how one boy begins to approach the meaning of life—on a camping trip

by Lisa Shanahan – Allen & Unwin, 2017
ages 8 to 14 years / chapter books, emotional resilience.

Beloved by parents, in part due to the cloistered risks the trip offers to children, camping is the stuff of dreams for many children too. Except when it’s not.

For Henry Hoobler, who will go into year 3 at school when his family camping trip ends, there's some mild anxiety going on.

There’s the family expectation that this is the time when he’ll learn to ride his bike without training wheels; there's the thought of actually being away from home; the benign bullying from one of other kids camping with the family; even a bit of worry about playing card games.

Henry is concerned—but he knows he's safe in the loving embrace of family and other adults who care about him.

In the course of the trip, he discovers many things about himself. For example: 

It turns out he is genius at figuring things out by noticing things; he can ride a bike; and he is brave enough to risk telling the truth to a friend.


Henry's camping trip is full of adventure moments - he touches a wild stingray, bikes down a steep hill, sneaks out at night, and more - making this a totally relatable, and aspirational, story.

As well, there are many, many precious story moments to add to the storehouse of memories, thoughts and ideas that can help your child make emotionally and socially beneficial choices. Some of these story moments speak directly to a parent’s heart. Mostly they expose the tender learning heart of a child, and beautifully connect all ages.

Here are some of my favourite thoughts from the book:

Fathers love differently to mothers, but no less ardently. Henry, who has a wonderful relationship with his dad, surprises him by asking to go on a big bike ride. It's a surprise because Henry has finally learned to ride without training wheels—something his father has been working towards for the entire trip:

“Henry heard it then, in that tiny crack [in his father’s answer].It filled him with a strange and terrible wonder. There it was, love so big, so wild, brimming away in his dad’s chest like a rising flood, close to bursting. ‘Son of my heart,’ whispered Dad.”

That big, wild, rising love is, I think, a universal description of a father’s love. Dad’s love and pride isn’t so much in Henry’s bike riding as it is in Henry’s love for him


Parents, at their most loving and most effective, are like a safety net. When Mum is ever so carefully guiding Henry through his leaving-home anxiety, Henry recognises something about her:

“His mum wasn’t so good at making cakes and slices for fundraising days either. Or remembering school notes. But she was good at knowing things. Yes, his mum was good at knowing things inside him that he didn’t even have words for yet. There was something reassuring about that, like he was a trapeze artist in a circus, swinging through the sky, with the biggest, strongest safety net in the whole universe stretched out wide to catch him.”

Parents understand their children. Henry’s mum beautifully helps him to process his anxiety about leaving home and then about leaving the campsite. She does it by sharing personal experiences—perhaps the best and most connective way to teach anything. When Henry is finally in the car and driving towards the family holiday, Mum muses about the way she once felt about change. She shares her own worries and when Henry asks

“What do you do about it?”....  Mum answers: “Oh well …I don’t l know. I think I just notice it and even make a little room for it. Maybe I even say, Ah, there you are! But I also remind myself that it’s not the whole story. That I’ve had very enjoyable holidays in the past and this one will likely be the same.” And then she says … “Lolly, anyone?”

Friendships can (and probably should) cross gender, age, socio-economic and any other boundaries. When Henry meets Cassie, who lives full time at the campground, he knows they can become special friends. So when Henry is teased about Cassie being his ‘girlfriend’, (‘You gonna kiss her, Hen?’) he:

“… brushed past, shaking his head. He didn’t have any words handy that could express the fullness of his scornWhy couldn’t a boy and a girl just be friends? Why did everyone have to go like a stupid ninny-head the minute a boy and a girl talked for one tiny second?”

Children will often cross imaginary boundaries (thank heavens for that). Henry is in grade 2—but it’s true of any age don’t you think, why can't a boy and a girl be friends? Or a young person and an older person? Black and white? Rich and poor? Tall and short?

