New kids’ book series highlights Pennsylvania’s outdoor heritage
Really good outdoor literature for kids can be difficult to find these days. However, Pennsylvania author Ron Rohrbaugh Jr. aims to change that with his new book series called “LIVING WILD with the Orions.” The series follows the adventures of the Orion family who live on Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Front. The Orions are an outdoor bunch who hunt, fish and gather food for fun and as a way of life.
“Echo,” the first book in the series, follows 11-year-old Echo Orion as he navigates a family rite of passage to become a “Sure Enough Mountain Man” on the eve of his first hunting season. When things go horribly wrong, Echo is forced to rely on wilderness survival skills taught to him by an old, backwoods Native American woman.
I recently had an opportunity to speak with Rohrbaugh about why he was motivated to write the series and what we might expect to find between the covers of “Echo.”
“As a parent of young children and someone who is intensely interested in natural history, conservation, and hunting, I found it difficult to find quality reading material that was fun,” Rohrbaugh explained. “Past generations of kids had “Hatchet,” “My Side of the Mountain,” and “Where the Red Fern Grows,” but today there is a distinct gap in children’s literature focused on adventure and especially hunting.”
Ron discovered this gap as his children progressed from board books to chapter books, and he was left with nothing to offer but older titles or books that just didn’t capture the excitement of being outdoors with a bow in your hands.
“I wanted exciting wilderness adventure that would make my kids want to jump out of bed to build a shelter in the backyard or make a bow,” he said. “I wanted accurate natural history that made them undeniably curious about the species of wildflower growing in our woods or the identity of the salamander living under the woodpile.”
Ron is a professional wildlife biologist with both undergrad and graduate degrees from Penn State, and he is an accomplished traditional bowhunter. While the Orion family is fictional, Ron weaves accurate information about natural history, bushcraft, wilderness survival, history, and hunting into every story.
His goal is to use engaging storytelling, along with an element of mystery, to hook kids on the outdoors and make them curious about local history and culture.
“The number of hunters is declining and fewer and fewer kids are filling the hunting boots of their parents and grandparents,” Rohrbaugh said. “LIVING WILD is my way of giving back. It’s my way of ensuring the hunter-conservationist legacy doesn’t die.”
Rohrbaugh graciously provided a sneak peek into Echo’s adventures by sharing an excerpt from the book. In this scene, set around the breakfast table, Echo is explaining to his parents (Ted and Oliva) and sister (Rachel) why he had to be rescued from Chestnut Flats the previous evening by a strange woman named Luna Woapalanne.
Echo’s mom broke in. “I should have never let you go up there so close to dark, and you, young man, were not prepared.”
“I know, mom, but let me finish and you’ll see that I did the right thing. I forced myself to stop and think, ‘What are you supposed to do when you are truly lost?’ Don’t move. Someone will find you. Start a fire to stay warm and signal searchers. So I stopped and built a fire with torn up bits of my homework and strips of rhododendron bark.”
“Oh, dear lord, Echo. Please tell me you didn’t burn your math homework. You’re barely passing that class,” blurted Olivia Orion.
“Don’t worry, Mom. Mr. Kepler likes me. He’ll let me do makeup work.”
Echo continued to unfold his tale. “When the snow began falling, I could see that it was not coming straight down, but at an angle, and hitting all the trees on the same side. I remembered that our snowstorms mostly come from the west, so the sides of the trees catching the snow must be facing roughly west. I knew I had to walk southeast to get home, but before I could get started, I heard a dog. Not a regular dog, but an angry dog, snarling and baying like it had an animal cornered. The hair on my neck stood up, and all I could think of was the pack of wild huskies that killed poor Curly in The Call of the Wild.”
Rachel had been eavesdropping and poked her head around the corner with a baffled look and asked, “Weren’t you scared?”
“Yes!” said Echo. “By this point, my flashlight was deader than Curly, so I wrapped one of gym socks on the end of a stick and lit it on fire like a caveman torch. I crouched, pointing the torch toward the dog sounds, and waited with the little homework fire flickering at my back.”
“Then what happened?” demanded Rachel, who was secretly intrigued by her brother’s story but trying to act like she could care less about some silly search for a stupid deer antler.
“It was strange,” said Echo. “All went quiet except for the occasional whistle of an Eastern Screech Owl somewhere behind me. I didn’t think much of it until I realized the owl was getting closer. I spun around with the torch thrust out in front of me and nearly caught Luna Woapalanne on fire. She had crept up right behind me. How she got there without even popping a twig is beyond me. She looked like the Wicked Witch of the West in the torchlight, and I yelled for her to stay back while I waved the torch in wild circles.”
“I would have fainted,” said Rachel. “At school we call her old Loony Luna. That woman is maximum creepy!”
Ted Orion laughed out loud. “Luna is harmless, and I think you kids should get to know her better. She could teach you a lot.”
“I’d like to teach her a thing or two about the importance of soap!” replied Echo.
“Okay, you three. Let’s wrap this up. I’ve got to finish breakfast, and your dad has snow to shovel,” said Olivi
“Well, there’s not that much more to tell. When I realized who she was, I calmed down and she backed away without a word. For a few seconds we just stared at each other. Then she asked who I was and if I was okay. I told her I was Ted and Olivia Orion’s son and that I got lost while looking for a shed deer antler. She just nodded real slow and said, ‘Come on, let’s git ya home.’ She stomped out the fire and then grabbed an old open-sighted .22 rifle she had leaned against a tree. She pointed the gun’s muzzle toward Mud Lick Road while giving me an angry stare. After a few steps in that direction, she whistled just like a screech owl and two big coonhounds came out of the night like smoke creeping along the ground. It was plain spooky.
“At the truck, I pulled the passenger door open and was hit with an awful stench—kinda like wet dog and old tuna sandwich! Looney Luna didn’t seem to notice or care. I tried putting down the window, but it was stuck. The whole way home, I held my breath long, exhaled, then breathed in through my mouth. Luna just stared through the dirty windshield over the dusty layer of bird feathers, deer antlers, and bleached bones that littered the dashboard.”
“Sounds a lot like your natural history collection,” blurted Rachel. “Maybe, but I didn’t care. I just wanted out of that stinky, rolling ecosystem of a truck!” Everyone laughed as Echo pretended to be choking from fumes.
It’s clear that Rohrbaugh is onto something with his new series, and today’s generation of young outdoorsmen are going to love reading about characters they can easily connect with and envision navigating the Pennsylvania wilderness in their very own backyards.