The best books about kids struggling to survive

Who am I?

I have no wilderness survival skills and certainly no wish to be thrown into any of the scenarios in the books I’ve recommended. What I do have is great empathy for those who struggle to survive loss—in whatever form it might come—be it loss of home, or security, or family. I know what it is to struggle through darkness and survive what I would have previously thought “unsurvivable.” That’s why two of my middle grade books, but especially MacKenzie’s Last Run, are about speaking up when you’re hurting or frightened. Lost in the dark woods or lost in grief–it’s all ultimately about survival. 


I wrote...

MacKenzie's Last Run

By Gayle Rosengren,

Book cover of MacKenzie's Last Run

What is my book about?

Thirteen-year-old MacKenzie (Mac) Lawrence secretly blames himself for his father’s death in a mall shooting. In his grief and guilt, he has pulled away from everyone, even his twin sister Tessa. When their mother announces her plans to remarry barely two years after Dad’s death Mac is furious and runs away in an attempt to force her to break off the engagement.

Unfortunately, nothing goes as Mac plans. He ends up seriously injured, miles from home, unable to reach out for help, while clues he inadvertently left behind suggest he’s been kidnapped—possibly by Mom’s fiancé—and set his twin sister Tessa on a desperate search to find him.

The books I picked & why

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Hatchet

By Gary Paulsen,

Book cover of Hatchet

Why this book?

I know it’s not recent, but kids continue to read and love it. Hatchet is a survival story. But it’s also about so much more—accepting things we can’t change, not giving up when things get hard, pushing ourselves to do what needs to be done, and forgiving our loved ones even when they disappoint us. In other words: Life.

I don’t know if I’d be writing books that tackle life and death issues today if not for reading Hatchet years ago. I always knew I wanted to write for kids, but I wasn’t sure what limits the teacher and parent gatekeepers might impose on the upper middle grade genre. Hatchet inspired me to take risks and tell the stories of my heart. Make it exciting and interesting, yes, but also let it convey something more—an emotional story, if you willthat will leave the reader changed in some positive way for having read it.

Hatchet

By Gary Paulsen,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Hatchet as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This award-winning contemporary classic is the survival story with which all others are compared—and a page-turning, heart-stopping adventure, recipient of the Newbery Honor. Hatchet has also been nominated as one of America’s best-loved novels by PBS’s The Great American Read.

Thirteen-year-old Brian Robeson, haunted by his secret knowledge of his mother’s infidelity, is traveling by single-engine plane to visit his father for the first time since the divorce. When the plane crashes, killing the pilot, the sole survivor is Brian. He is alone in the Canadian wilderness with nothing but his clothing, a tattered windbreaker, and the hatchet his mother…


A Long Walk to Water

By Linda Sue Park,

Book cover of A Long Walk to Water

Why this book?

I love the way A Long Walk to Water follows two characters in two different timelines to reinforce the importance of water to survival. It’s an exciting combination of a true story and fictionalized one that intersect in an unexpected but wonderful way. Readers of any age, but especially younger ones, will be shocked by what one 11-year-old girl must do to obtain just a minimal daily amount of water for her family’s survival. They will also be inspired by how one 11-year-old boy, after barely surviving wartime experiences in his African homeland, returns years later to make a lasting impact on the lives of others. The double-pronged impact of these characters and their suspenseful stories will instantly engage readers, keep them enthralled to the final page, and leave a long-lasting impression.

This is more than a story, although it is a wonderful one. It is an eye-opener to the way children in other parts of the world often have very different experiences growing up. It leaves a reader of any age forever changed and more aware of life beyond their own home or community. It certainly makes me think twice when I run the tap longer than I should to make the water colder for a drink. 

A Long Walk to Water

By Linda Sue Park,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked A Long Walk to Water as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Cherished by millions of readers, this #1 New York Times bestselling novel is a powerful tale of perseverance and hope. Newbery Medalist Linda Sue Park interweaves the stories of two Sudanese children who overcome mortal dangers to improve their lives and the lives of others.

A Long Walk to Water begins as two stories, told in alternating sections, about two eleven-year-olds in Sudan, a girl in 2008 and a boy in 1985. The girl, Nya, is fetching water from a pond that is two hours’ walk from her home: she makes two trips to the pond every day. The boy,…


Roll with It

By Jamie Sumner,

Book cover of Roll with It

Why this book?

