Title: My Side of the Mountain*
Author: Jean Craighead George**
File Under: Adventure, Nature, Read-Aloud
Age Group: Primarily middle-school age, but would be enjoyable for an older kid to read and littles would like to listen along, although some of it may go over their heads; enjoyable as light reading for the adult, especially the tense parent who needs to snap out of it a little.
This may be an ideal book to read just before summer starts, when one is becoming anxious about how the children’s time will be spent after school lets out. To me, this book is somewhat in the same category as Farmer Boy (not that it approaches what I consider to be the greatness of that work) — just in that it is a reminder about the nature of boys and of what they’re capable, when given the freedom — although the fun and adventure will be appealing to girls, as well. If you were to decide to read this aloud with your kids, for example, I can imagine them being inspired for many hours of imaginative play as a result – saving you the trouble of signing them up for another summertime “activity.”
My Side of the Mountain is a fictional, first-person account of a boy’s venture into the woods of the Catskill Mountains to live primitively, off the land. The story is simple, told largely in the form of a journal account, and focusing mainly on the practical details of day-to-day living without any basic conveniences or even tools. The 1950s come through slightly when dialogue appears (which is fairly seldom, given the topical solitude of the protagonist), but otherwise the story has a timeless feel.
Anyone who’s ever cared to build a fort in his backyard will find immense appeal in the boy’s description of how to start a fire without matches, how to carve a home out of a hollow tree, how to use deer skins, and how to make “pancakes” out of acorn flour. The author, who learned all about woodland life from her father, who was a “naturalist and a scientist” (according to the preface) does an impressive job of leaving almost no questions unanswered — to the point that it seems fairly plausible that this bright, adolescent kid really could have made it through an Upstate New York winter entirely on his own devices. There are pleasant little pen illustrations to enliven the description of the wildlife of the Catskills.
I picked up this Newbery Honor Book from the “giveaway” shelf at my library, simply because the sound of the title rang a familiar bell in my mind and so I figured it must be worth reading someday. I ended up reading it a week or so ago because it was right there on the shelf when I needed another book for nursing, and it was a conveniently small size to fit in one hand (a mere 177 pages).
I read parts of it aloud to Finnabee (currently age 3) because she begged me to read to her about “the boy in the woods” after she heard me discussing it with The Artist at the dinner table. (I have steered her away from My Side of the Mountain for now, in favor of A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, but I look forward to having her pull it off the shelf in a couple of years.)
It’s about freedom, about being young and needing to learn things for yourself, about being in touch with nature, about the oft-stifled abilities of children when given their space, about the existential questions relating to solitude and mastery over things versus community and convenience… but, basically, it’s just a fun little book that will make your offspring (and maybe you) want to head into the woods with nothing but an ax and some string and see how you can make out.
*I was not aware, when I read it, that it is the first of a series of books. I will have to get back to you about the other four when I’ve read them!
**George is also the author of Julie of the Wolves,*** of which I have only the slightest memory but which I recall with great fondness as a book that I totally loved when I read it sometime around age 13.
***[Update] Some readers have mentioned, in the comments, that caution is necessary when approaching Julie of the Wolves, because of a particular scene involving the main character being imposed upon by an offending young man. I do recall this scene in that vague yet strong sense that characterizes how topics of a sexual nature stick with us, especially at an impressionable age. I agree that parents should use discretion before handing this book to their daughters and consider appropriateness based on maturity. It is a coming-of-age story. I will say, however, that the scene is not bad — it depicts something very evil in a deft and true way. Julie’s reaction to the forced advances is disgust and self-defense. In so far as this scene stayed with me, I believe that it contributed to the basic knowledge that all my formation gave me: the girl has the right to follow her instincts to push back, to run away, etc. Actually, it seems to me that this consideration is helpful in a world where Twilight-type entertainment tends to glamorize this issue and makes girls being imposed upon seem appealing. It’s not appealing; it’s scary and the proper response is literally to feel sick, which Julie does.