The best kids’ books about girls with the skills to survive

Elizabeth Doyle Carey Author Of Summer Lifeguards
By Elizabeth Doyle Carey

The Books I Picked & Why

The Secret Island (Secret Series)

By Enid Blyton, Dudley Wynne

Book cover of The Secret Island (Secret Series)

Why this book?

A larder full of dry goods, a dense thicket of gorse protecting a carefully hidden homestead, heather and pine needles for bedding, dry caves for winter shelter, natural tinctures and salves for injuries and illnesses, small brooks for bathing and cold creeks that preserved fresh milk and sweet butter…Four brave, skilled and industrious children run away from abusive situations in this vintage British book, and manage to care for and support themselves with farming and homesteading skills that were exotic to me as an over-supervised hothouse flower growing up in New York City in the 1970s. Outdoor living and childhood independence were completely foreign to me, and the resourcefulness and nerve of the protagonists created my lasting love for Enid Blyton’s The Secret Island that remains to this day. 

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The Boxcar Children

By Gertrude Chandler Warner, L. Kate Deal

Book cover of The Boxcar Children

Why this book?

In The Boxcar Children, four siblings run away from an abusive home and live by their wits and skills in an abandoned boxcar in the woods. As a young reader, I loved this book because the kids seemed magic to me. How did they know how to sew and cook and get jobs and build things? As a parent, I loved this book because it modeled great values (honesty, hard work, loyalty) for my kids. I say to my sons now as we teach them to make bread or sew on a button or catch a fish: you never know when these skills will come in handy. Some skills just add dimension to your life, but others may turn out to be skills you need in a pinch. 

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Bayou Magic

By Jewell Parker Rhodes

Book cover of Bayou Magic

Why this book?

Maddy is a city kid spending her first summer alone at her Grandmère’s house on the bayou in Louisiana. Her grandmother is a little bit strange, but she and Maddy get along perfectly and can even read each other’s minds. At Grandmère’s side, Maddy learns to cook, to care for her chickens, to make healing potions, study the weather and tides, but she also learns not to stare, not to mumble, not to be quick to judge. And when an environmental and emotional disaster occurs, Maddy is called on to lead and to heal all on her own. Her triumph is thanks to what she learned from Grandmère. This multigenerational story, gorgeously written by Coretta Scott King award-winner Rhodes, is heartwarming and exciting and Maddy’s survival skills are impressive.

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Prairie Lotus

By Linda Sue Park

Book cover of Prairie Lotus

Why this book?

I was a nut for the Little House on the Prairie books growing up (I even convinced my mom to name my littlest sister Laura, after author Laura Ingalls Wilder), so I love vintage farm stories. Prairie Lotus covers the same ground—rural life on the plains in the 1880s-- but with an Asian-American lead character, during a very anti-Asian chapter in our nation’s history. Main character Hanna has moved with her white father (her mother, who was Asian, has died) to a small town where prejudice is rampant. To make a living and build a life, Hanna must draw on the dressmaking skills her mother left her. Hanna’s resilience and resourcefulness, the way she saves her family and their dignity, is inspiring and gripping reading from this Newbery-winning author. 

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Island of the Blue Dolphins

By Scott O’Dell

Book cover of Island of the Blue Dolphins

Why this book?

Karana is a twelve-year-old girl when she leaps from a ship that has kidnapped her from the only home she has ever known, the Island of the Blue Dolphins. Back on the island, she is alone, and must fend for herself to survive. This is the classic, Newbery-winning girls’ survival tale, and it packs a punch. Karana’s skills in fishing, hunting, and shelter-building are incredible, but her mental fortitude and bravery are her superpowers, and they inspire all who read about them. Author Scot O’Dell’s factual and plain prose are poetically understated and this—along with the fact that it’s based on a true story-- makes the high stakes even more gripping. A must-read!

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