Modern-Day Thoreau

When I was a teen in the 80s, I subscribed to Seventeen magazine (didn’t every girl?) but I really spent my time reading agricultural reports, learning how to vaccinate sheep rather than apply mascara. I was a 4-H member. Not because I lived on a farm. I lived in the tidy suburbs of Silicon Valley. Before it was cool to be an urban farmer, I had chickens and rabbits in my backyard, and I boarded sheep and a pig at a community farm tucked under the concrete freeway overpasses.

Walden Pond. Image courtesy of rodinpresta (

Even when I moved to the Big City after college, I kept fantasizing about when I’d get back to farming. I collected beautiful seed catalogs and planted a container garden on my apartment’s tiny balcony. Here I am now, finally living out my dream on a plot of land in Maine – and there’s a foot of snow. So it’s time to curl up to browse gardening books and plan for the spring. I just read Michael Pollan’s “Second Nature,” and he writes about America’s tradition of wilderness writing starting with Henry Thoreau. But Pollan points out that we lack a contemporary body of literature that can take into account our rapidly changing modern-day relationship to nature. Nonetheless, everyone still has to read “Walden” in high school, right? What does it mean to today’s teens?

While thinking about where ”Walden” fits into YA reading, I came across this interesting article from The ALAN Review about modern-day themes in YA lit. We’ve blogged about this before at YARN – the question of how to define YA. Scholar Jeffrey Kaplan suggests that one reason so much mainstream YA literature features sci-fi and cyborgs is that teens today are exploring the boundaries of identity. He writes, “The once time honored ‘stuff of science fiction novels’—cloning, genetic engineering, etc.,—is now the everyday realities of young people’s lives. Everything from artificially created limbs to designer babies is very real for today’s adolescents, bringing into question the eternal question, ‘what does it mean to be human?’”

In a teen’s world, the boundaries between nature and technology are intentionally blurry. (Check out this app that allows you to find constellations in the sky using the GPS of your iPhone.) Is there room in YA lit for a modern-day “Walden”?

I can think of classroom standards in social sciences aimed at younger readers (“My Side of the Mountain,”) but not much for teens. “In the Forest” might fit the bill, but it’s post-apocalyptic. So I asked Lourdes Keochgerien, YARN’s YA Consultant, to start a list of YA novels with nature themes.  Readers, teachers, librarians – help me out. Please add to this list in the Comments section below, or write your own YA nature tale for YARN!

Colleen Oakley, Poetry EditorLourdes’ list:
The Adoration of Jenna Fox (“Walden” is quoted throughout.)
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate
The Whale Rider
The Nature of Jade
The Queen of Cool

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  1. I also think many teens don’t get much experience in “nature” –which can be hard to define. I remember reading an article in Sun Magazine about tree houses and how so few kids seemed to have tree houses anymore. The interviewee claimed tree houses were an early nature experience that led him to love and protect trees. He also talked about how few kids have the run of the neighborhood to go out a play –parents are afraid and watch the kids all the time. Of course, this is kind of an urban/suburban perspective. Makes me want to read about some kids exploring their identities while living in a more connected way with the land… if there’s any left!

  2. Colleen Oakley says:

    What a great observation, Jill. Tree houses are magical places! I think summer camps are the way most suburban kids experience nature these days (my son attended one called “Farm Camp”). But there’s nothing like a book to transport readers to unfamiliar territory, which is why I’d love to see more YA nature writing.

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