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Big Bend National Park and MG/YA Novels Exploring National Parks, a guest post by Cliff Burke

I didn’t visit any of the famous National Parks until I was in my mid-twenties. I did visit Hershey Park in Pennsylvania, and many amusement parks, and the local section of the Cuyahoga County National Park where I grew up. But I never experienced the mountains or majesty I always associated with National Parks.

This changed when I was invited to join two friends on road trip that traversed Glacier, Grand Teton, and Yellowstone National Parks. I was awestruck by their beauty. Here were the mountains and the majesty and the crisp air and the unspoiled natural beauty I had been promised by old posters and educational films. But, as a writer, I was equally interested in observing other people partaking of the beauty of the parks, and I started to notice a recurring trend. There were a lot of families and most of them had a least one member of the traveling party who was ready to sit down for a while or go home entirely.

When I got back, I wrote down the note – kid forced to appreciate nature on a family vacation – and started building what eventually became An Occasionally Happy Family. I had been living in Austin for about 5 years at the time, and I decided to set most of the story in in the nearest national park – Big Bend. If you do a quick search of Big Bend National Park, the first several results are about how unpopular it is – top 10 least visited national parks, one of the lowest attended parks of the past 20 years. Its own travel brochure described the Park as a “weather-beaten desert” within the opening paragraphs. That is exactly the kind of place where a kid already not inclined to enjoy nature would be particularly aggrieved.

I did as much research as I could online but knew I couldn’t write about it accurately without visiting. While it is certainly weather beaten, and a desert, the park is also stunning, and filled with enough distinct features to write several books. I spent several days hiking, takes lots of pictures, jotting down notes at night. I left with enough notes on locations – Chisos Mountains Trail, Santa Elena Canyon, Boquillas Hot Springs, the nearby city of Terlingua Ghost Town – and natural phenomena – black bears, rare birds, dry air – to organize all of the beats of the book when I returned.

It’s now been over a full year since I’ve visited a National Park (though plan to very soon!) and have instead had to rely on books to help me travel across the protected lands of the U.S. Below are some great recent books and one older favorite that explore Yosemite, The Grand Canyon, The Great Smoky Mountains, Chiricahua, and Yellowstone. If you’re not hitting the road this summer, these will keep you busy.

The Wolf Keepers by Elise Broach

Twelve-year-old Lizzie Durango and her dad have always had a zoo to call their home. Lizzie spends her days watching the animals and taking note of their various behaviors. Though the zoo makes for a unique home, it’s a hard place for Lizzie to make lasting friends. But all this changes one afternoon when she finds Tyler Briggs, a runaway who has secretly made the zoo his makeshift home. The two become friends and, just as quickly, stumble into a covert investigation involving the zoo wolves who are suddenly dying. Little do they know, this mystery will draw them into a high-stakes historical adventure involving the legend of John Muir as they try to navigate safely while lost in Yosemite National Park.

Downriver by Will Hobbs

No adults, no permit, no river map. After fifteen-year-old Jessie gets sent to Discovery Unlimited, an outdoor education program, she and six companions “borrow” the company’s rafting gear and take off down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon on their own. Floating beneath sheer red walls, camping on white sand beaches, and exploring caves and waterfalls, Jessie and the others are having the time of their lives—at first. But when they’re pursued by helicopters, they boldly push on into the black-walled inner gorge, the heart of the Grand Canyon, only to encounter huge rapids, bone-chilling rain, injuries, and conflict within the group. What will be the consequences of their reckless adventure?

Willa of the Woods by Robert Beatty

Set in 1900 in the Great Smoky Mountains, it’s the story of an orphaned girl–gentle of heart, but brimming with the ancient forest powers of her people–who must struggle to survive in a changing world.

To Willa, a young night-spirit, humans are the murderers of trees. She’s been taught to despise them and steal from them. She’s her clan’s best thief, creeping into the log cabins of the day-folk under cover of darkness and taking what they won’t miss. It’s dangerous work, but Willa will do anything to win the approval of the padaran, the charismatic leader of the Faeran people.

When Willa’s curiosity leaves her hurt and stranded in the day-folk world, she calls upon the old powers of her beloved grandmother, and the unbreakable bonds of her forest allies, to survive. Only then does she begin to discover the shocking truth: that not all of her human enemies are the same, and that the foundations of her own Faeran society are crumbling. What do you do when you realize that the society you were born and raised in is rife with evil? Do you raise your voice? Do you stand up against it?

Distress Signals by Mary E. Lambert

Lavender’s class is on a field trip in the desert of Chiricahua National Park, hiking down a ravine, when a flash flood strikes! As the water hurtles down the ravine, everyone sprints for safety. Lavender runs in the opposite direction as the rest of her class and scrambles up a tree while the torrential river rages by.

When the waters finally recede, Lavender finds herself stranded in the brutal heat of the desert with only her ex-best friend Marisol, mean-girl Rachelle, and a boy named John. They are shaken, disoriented, and have just one pack of supplies and the most basic wilderness knowledge. Can they find their way back to safety? They will have to learn to work together in spite of their differences — if they want to survive.

Not Our Summer by Casie Bazay

It’s bad enough that estranged cousins Becka and KJ see each other at their grandfather’s funeral, but when he leaves them a bucket list of places to visit together over the summer, so they can earn their inheritance, it seems like things are about to get much worse.

However, with each trip the cousins complete—like riding mules into the Grand Canyon or encountering a bear and a hot tour guide at Yellowstone—they steadily learn about and begin to trust one another. That is until the truth behind Grandpa’s bucket list, and their family feud, is revealed, testing Becka and KJ far beyond their limits. Will they find a way to accept each other or will their grandpa’s wish to mend his divided family end up buried alongside him inside his grasshopper green casket?

Meet the author

Cliff Burke grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio. He worked as a house painter, a parking lot attendant, and a sign-twirling dancing banana before graduating from the College of William and Mary. For the past ten years, he has taught reading and writing in China, Hong Kong, and Texas. Currently, he teaches writing and humanities at a middle school in the San Francisco Bay Area. An Occasionally Happy Family is his first novel.

You can follow him on Instagram or Goodreads.

An Occasionally Happy Family is out today and can be ordered here.

About An Occasionally Happy Family

Gordon Korman meets The Great Outdoors in this funny and moving debut about a boy who goes on a disastrous family vacation (sweltering heat! bear chases!) that ends with a terrible surprise: his dad’s new girlfriend.

There are zero reasons for Theo Ripley to look forward to his family vacation. Not only are he, sister Laura, and nature-obsessed Dad going to Big Bend, the least popular National Park, but once there, the family will be camping. And Theo is an indoor animal. It doesn’t help that this will be the first vacation they’re taking since Mom passed away.

Once there, the family contends with 110 degree days, wild bears, and an annoying amateur ornithologist and his awful teenage vlogger son. Then, Theo’s dad hits him with a whopper of a surprise: the whole trip is just a trick to introduce his secret new girlfriend.  

Theo tries to squash down the pain in his chest. But when it becomes clear that this is an auditioning-to-be-his-stepmom girlfriend, Theo must find a way to face his grief and talk to his dad before his family is forever changed.

ISBN-13: 9780358325673
Publisher: HMH Books
Publication date: 05/18/2021
Pages: 224
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years


  1. Julie Paladino says

    So excited to read this article! We just got back from our first visit to Big Bend and absolutely loved it. I’m putting your book on my TBR list. Thanks!

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