The best books in which the natural world is the lifeblood of the story

Martine Murray Author Of Molly & Pim and the Millions of Stars
By Martine Murray

The Books I Picked & Why

Moominpappa at Sea

By Tove Jansson, Kingsley Hart

Book cover of Moominpappa at Sea

Why this book?

To be truthful, I would list all the Moomin books as top of my list and am only choosing one because I can’t pick them all. In Moominvalley and its enduring characters, its seasons, snowstorms, comets, floods, and finally its absences, we find lifes’ psychological dramas, doubts, and triumphs perfectly embedded in and drawn from the tempestuous and consoling presence of the natural world. I read all these books to my daughter and relished the emergence of a conjured world that was deep and familiar, yet also distant and magical, as is whatever realm of nature you most find yourself close to. I remember Moompapa at sea for its particularly philosophical and slightly wistful tone and because who doesn’t wonder about the wildness and loneliness of life inside a lighthouse. 

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Swallows and Amazons

By Arthur Ransome

Book cover of Swallows and Amazons

Why this book?

I am not a sailor by any standard, and have never lived by a lake, but this didn’t stop me from relating to this pre-war British classic about a family of four children who spend their summer in high adventure, all fuelled by lively imaginations and a good deal of convincing knowledge about sailing and camping. They navigate by the stars, sleep out, devise contests with fellow sailors, join forces against an imagined foe. I loved how it reminded me of the magic of my childhood. Being one of four children who were largely left to our own devices, we also created whole worlds with Ivy kingdoms, tea tree jungles, enemies, cubbies, and campouts, all of which unleashed a lasting reverence for the mysterious wonder of the natural world.

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By Colin Meloy, Carson Ellis

Book cover of Wildwood

Why this book?

I want to list something that is contemporary and this was one of the few series I was willing to see through. I was impressed with the way the world beyond the Impassable wilderness comes to life, literally, as we follow Prue and Curtis on their mission to rescue Prue’s baby brother. As well as plunging into forests or villages, replete with talking animals and birds, menacing ivy, an army of coyote bandits, underground warrens, cushions made of moss, an occult queen– there is enough mysticism, ritual, strange politics and twists, turns and perils to ensure a compelling narrative pace. 

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My Side of the Mountain

By Jean Craighead George

Book cover of My Side of the Mountain

Why this book?

This book was one of my childhood favourites. It spoke to the part of me who used to routinely “run away”, mostly for the implied sense of adventure and also because I was entranced with the idea of living in a cubby I’d built myself. One of my most spectacular cubbies was built at the foot of an enormous pine tree, around whose drooping branch I fashioned an igloo-like stick structure which I stuffed with pine needles. Inside I made beds of pine needles which I even slept in, despite it being a good half hour from our home. My Side of the Mountain makes my attempts at independence, puny. That Sam, who learns to make fire, hunt, cook, make clothes and live in a tree hollow, also makes friends with a falcon was the crowning glory. 

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The Secret Garden

By Claire Freedman, Shaw Davidson

Book cover of The Secret Garden

Why this book?

As a young girl, this story hooked me with its historical other-worldliness as well as its promise of a dark secret. There is something about the walled garden that has strong symbolic or archetypal resonance, and in this story, the secret garden becomes a site of discovery and of buried loss and renewal or healing. It’s an enduring truth that tending to a garden is soulfully regenerative and this story delivers this with a climactic happy ending encompassing all-around transformations to both garden, ailing son Colin, spoilt orphan Mary, and grief-stricken father Archibald.   

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