Hiking with Henry

Henry David Thoreau was an author, poet, philosopher, abolitionist, naturalist, tax resister, environmentalist, surveyor, historian, gardener, and flautist – and he could paddle a canoe. In fact, he’s a great homeschool role model – one of the prime advantages of homeschooling, after all, is giving kids the freedom to pursue their own multifaceted interests, to think independently, and to follow their own different drummers.  And he was born in the summertime - which makes this a perfect time for all things Thoreau.

In D.B. Johnson’s Henry Hikes to Fitchburg (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006), a picture book for ages 4-8, Henry and a friend (both bears) decide to travel to Fitchburg, 30 miles away. The friend opts to take the train; Henry, however, chooses to walk, enjoying nature along the way. There are several sequels, among them is Henry Builds a Cabin, in which Thoreau (as bear) settles in at Walden Pond.

Check out the Take a Hike with Henry Activity, a project to accompany Henry Hikes to Fitchburg in which kids choose how they want to travel (hike or train) and keep short journals showing what they’ve learned along the way. Helpful links provide info.

Robert Burleigh’s If You Spent a Day with Thoreau at Walden Pond (Henry Holt, 2002), for ages 5-10, begins as a little boy in blue jeans knocks on the door of a cabin in the woods - and then spends a wonderful day with the owner, Henry David Thoreau. It’s written in the second person, which gives the book a feel of immediacy and participation. (“If you spent a day with Henry David Thoreau, you would need to get up early because Henry wakes with the sun.”)

Stephen Schnur’s Henry David’s House (Charlesbridge, 2007) is a picture-book adaptation of Walden for younger readers, illustrated with watercolor paintings. The text consists of short excerpts from the original book. (“My furniture, part of which I made myself, consisted of a bed, a table, a desk, three chairs (one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society).”) Try pairing this one with your own build-a-chair project. There are a lot of kid-sized chair plans online (for example, Kids Chair Plans), but it’s often more fun to hand out supplies, supervise, and let the kids experiment.

Middle-grade books featuring Thoreau include Robin Vaupel’s My Contract with Henry (Holiday House, 2003) in which four eighth-graders build a cabin in the woods and set out to emulate Henry David Thoreau. They learn about themselves and their values in the process, and eventually make a difference by putting their beliefs into practice, when the woods are sold to developers.

In Rebecca Rupp’s (yes, me; I can’t help myself) Octavia Boone’s Big Questions About Life, the Universe, and Everything (Candlewick, 2010), Octavia is struggling with questions about belief after her mother leaves the family to join a fundamentalist religious group called the Redeemers. With the help of her best friend Andrew (whose big questions are about everything from time travel to alien jellyfish) and some philosophy from Thoreau, Octavia finally comes to terms with her parents’ choices, learns some lessons, and begins to figure out what she believes herself. All her big questions aren’t answered yet – but then, as Henry says, “The universe is bigger than our views of it.”

Cal Armistead’s Being Henry David (Albert Whitman, 2013) is a page-turner for ages 13 and up: a 17-year-old boy wakes up in Penn Station with no memory, ten dollars, and – his only clue - a copy of Thoreau’s Walden. He names himself Henry David and sets off for Concord, Massachusetts, to search for his past at Walden Pond – though his fragmented recollections tell him that his past may contain something terrible.

Thoreau’s Walden and Civil Disobedience – available in many editions – are both standards on recommended reading lists for teenagers. The Thoreau Reader, sponsored by The Thoreau Society, is a terrific resource here: included at the site are online versions of all of Thoreau’s major (and some minor) works, with annotations, links, and photos, as well as dozens of informative articles, among them an essay on Winnie-the-Pooh as a Transcendentalist. (Pooh lives a simple life in the woods.) The related Teaching Thoreau page has background info, discussion questions, philosophical debates, and even a downloadable four-character, two-act play called “Walden: The Ballad of Thoreau.” (Free script with music.)

Civil disobedience is the theme of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s play The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail (Hill and Wang, 2001), a brilliant and witty account of Thoreau’s life and philosophy, set during the night Thoreau spent in jail for refusing to pay taxes to support the Mexican-American War – a war fought without Congressional approval and a blatant example of imperialism. It’s a fun and thought-provoking read: be prepared for discussion.

For teenagers, The Great Courses – which offers high-school- and college-level courses on CD, DVD, or as audio downloads – carries a 24-lecture course, “Emerson, Thoreau, and the Transcendentalist Movement,” taught by Ashton Nichols, an English professor at Dickinson College. (Full price is daunting, but all of the Great Courses periodically go on sale at huge reductions.)

And finally check out Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods (Algonquin Books, 2 008) which discusses the benefits ofunstructured outdoor play – that is, the chance to go outside and run around in the woods – and argues that our present-day alienation from nature is bringing on a damaging condition that the author calls “nature-deficit disorder.” Thoreau would have agreed.

So put a book in your backpack and go for a hike. Pretend that you’re Henry, walking to Fitchburg.

Looking for more? Check out Henry David Thoreau and all of Rebecca's website.