But it's never from ill-will. The children have a very strict moral sense they hold each other to, and never lie about their misadventures. I remember their "oath of secrecy": "May I be called a beastly sneak If this great secret I ever repeat." That's strong enough, for these kids! Nothing worse than a beastly sneak!

Five Children and It, and honestly everything else by E. Nesbit. She's seriously the best. The five children in this book (and its sequels) include a baby whom the kids seem to be completely responsible for! I guess they occasionally do hand him off to their mother, but no one seems to mind them taking this toddler (he can't be more than two) off for the whole day! Perhaps if they knew a magic carpet was involved they'd be more leery.

The Haymeadow
, by Gary Paulsen. A teenage boy gets to -- or rather has to -- spend the whole summer up in the mountains taking care of sheep, all alone. A lot of bad things happen because he isn't really prepared. And yet he grows up a lot that summer. The ultimate conclusion, though, is that he shouldn't have to be quite so alone, and I'd agree. You do have to know how to do something before you become solely responsible for doing it!

Now for the ultimate, the best of the bunch:
Swallows and Amazons, by Arthur Ransome. This one, for a change, includes no fantasy (though the children have wild imaginations). The four kids have been just aching and longing for a chance to take off in a sailboat and camp on an island all by themselves. Their mother writes to their father, who is a sailor, and his answer comes back by telegram: BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WON'T DROWN. In other words, go ahead and let them; if they're worth keeping, they'll be fine. The children do prove they're not duffers, and have a wonderful time too. I'm sure the mother enjoyed the break, getting to spend the summer with just the baby while her other children entertained themselves! She makes them write her letters and stop by her dock to let her know how they are.

Seriously, she is the kind of mother kids dream of having. She definitely does worry about them, but she doesn't nag or guilt them ... instead she plays right along with their game and makes them promise to eat their peas "so they won't get scurvy" and pretends to be a native when she visits their island. Besides, who doesn't want to be allowed to spend all summer sailing around and camping out, "bathing" by swimming in the lake and eating fish they catch themselves?

To put this in perspective, I think the youngest is about six or seven and the oldest might be fourteen or so. The second oldest, Susan, is the mother of the bunch and enjoys cooking meals for all of them over the campfire. We get the impression she isn't terribly good at it, but she manages to keep them all fed.

In one of the sequels, they actually do sink their boat. I guess that's real responsibility -- that is, you know kids are really in charge when they make a big mistake and no one jumps in to save them. But they handle this well enough, arranging for the boat to be fished off the bottom of the lake and mended, with the help, of course, of the very excellent adults who have been advising them throughout.

I could not recommend these books enough ... I am on my third re-read of Swallows and Amazons and would love to get my hands on those sequels I don't yet have.

Anyone have any to add to the list?

Note: I finally became an Amazon Affiliate because I was tired of linking them for free. Now, if you buy something via my link, I get a (small) percentage. I doubt I will actually make any money this way, but you never know.


Enbrethiliel said...


Don't forget The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner!

I'm not going to pretend they're of fantastic literary quality, but the four Alden children are very independent for the better part of the book. This novel was also "challenged" (as the slightly tiresome anti-banners say these days) by many adult readers who didn't like how little supervision the young characters had.

But the sequel Surprise Island, which takes the same formula but puts the Aldens on an island (surprise, surprise!) rather than in their boxcar, was just really awful. I didn't read the rest of the series after that.

Gary Paulsen has lots of independent children in his novels, too. I'm sure you've heard of Hatchet. It's a bit more harrowing than usual, not just because Brian is left completely alone in the wilderness, but also because his parents' divorce is like a shadow on his heart the entire time. Yeah, even in the wilderness where one has to struggle to survive, it matters to a child that his parents are no longer together.

Finally, I think The Secret Garden by Frances Hogdson Burnett should get an honourable mention. Dickon might be a minor character, but he's as free-range as they come, and his independent spirit rubs off on Mary and Colin, who previously never made a move without an ayah or a nurse hovering over them.

'Akaterina said...

I second the Hatchet. I loved that book.

I would also add A Serious of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket. It is about three siblings who are orphaned and their adventures (and misadventures) as they try to escape Count Olaf. It is a bit dark, but enjoyable nonetheless.

I loved reading Betsy Byars' Mud Blossom series (my favorite was Wanted...Mud Blossom). The books focus on the Blossom family and their dog. Cute stories.

Finally, I love Kippling's Captains Courageous. It is the story of Harvey Cheyne (who is 15 years old in the book) who falls overboard off a cruise-liner. He is picked up by some fishermen from Glouchester - it is a nice coming of age book. (I love just about everything from Kippling.)

Salixbabylonica said...

Ah, Swallows and Amazons! As soon as I saw the heading, I was wondering if that was coming. You know my nephew Roger is named after the ship's boy? Deep in my heart there is an ineradicable longing to be a English schoolgirl in the 1930's.

Which ones have you not read? My AP's have the whole series, so I might be able to persuade them to lend 'em out. I'm still trying to get C. to read the first one. Poor boy, he's so far behind. I keep finding more and more books he needs to read.

Do you actually like Paulsen's writing? I haven't read the Haymeadow, but I did read Hatchet and several others. Frankly, I've always felt like there was something . . . missing from his books, something wrong with the way he writes, but I haven't ever been able to articulate it. The word "floaty" comes to mind, which doesn't make sense, but it's the word I use to describe a certain quality in modern works that I've read. Perhaps it's that they seemed emotionally sterile to me, as if they were written by a person who was numb with crippling depression? But it's many, many years since I read anything by Paulsen, so I may be misremembering him.

Sheila said...

Wow, excellent suggestions! I've read some (Hatchet, Captains Courageous, Secret Garden) but not others (Boxcar Children, Unfortunate Events, Mud Blossom). But definitely things to add to my reading list. Secret Garden especially shows how much "older" a more independent child can seem, compared to the poor sheltered rich kids.

I liked The Haymeadow. Didn't like Hatchet, though. It seemed a little too ... Jack London. As you said, Jane, too numb-sounding.

I have only read Swallows and Amazons and Swallowdale. My nine-year-old brother, though, has read them all and raves about them!

Enbrethiliel said...


Funnily enough, I also thought there was something in Hatchet the first time I read it and the only time I reread it. Brian just seems to get over his parents' divorce really easily: it's as if all he needs to be able to deal with it is to grow savage--which he sort of does. (A nod not just to Jack London but also to The Lord of the Flies, perhaps? But that one is probably the most anti free range book of all! =P)

I've read only a few other books by Paulsen, but Hatchet is the only one I remember leaving me with that problematic feeling. And I think Paulsen felt that way, too, because he kept continuing Brian's story in other books. I can't recall him writing so many sequels to other novels.

Sheila said...

I can't believe I forgot to mention Hilda van Stockum's books -- The Mitchells, especially!

Reepicheep said...

Marguerite Henry has some really great books about kids. There are the Misty books, King of the Wind, Black Gold, Born to Trot, White Stallion of Lipizza, and many more. (Oh yeah, and they're all about horses. :P) The Anne of Green Gables books start out when she's pretty young, too. My Friend Flicka and Thunderhead are great. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and To Kill A Mockingbird have parents involved, but it's kids dealing with a ton of big stuff, mostly on their own. And I'm sure I'll get beaten over the head for this, but Harry Potter is pretty independent, too.

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