Henry David Thoreau

by Edward T. Sullivan

Elementary school through high school

I was first introduced to Henry David Thoreau in eleventh-grade English, when everyone at my high school studied American literature. We read “Civil Disobedience” and excerpts of
Walden. I was immediately enamored with Thoreau’s free-spiritedness, independence, nonconformity, rejection of the material world, and commitment to social justice. I went to my local bookstore and bought my own paperback copy of Walden, which I read again and again until it fell apart.

Though he died nearly 150 years ago, Thoreau’s actions and words endure. There is still so much Thoreau did and said that resonates with young people today. He championed environmentalism and equal rights long before they were movements. He challenged people to turn their backs on materialism, to simplify their lives, and to focus on the truly important things in life, like living in harmony with nature. He encouraged people to slow down or risk being blinded to life in the rush. He taught us that we must take action against injustice, even if it means forsaking our own comfort and freedom.

There is a growing body of excellent children’s and young-adult literature about Thoreau’s life and ideas. The books below can be used to introduce Thoreau’s own writings, or they could be shared in conjunction with his works, to help make connections and develop a deeper appreciation and understanding of this philosopher.


Anderson, Peter.
Henry David Thoreau: American Naturalist. 1995. 64p. Franklin Watts, $23 (0-531-20206-2).

Gr. 5–7. This biography of Thoreau from the First Books series includes photos, an index, and a bibliography for further reading.

Dunlap, Julie, and Marybeth Lorbiecki.
Louisa May and Mr. Thoreau’s Flute. Illus. by Mary Azarian. 2002. 32p. Dial, $16.99 (0-8037-2470-5).

Gr. 2–4. In nineteenth-century Concord, Massachusetts, seven-year- old Louisa May Alcott joins other local children on outdoor excursions led by teacher and naturalist Henry David Thoreau and is inspired to write her first poem. The authors note that the basic facts of the story are true, with details gathered from journals, letters, and other primary source material from Alcott, Thoreau, their family members, and friends.

Johnson, D. B.
Henry Hikes to Fitchburg. 2000. 32p. Houghton, $15 (0-395-96867-4).

K–Gr. 6. The first of Johnson’s four books about Thoreau stars a bear who decides to walk to Fitchburg while his friend spends the day working to earn train fare. Inspired by a paragraph from Walden, Johnson gently illuminates

the contrast between materialism and the natural world, and his detailed, multilayered illustrations invite repeat

viewings. More adventures about Henry the bear can be found in
Henry Builds a Cabin (Houghton, 2002),

Climbs a Mountain
(Houghton, 2003), and
Henry Works (Houghton, 2004).

Langton, Jane.
The Fledgling. Illus. by Erik Blegvad. 1981; reissued 2002. 224p. HarperTrophy, paper, $5.95 (0-06-440121-9).

Gr. 4–7. Set near Walden Pond at the Concord College of Transcendental Knowledge, this Newbery Honor–cited novel in the Hall Family Chronicles series concerns young Georgie Hall, who is convinced that she can fly, and a mysterious Canada goose that begins regularly visiting her window.

Locker, Thomas.
Walking with Henry: Based on the Life and Works of Henry David Thoreau. 2002. 32p. Fulcrum, $17.95 (1-55591-355-5).

Gr. 2–up. Published in conjunction with the Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods, this elegantly illustrated picture book introduces young readers to Thoreau as environmentalist, philosopher, and writer, using selections of his own writings and an imaginary journey into the wilderness.

Meltzer, Milton, and Walter Harding.
A Thoreau Profile. 1962; reissued 1998. 310p. Thoreau Society, paper, $15.50. To order, go to


Adult. This reissued edition is an excellent resource for teachers, offering an overview of Thoreau’s life and work, drawn mostly from his own words. It includes 250 illustrations.

Murphy, Jim.
Into the Deep Forest with Henry David Thoreau. Illus. by Kate Kiesler. 1995. 32p. Clarion, o.p.

Gr. 4–6. Following an introduction to Thoreau’s life and works, this third-person narrative describes his journey with two companions to Mount Ktaadn (now Katahdin) in Maine and laces it with Thoreau’s journal entries for three trips into the area. Kiesler’s oil paintings illustrate the natural world, and her small, delicately shaded pencil drawings

depict the travelers’ equipment as well as plants and animals.

New Suns Will Arise: From the Journals of Henry David Thoreau. Edited by Frank Crocitto. Illus. by John Dugdale. 2000. 88p. Hyperion, $24.99 (0-7868-0539-0).

All ages. Beautiful photographs complement excerpts from Thoreau’s journals written at various periods of his life.

Tashjian, Janet.
The Gospel According to Larry. 2001. 240p. Holt, $16.95 (0-8050-6378-1); Laurel-Leaf, paper, $5.99 (0-440-23792-0).

Gr. 7–10. Highly intelligent 17-year- old Josh Swensen, a Thoreau disciple, adopts the pseudonym of Larry and starts a Web site in which he begins eloquently preaching about the evils of consumer culture. Larry’s Internet cult following grows into a national phenomenon, with Larry becoming a bona fide celebrity and cultural icon. Also see

the sequel, Vote for Larry (Holt, 2004).

Thoreau, Henry David.
Henry David’s House. Edited by Steven Schnur. Illus. by Peter Fiore. 2002. 32p. Charlesbridge, $16.95 (0-88106-116-6).

Gr. 2–up. Excerpts from Thoreau’s Walden are used to illustrate his belief in the inherent value of living in harmony ith nature. Schnur’s carefully chosen quotes are complemented beautifully by Fiore’s lush, impressionistic oil-and-watercolor illustrations.

Vaupel, Robin.
My Contract with Henry. 2003. 256p. Holiday, $16.95 (0-8234-1701-8).

Gr. 6–9. An eighth-grade project on Thoreau’s experimental living at Walden Pond becomes a life-changing experience for a group of outsider students who become budding philosophers, environmental activists, and loyal friends. This memorable story spotlights the power of great ideas to transform young lives.

Web Connections

• CyberBee at
http://www.cyberbee.com/henryhikes/henry.html provides an extensive study of
Henry Hikes to Fitchburg by D. B. Johnson, listed in this article. Also see
http://www.cyberbee.com/henrybuilds/ for a study of Johnson’s
Henry Builds a Cabin. Johnson’s own Web site at
http://www.henryhikes.com provides further information about Thoreau and his books.

Listed below are articles from past issues of
Book Links about Thoreau and other naturalists.

• “Hiking and Building with Henry:
Henry Hikes to Fitchburg and
Henry Builds a Cabin,” June/July 2002, p.23 (Available on the
Book Links Web site through the “Archive of Online Articles” page at

• “Books for the Young Naturalist,” November 2004, p.60

Edward T. Sullivan is the library media specialist for Hardin Valley Elementary School in Knoxville, Tennessee, and the author of many articles, books, and reviews. Click
here to read an interview with D. B. Johnson, author of
Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, noted above.