Man's first tentative steps away from the trials of living by hunting/gathering came on the shores of rivers, most famously on the Nile, the Jordan and the Tigris/Euphrates rivers but elsewhere around the world as well. Rivers exert an ancient tug at the ancestral memory. The very names are charms calling up romance, adventure, exotic locations of different peoples and different ways: The Nile, the Indus, Mississippi, the Yellow River, the Congo, the Yangtze, the Amazon, the Ganges, the Niger, the Tigris and the Euphrates, the Jordan, the Murray Darling, the Mekong and the Irrawaddy. You can almost smell the romance of adventure with these names.
Few capture it better than that subtle bard of the British Empire, Kipling, as in his poem Mandalay (on the Irrawaddy). See Thing Finder for the full poem.
By Rudyard Kipling
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin' eastward to the sea,
There's a Burma girl a-settin', and I know she thinks o' me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
"Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!"
Come you back to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay:
Can't you 'ear their paddles chunkin' from Rangoon to Mandalay?
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin'-fishes play,
An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China 'crost the Bay!
Then there is of course the bucolic brook in an idyllic English setting. (Full poem also at Thing Finder)
by Alfred Lord Tennyson
I come from haunts of coot and hern,
I make a sudden sally
And sparkle out among the fern,
To bicker down a valley.
By thirty hills I hurry down,
Or slip between the ridges,
By twenty thorpes, a little town,
And half a hundred bridges.
Till last by Philip's farm I flow
To join the brimming river,
For men may come and men may go,
But I go on for ever.
One of the aspects in which rivers resemble life is that they conjoin in the same entity both change and continuity. The exact path, volume and even to a degree, the nature of a particular river is subject to change on a day-to-day basis. And yet it remains broadly recognizable for what it is, was and will be. Interestingly, in linguistics, river names are one of the markers for linguistic archaeology. River names tend to remain the same regardless of who has settled the territory. In Europe, for example, the Rhine, Neckar, Inn, Seine, Marne, Thames, Severn, Avon, Tyne, Shannon and many others are not Romance names from a Latin based language or Germanic names. Rather, they are all remnants of the earlier inhabitants, the Celts.
Likewise, here in the States, with a new people settling a new land, those that were here earlier can not be forgotten because it is their river names we use: the Mississippi, Ohio, Chattahoochee, Missouri, the Allegheny, the Connecticut, the Arkansas, etc.
The rivers captured in young children's stories are usually places of mild adventure and exploration (The Story About Ping, Wind in the Willows, Where the River Begins, Paddle to the Sea, etc.). That of course belies the reality that rivers are a fundamental force of nature, never to be taken for granted. There are a couple of first rate older reader/ young adult level books that explore the force and potential for terror of rivers such as David McCullough's The Johnstown Flood as well as a picture book, Kate Shelley: Bound for Legend. I think though that the best introduction to powerful rivers for younger children is 'Banjo' Paterson's Mongrel Grey poem (in Thing Finder).
Rivers offer a great object lesson in change and continuity, in the mechanics of force, in ecology, etc. In the woods near us, there are a couple of creeks that are always fun to muck around in, search for pretty stones or Indian pottery, etc. It is always impressive to the kids though, (and to me), after a reasonable rainfall, how swollen the river becomes and just how much raw force there is in this deceptively gentle force of nature. Wading out into the swiftly flowing creek, while it is still raised from the rain, you can feel the hungry, almost insidious tug at your rain boots as if it were wishing to pull you away on its journey.
Being an ever more urban concentrated population, fewer and fewer kids have the opportunity to wade about in a river, scrabble around embankments, and to mess around with boats (per Rat of in Wind in the Willows - "There is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats."). While this is regrettable, there are still plenty of books that can introduce your children to the wilds, wonders and charm of a river.
Canyon by Eileen Cameron and illustrated by Michael Collier Suggested
Scuffy the Tugboat by Gerturde Crampton and illustrated by Gergely Tibor Recommended
The Story About Ping by Marjorie Flack and illustrated by Kurt Wiese Highly Recommended
Little Toot by Hardie Gramatky Highly Recommended
The Raft by Lim LaMarche Recommended
Where the River Begins by Thomas Locker Recommended
Kate Shelley: Bound for Legend by Robert D. San Souci and illustrated by Max Ginsburg Recommended
The River at Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston and illustrated by Peter Boston Highly Recommended
River Boy by Tim Bowler Recommended
Trouble River by Betsy Byars Suggested
A River Ran Wild by Lynne Cherry and illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully Suggested
A Girl Named Disaster by Nancy Farmer Suggested
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame and illustrated by Michael Hague Highly Recommended
Minn of the Mississippi by Holling C. Holling Suggested
Our Only May Amelia by Jennifer L. Holm Recommended
Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson and illustrated by Kevin Hawkes Highly Recommended
Call of the Wild by Jack London Highly Recommended
The River by Gary Paulsen Recommended
The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad Highly Recommended
Rising Tide The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America by Deborah Kent Highly Recommended
The Blue Nile by Alan Moorehead Recommended
The White Nile by Alan Moorehead Recommended
The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough Suggested
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain and illustrated by Steven Kellogg Highly Recommended
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain and illustrated by Barry Moser Highly Recommended