The best children’s books to inspire curiosity and exploration (and are great read-alouds too)

Jo Watson Hackl Author Of Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe
By Jo Watson Hackl

The Books I Picked & Why

My Side of the Mountain

By Jean Craighead George

Book cover of My Side of the Mountain

Why this book?

My Side of the Mountain changed my childhood and my life. I was born in the vibrant city of Biloxi, Mississippi and moved to a timber farm in an overgrown ghost town in rural Mississippi when I was eleven. At first, I hated it. I missed my city life and felt lonely living on a gravel road, four miles away from my nearest friends. Then I read My Side of the Mountain. The book takes readers on a journey with Sam Gribley, who runs away to live off the land in New York’s Catskill Mountains. Sam’s story awakened in me a curiosity about the natural world and set me on a lifelong quest to incorporate nature into daily life.

It inspired me to found Outdoorosity.org years ago as a free source of information and inspiration about nature. My Side of the Mountain is beautifully written and Sam’s resourcefulness and innovation inspired me to think about things that I, too, could build in nature. Because of this book, I cultivated a secret violet island in a nearby stream and populated it with moss and a tiny village built from sticks, leaves, barks, and acorns, complete with furniture fit for fairies. The survival skills and recipes so skillfully described in the book are also ones that I still use today when I’m hiking and exploring the woods. 


My Side of the Mountain was published in 1959 and it reflects part of that time period. There is so much more, however, that is timeless and enduring. I reread My Side of the Mountain regularly and it inspired the outdoor adventure elements of Smack Dab. Because of My Side of the Mountain, every time I see a willow branch, I hear Sam Gribley’s willow whistle. The sight of a large hemlock invites imaginings about what it would be like to spend a year living inside that tree. Bird calls above remind me of the secret language of birds that I’ve been studying since I read Jean Craighead George’s captivating book. I hope that My Side of the Mountain awakens in you the same curiosity and wonder about the natural world that it did for me. 


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From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

By e. l. konigsburg

Book cover of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

Why this book?

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler expanded my sense of possibility. In the book, sister and brother Claudia and Jamie Kincaid run away to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. While there, they discover a beautiful statue that may or may not be the work of Michelangelo. Claudia and Jamie use creativity and imagination to devise ways to survive in the museum, avoid detection, find and solve clues to determine the artist’s identity, and connect with the one woman who might be able to help them. As you might guess from my own writing, I’m a sucker for complex clue trails.

Since reading From the Mixed-Up Files, I have never been able to visit a museum without wondering what it would be like to live there and pondering questions about the backstory of each item in the museum’s displays. From the first page, the book extends an invitation to readers to ask questions about things that they encounter and to work to get answers. To my way of thinking, that’s always an invitation worth accepting. 


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Gregor the Overlander

By Suzanne Collins

Book cover of Gregor the Overlander

Why this book?

Gregor the Overlander is an excellent example of how the exploration of a fantasy world can inspire curiosity about one’s own world and cultivate a desire to question assumptions and explore more deeply. Years before Suzanne Collins published The Hunger Games, I became entranced by her work in the Gregor the Overlander series. The book takes readers on a fast-paced adventure with Gregor and his little sister Boots as they search for their father in the Underland, an underground world populated by creatures including translucent-skinned humans and giant spiders, rats, cockroaches, and bats. Studying Gregor the Overlander also helped teach me as a writer. I love how every character, even minor ones, is rendered in believable detail with conflicting qualities and motivations that propel the action forward and draw the reader in more deeply. Satisfying tension fills every page. 

I admire, too, how Gregor the Overlander inspires questions about our own world. Boots is only two years old, but she is hailed as royalty by the cockroaches in the Underland. This invites readers to explore unexpected qualities in themselves and others. The book also sparks curiosity about questions as diverse as the ethics of social hierarchy, how very different creatures can form stable alliances, the cost of bravery, and the tensions between loyalty to society and to friends. The book's complex characters challenge readers to reexamine their assumptions and its rich setting encourages readers to imagine complex worlds that might lie underneath the surface, just waiting for us to discover them.


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Holes

By Louis Sachar

Book cover of Holes

Why this book?

Holes masterfully juxtaposes three interconnected stories and invites readers to explore how a single choice can change the trajectory of a family or a town. Time and again, it inspires readers to ask “what if ..." As you know by now, I’m an enormous fan of stories set in the natural world and Holes’ straightforward prose beautifully explores the landscape of the land surrounding the Texas camp for juvenile delinquents where most of the action takes place. It invited me to contemplate how I would survive in that world populated with fictional venomous, yellow-spotted lizards. I love the richly rendered characters and complex connections among generations and geography that culminate in the evolving friendship between Stanley Yelnats and Zero (Hector Zeroni) as they battle human and natural forces. Discovering the relationship among the interwoven stories creates a satisfying reader experience filled with “aha” moments, as it certainly did for me.

The book sizzles with spare, tension-filled prose, starting with the first line: “There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.” From that moment, I was hooked and I did not put Holes down until the last page. The questions the book raises long linger and I think of Holes and its string of consequences every time that I am considering a choice that affects other people. 


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The Maze of Bones

By Rick Riordan

Book cover of The Maze of Bones

Why this book?

I love how The Maze of Bones, the first in a set of series written by acclaimed and award-winning children’s authors, transports readers across the globe to explore historical connections that still resonate today. The book takes readers along with sister and brother Amy and Dan Cahill as they compete against talented and treacherous members of their own family to try to solve a series of thirty-nine clues that will make the finders “the most powerful, influential human beings on the planet.”

I admire how The Maze of Bones explores the complex connections among family and across time and weaves in real-life historical figures such as Benjamin Franklin and lesser-known facts such as that Franklin used the pseudonym Richard Saunders to publish Poor Richard’s Almanac. The Maze of Bones takes readers from Boston to Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute and Independence Hall and to the catacombs of Paris and it propels them forward to their next adventure in Vienna. I have since visited many of the settings described in the series and, my curiosity sparked, I have explored each of them more deeply. Inspired by Amy and Dan, I have become a collector of odd and quirky facts about each place. 

Like the other books on my list, this book informed my writing too. I looked for connections to historical figures such as reclusive Southern artist Walter Anderson and to the poetry of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, and for lesser-known facts such as the mirrored writing used by Leonardo da Vinci, the stones used to reflect the moonlight along pathways in Ephesus, Turkey, and the migration pattern of the color-changing scarlet tanager bird to include in Smack Dab

Each of the characters in this series is complex and engaging and their evolution over time invites readers to explore the possibilities of change. This was the series that our family listened to on endless carpool trips and, even after the carpool days were over, I kept listening. The stories inspire curiosity about historic events and far-flung places and, most importantly, the potential within each of us.


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