Survival Narratives

I've been a reader for as long as I can remember. I was always signing out the maximum number of books, always asking the teacher if I could run to the library at recess so I could get new books as I read them in 1-2 days and didn't want to wait a week until our next library class.

What I never anticipated all those years ago was getting to read my favourites books and authors then with my own children now. It might even be better than the first time!

First of all... it feels sometimes like the first time as it's been 20+ years since I read any of these books (though many moments are as vivid in my memory as they were back then). Secondly, reading them aloud with my kids and husband is like having this book club that I'm always with. Walking through the woods we'll come across a "fool bird" as Brian from Hatchet called them and reminisce about the ways he trapped them for his survival. Stepping into a cedar tree in GNP that's been hollowed out by fire we can imagine just how large Sam's hemlock must have been in My Side of the Mountain. The characters and stories that were just once a part of my inner world have become shared experiences with my family and it genuinely makes my heart so happy.

As I jotted down a list of the books that stood out to me, most from my childhood were the ones where ordinary teens ended up in situations where they had to rely on themselves and nature to survive. Though a lot of these books are also marked by solitude, that wasn't what fascinated me. It was the ingenuity and creativity they displayed in using what nature provided to not only survive but thrive. Here are a few of my favourites.

Hatchet - Gary Paulsen

The story of a teen boy who finds himself stranded on an island in the bush of Northern Canada with just a hatchet is such a great read. Full of survival skills, beautiful scenery and an intriguing character it's been a hit with our family. We've read most of the series now (some of the follow ups I had never read) and really enjoyed it. I think we started to get a bit bored on the 3rd or 4th book but we had been hitting them pretty hard. It also inspired us to learn and hone survival skills for the winter and we spent and spend so many days in the woods building shelters, foraging and cooking over fires.

When I was teaching middle school ELA if I had a kid who had never found "the book" that helped them enjoy reading I would suggest this one. It was wildly successful as that book.

My Side of the Mountain - Jean Craighead George

In this book Sam voluntarily decides he's through with city life and goes to make his home on a mountain where his family owns land. The author was a wildly knowledgeable naturalist and there is SO much fascinating information about survival, living off the land, foraging, hunting and falconry but all woven expertly into the narrative. We are simultaneously finishing up both the 2nd and 3rd book right now (one was an audio book so we listen to that in the vehicle) and we are OBSESSED! The author hadn't written the follow up books until 30 years after the first book so I missed those the first go around.

*Update - this series is a family favourite and we listen to it each time we're in the mountains.

Island of the Blue Dolphins - Scott O'Dell

To switch it up we have a girl who finds herself needing to survive alone on an island. It deals with a few more in depth themes as her village is attacked by slave traders. Her courage and ingenuity make this a great read.

* I read all the Scott O'Dell I could get my hands on. He often told stories of First Nations people or Indigenous peoples of other countries. I would need to fact check them as an adult but as a child I did enjoy the diversity of characters.

Julie of the Wolves - Jean Craighhead George

The story of an Inuk girl who survives on the Artic Tundra by learning to communicate with a pack of wolves. I really enjoyed the series but will mention that the the circumstances that lead to Julie setting off on her own are of a mature theme and at this point I would not feel like I'd want to expose my kids to that at this point. While reading it I skipped over parts I felt were too mature. It's also worth noting that anything written by Jean Craighead George is extensively researched. This book has a wealth of fascinating information about the Arctic Tundra and wolves and it's all again explored through narrative.

The Sign of the Beaver - Elizabeth George Speare

A historical fiction set in the late 1700's where a young boy Matt is left in the Maine wilderness to protect their land claim while his father goes back home to get the rest of their family. He's left to fend for himself and learns to survive through a friendship with a young Native American named Attean.

I enjoyed this book as a kid and recently read it with my own kids. They quite enjoyed it as well and it brought up a lot of discussion about treaties, colonization and settlement. The book also explores stereotypes, misunderstandings and initial judgements.

All of these books showcase the courage and ingenuity required for survival. They are also excellent windows into nature, wildlife, stewarding nature, conservation, botany and much more. They have been a source of inspiration in our family and a jumping off point for many nature related rabbit trails.

Do you have any favourite survival narratives to add to the list? I'd love to hear them!


George is getting a hat trick on this post! I'm adding this book a year after the original blog post because we just keep going back to this author. You can seriously use her novels as the base of a science unit.

This book had the vibe of hers that we love but was also in an area that is far more unfamiliar to us than her other books - the Ofenokee swamp in Georgia. Jack sets out in a canoe he made and after something takes a big bite out of it he's forced to survive on an island in the swamp. On that island however he encounters a bit of a mystery that is linked to his past.

My kids LOVED this one. The added sense of mystery was a hit. If you listen to the audio book you'll enjoy the renditions of "hollering". *Also the audio book is free on Hoopla in our area.

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