Picture books to ‘get outside’ when it’s too hot to actually go out

guest post by Ami Gandhi

I grew up in the northeast where we lived for summer. November through April were often cold and rainy, sometimes snowy, and unless you were a winter sports enthusiast (which I was not), you spent a lot of time indoors, yearning for May. May heralded the beginning of summer (okay not technically) and the sweet promise of long days playing outdoors. I also grew up in the 1980s so summer for me meant more freedom than my own kids get. I was kicked out of the house right after breakfast and allowed back in at dinnertime, and no, this wasn’t considered bad parenting. 😊 We spent days running through backyards (fewer fences in the northeast), traipsing through suburban swaths of woods, building ground forts and makeshift treehouses, and riding bikes from neighbor to neighbor to find the best snacks. It wasn’t all fun and games of course (mosquitos, ticks, intense humidity, etc.), but it was almost always bearable (if not heavenly!) to be outside.

I’ve been in Texas for nine years now and in those years May has taken on a very different meaning for me. It still heralds the beginning of summer, but for many people summertime in Texas means more time indoors than out. Admittedly this is not the case for all Texans but these days I’m only happy to play outside with my kids until about noon after which we head back in until late evening. I love living in Austin, I truly do, but during the blazing hot summers, I often long for the northeast so my own kids can run through backyards, build tree forts and bike from neighbor to neighbor in search of snacks (well, during non-pandemic summers, that is). The upside, however, of the painfully high summer temps is that we do a lot of reading in the afternoons. I like to read seasonally and luckily there are many wonderful children’s books about the joys of summertime. What are the kids in these books generally doing, you ask? Yup, you guessed it: running barefoot through the grass, exploring woods, and building tree forts, and the next best thing to actually doing these things is reading about them!

When it comes to nature-celebrating children’s books, my absolute favorite author and illustrator is Jim LaMarche, and I especially love his books The Raft and Pond.  In The Raft, a boy named Nicky has to spend his summer with his unconventional “river rat” grandmother because his father has to travel for work. Initially, he’s less than thrilled to be stuck with her in her cabin in the northern wilderness because he can’t imagine how he’s going to pass the summer. One day he spots and catches a log raft drifting downriver and spends the rest of the summer observing and sketching the bountiful wildlife that is drawn to the raft. He learns how to pole around the river and he delights in exploring the different parts of it, the teeming wildlife, and his newfound passion for drawing. Turns out that Nicky may be a river rat just like his grandmother! I love how this gorgeous book honors not just the gifts of nature but also a kid’s ability to constantly grow and learn and develop new interests and joys.

Pond tells the story of three kids who discover water bubbling up behind their house and, believing that the dry expanse was once a pond, decide to build a dam. At first, they’re simply trying to have fun and keep busy during their summer vacation but as they watch and wait for their puddle to grow, they find deep pleasure in the entire ecosystem which springs up around their pond and also in how it provides a place for their community to gather together during different seasons. My kids love this book because they themselves have spent the last couple summers constructing rock dams in the drainage creek behind our uber-suburban house, but only before noon, of course. 😊

The Hike by Alison Farrell is a newer book, released in 2019, and an entertaining and educational story about three girls, Wren, El, and Hattie, who set off on a hike together and experience nature’s wonders along the way. As a parent, I have to wonder why these young girls are allowed to hike to the top of a snow-capped peak unchaperoned but anyway, there are different parenting styles.😊 My kids love following these girls on their hike through woodlands and berry patches, over a river and past a waterfall, and finally to the peak. Various plants and animals are identified along their route and some nature education is provided at the end via glimpses into Wren’s sketchbook. The illustrations are colorful and whimsical and quite funny at times, like when Wren and El are draped over a fallen log because they feel sick from eating too many thimbleberries (did you know there’s such a thing as thimbleberries?). Wren says, “We may have eaten too many berries,” and El, green in the face, replies, “Is that possible?” Oh yes, El, overeating is definitely a thing. 😊

I’m embarrassed to admit that nature-lover that I am, I didn’t know about the historical figure Anna Comstock until I read Out of School and into Nature: The Anna Comstock Story, written by Suzanne Slade and illustrated by Jessica Lanan. This is a lovely picture book with watercolor-like illustrations which highlights the life of Anna Comstock, scientist, artist, educator, and author in a time in which most women did not pursue professional work, much less in multiple fields! As a child, Anna loved running barefoot in the grass and exploring nature. She always understood the value of human connection to the natural world, so much so that as an adult she advocated for nature education in schools. Anna loved insects, which is just awesome, and when she couldn’t find the books about insects that she wanted to read, she simply wrote them! What I love about Out of School and into Nature is that it has universal appeal. It’s great for nature-loving families, science-loving families, history-loving families, and families that want their kids to read about women who defy the gender conventions of their time and find great success. And it also happens to be a great picture book!

Oh man, I could go on and on about children’s books that celebrate the great outdoors, which I already have, so I will wrap-up with one last recommendation: Secret Tree Fort by Brianne Farley. This book is a playful romp between two sisters who are sent outside to play by their mother (she probably grew up in the 1980s too). The younger sister is ecstatic about spending the day outside but her older sister is nonplussed and sourly ignores her sister’s plea to play. (Incidentally, another good book like this but about brothers is Outside by Deirdre Gill.) Big sister’s disinterest drives little sister to resort to a popular younger-sibling ploy: fabricating a fantastically enticing story! She describes an amazing tree fort that has all possible amenities that can be dreamed up by a kid’s imagination. It may even be made of candy! Then again little sister’s description of the tree fort is so deliciously detailed you may just wonder, is she making it up? Whether she is or isn’t, the tree fort becomes something the sisters can enjoy together. I love how this whimsical yet thoughtful story inspires my own kids to get creative and design their own secret tree forts.

In fact, all of the books in this post inspire my kids to think outside the proverbial box and get outside to play and explore and learn, and learn not just about the natural world but also about how to cooperate and connect with it. In about a month or two I’ll be out there all day with my kids, dreaming up tree forts, building rock dams, sketching suburban wildlife, traversing roadside creeks…you name it! But for now, we’ll be out there from eight AM to noon and spend the peak sun hours nestled under a blanket fort, reading and rereading these books!

Ami Gandhi is a former high school English teacher and current full-time Mom to five and eight-year-old boys. She has always loved reading, discussing, and writing about books, and both attending and working with the Texas Book Festival is one of the highlights of her year!