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Hank Thornhill hopes that after reading his children’s book, Friends of the Great Outdoors, children will climb trees, splash through streams and hike through the woods.

With so many children today spending time in front of screens, Thornhill wanted to write a book chronicling his childhood experiences in Richmond. “When I think back to important memories from my childhood, they are usually games in the woods – we would run around, explore and see what we could find,” he says.

Thornhill’s character Pop-Pop, inspired by his grandfather, opens the story and sends three children on a quest to find the forest collector’s treasure. The children are reluctant to leave their four walls, but the more time they spend in the forest, the more fun they have.

The treasure turns out to be acorns – the collector is a squirrel – but in real life, Thornhill’s favorite treasure is a megalodon tooth the size of an adult hand that his grandfather found in Petersburg as a child. “My grandfather was a great storyteller and always talked about his childhood experiences in nature,” Thornhill says. “Even on his last day, he wanted to remind me of his adventures outside. He had this optimism and childlike curiosity. He was a very formative figure in my life.”

The author spent a long time looking for the right illustrator to bring his story to life, and eventually worked with renowned British artist Steve Stone. “I didn’t want animals with hats and clothes; I wanted them to be as real as possible, but with an expressive style,” Thornhill explains. The illustrations include many animals commonly found in Richmond, including white-tailed deer, ladybirds, and birds such as the red-headed woodpecker, blue jay, cardinal, and owl.

One of Thornhill’s favorite parts of the book is the sensory guide at the end. “It encourages you to listen to the birds, touch the bark, smell the leaves after a rain, and observe the world around you,” he explains.

This type of exploratory play encourages curiosity, creativity and critical thinking, according to Outward Bound. The international organization reports that the average child in America spends between five and eight hours a day in front of a screen and only four to seven minutes in unstructured outdoor play.

“Spending time in nature has physical, mental and emotional benefits, from lower obesity rates to increased vitamin D, improved motor development and fewer cases of myopia,” says Thornhill. “The Japanese coined the term ‘shinrin-yoku,’ or forest bathing. They prescribe walks in nature for depression and anxiety.”

Thornhill and his wife are expecting their first child in September, and in the meantime they love to go on outdoor adventures with their five nieces and nephews. Thornhill shares some of his favorite local spots for families looking to get outside this summer.

“The James River park system is world class, especially Belle Isle and the entrance on 42nd Street,” he says. “Forest Hill Park has a lot of really beautiful old trees and birds of prey. We like to go to Powhatan State Park, which has three access points to the river, a lot of beautiful grassland trails and forests. Since it’s a state park, there are guided tours for the little ones and really nice campgrounds.”

You don’t have to go far from home to explore nature, Thornhill says. “You can find so many wonders in your own backyard or in a roadside tree patch. Virginia has so much to offer.”

Forests cover nearly 16 million acres, or 63% of the state’s total land area, making Virginia one of the top 10 most forested states, according to U.S. News & World Report. To protect their longevity, Thornhill donates a portion of his book sales to the National Forest Foundation, which plants a native tree for every dollar donated. “It’s a small gesture to ensure future generations can have what we have,” he says. “I hope my book inspires more children to become lifelong friends and stewards of the great outdoors.”


Hank Thornhill will appear at book signings on July 13 from 10 a.m. to noon at the Richmond Public Library Main Branch, on July 20 from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. at Bbgb Books in Carytown, and on August 3 from 10 a.m. to noon at a nature activity at Picnic Area #1 in Forest Hill Park.

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