It’s hard to discern the ways of the world—knowing when it is helpful to ask a question and when it is kinder not to, is tricky stuff even for adults. Children often struggle to understand the formalities of polite society, and why wouldn’t they? Most of those formalities are cultural constructs and since there's very little explicit teaching about that, they take a while to figure out. Here, Henry finds himself wanting to ask Cassie a question:

“It was roosting in his head like a bird. But he wasn’t sure. Maybe some questions weren’t right to ask, especially if they were snoopy and nosy and made someone’s heart sorer than before. But then again, what if he didn’t ask? What if no one asked anything important, just slink back into their shells like shy snails? Would that leave people sometimes feeling lonelier than ever before?” 

That’s a wonderfully mature insight, but it seems entirely appropriate for Henry to be contemplating big questions like that. The way Henry thinks is exactly the way a grade 2 boy might think—though perhaps phrased a little more clearly than if he had to find the words himself.


Saying sorry is not a simple matter of repeating an empty word or phrase. When Reed, one of the other children camping with Henry and his family, is told to stay in his tent for the night because he refused to say sorry, Henry’s little sister Lulu says, with a bit of misplaced sassiness:

“ ‘Maybe some people are just big scaredy-cats about saying an incy-wincy word like sorry!’ … Henry … didn’t think sorry was an incy-wincy word. It always felt like a word that weighed a lot. Sometimes after he had done the wrong thing and spoken it out loud, the space still ached where it used to be, in a way that was both happy and sad.”

Such a beautiful expression of a feeling everyone knows.

To discover that we are, really, more than we thought, is one of life’s greatest joys. Henry is allowed to play cards with the big kids for the first time. To his and everyone’s delight, it turns out he's a genius at noticing things—and that translates into being a pretty great card player. As Henry reflects on a wonderful day he understands that:

“… it wasn't the winning or the three-scoop sundae or even discovering that he was a genius at noticing things that was the best part of the day.
It was the surprising.
Yes, that was the best thing ever. Everyone seeing him one day at the beginning of the day and then everyone suddenly seeing him differently at the end, his dad and Patch and all their friends and, now he was thinking about it, maybe even himself.”

Reading that part left me feeling more determined to take delight in the achievements of my family and more careful to notice the many good surprises in life.


Emotions often masquerade as different feelings. When the families are breaking camp and packing the car, there is, realistically, quite a bit of snappiness and stress going on. Cassie is there with Henry, watching and helping. When Henry notices that, “Everyone’s been so mad today,” Cassie answers: 

“ ‘Well, my Nan always says being mad is just another way of being sad.’… Henry … chewed that thought over in his mind for a second. He hadn't thought of getting mad like that before. … Maybe if you were a grown-up, getting grumpy was a little bit easier than bawling your eyes out.”

Sad masquerading as mad is a lovely way to think about temper tantrums as much as about adult grumpiness don’t you think?

Recognising the power that we have to impact others means that we are happiest when others are happy too. Henry puts up with snide remarks and sarcastic teasing from Reed, one of the family friends camping with Henry’s family. He doesn't like it and he tries to avoid Reed. But, when a chance to do something kind for Reed arises, Henry does it. It’s an act of generosity and one that gives Henry pause,

“Because this was the thing he was pondering; maybe a grand genius holiday wasn’t a grand, genius holiday is someone nearby was feeling horribly miserable, even if that person happened to be an infuriating bossy smarty-pants!”

A small reading hint:

This is really well written book. It’s easy to read out loud—and I can’t recommend that enough—but it’s also great for early readers to read alone. It’s fast paced, with lots of dialogue, making it easy to follow the story and to get wrapped up in Henry’s life. If you a have proficient reader from about 8 years and up, they’ll enjoy reading it to themselves, but I think it would be a shame to have only that limited age engage with this book. It’s really a book for the whole family—marvellous for reading together on a car trip.

All those fabulously insightful moments are part of a story that's high energy, funny and chock full of been-there-done-that moments. Some are laugh-out-loud funny, some share the worrisome world of a young boy, and some are glimpses of a loving family’s life. It’s the sort of book that parents will hope their children read but won't have to push them into it—because it’s such a great story. After all, doesn’t everyone want the same thing Henry wants?: “a bright, loud life.”

Amazon  -  Book Depository

Book Depository has free postage anywhere in the world and great pricing, but Amazon might be cheaper for North American readers.

Names in this book – Henry, Reed, Lulu, Cassie