I confess, I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy this novel. I began reading it primarily to see what was percolating in slightly younger middle grade titles and in particular in books that are rooted in stories about differently-abled characters. Was I ever delightfully surprised when I fell in love with Ellie! I thought the novel was going to be about a lot of mean treatment by kids at school, but in truth, there wasn’t nearly as much of that as I expected (which was an enormous relief!). If you’re thinking, wait, I thought this was going to be a novel about survival, I’m here to tell you that every single day in Ellie’s life is its own survival story.

Surviving being left out of nearly all the activities the rest of the kids find fun; surviving the humiliation of having an aide take her from class to class, sitting with her, and taking her to the bathroom; surviving being talked to by probably well-meaning adults as if her brain is as weak as her body; surviving the embarrassment of needing her mom to bathe her even now that her body is changing and she’s extra-self-conscious because left in a tub without special safety equipment she could drown. So yeah, survival is an everyday event for Ellie. But some of the things Ellie has on her side include a passion and talent for baking; a mom who might not always say what Ellie wants her to but who always wants the best for her; two good friends who she discovers because they’re “different” too; and last but far from least, an amazing grandmother, and a grandfather she adores and is losing slowly to Alzheimer's—something he, too, is attempting to survive one day at a time.

A different kind of survival story but one that packs a serious wallop of its own and will give readers some insights into what it might be like to be “the different one.”

Roll with It

By Jamie Sumner,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Roll with It as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"A big-hearted story that's as sweet as it is awesome." -R.J. Palacio, author of Wonder
"An honest, emotionally rich take on disability, family, and growing up." -Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

In the tradition of Wonder and Out of My Mind, this big-hearted middle grade debut tells the story of an irrepressible girl with cerebral palsy whose life takes an unexpected turn when she moves to a new town.

Ellie's a girl who tells it like it is. That surprises some people, who see a kid in a wheelchair and think she's going to be all sunshine and cuddles. The thing…


The Disaster Days

By Rebecca Behrens,

Book cover of The Disaster Days

Why this book?

The Disaster Days is a novel that has special appeal, I think, to midwesterners like myself who are equally fascinated and terrified by the idea of an earthquake. In Behren’s novel, not only does an earthquake actually happen, but it happens when young Hannah’s responsible for two young babysitting charges, Zoe and Oscar. Cut off from her family by a collapsed bridge, and cut off from the world by disabled communications systems, she is frightened to death but trying not to show it to the children. And trying not to think about the inhaler she left at home.

This survival story is unique from most in that usually the youngster struggling to survive has only their own fear to deal with and their own life at stake. In The Disaster Days, though, every decision Hannah makes must take into account what can safely be managed by the youngest of the two children. And when that youngster has a pet he refuses to leave behind, it adds still another layer of complication. Stranded and with no idea if her family is safe or when help will come, Hannah has to draw on every ounce of her strength and ingenuity to protect Zoe and Oscar and herself until help comes. But there’s no way to know whenor ifit’s going to arrive. This is a fast-paced, engaging read that will satisfy young readers and share some great earthquake and general survival information at the same time. After all, as Hannah discovers, you never know when it might come in handy!

The Disaster Days

By Rebecca Behrens,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Disaster Days as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Hatchet meets The Babysitters Club in this epic and thrilling survival story about pushing oneself to the limit in the face of a crisis.
We were all alone, in a shaken and shattered house, in the dark. And I was in charge.
Hannah Steele loves living on Pelling, a tiny island near Seattle. She's always felt totally safe there.
So when she's asked to babysit after school one day, it's no big deal. Zoe and Oscar are her next-door neighbors, and Hannah just took a babysitting class, which she's pretty sure makes her an expert. She isn't even worried that…


Life as We Knew It

By Susan Beth Pfeffer,

Book cover of Life as We Knew It

Why this book?

Life As We Knew It combines several catastrophic events in the wake of a meteor’s crash into the moon, shifting it closer to earth, and as a result, wreaking havoc on the world. Billions of people are killed in the tsunamis and earthquakes that immediately follow. And for those who survive the initial destruction, there is plenty more to come. Volcanoes erupt, spewing ash into the atmosphere and blocking out sunlight, and changing weather. Food production and distribution screech to a halt, and water is rationed. Limited power soon becomes no power at all, and as a result, no heat. Among the survivors confronting this new world are young teen Miranda, her mother, and her brothers, all thrust overnight into an apocalyptic nightmare. Rationing what little they have and foraging for what they need becomes the new daily routine as they try to keep one step ahead of hunger and cold. Ingenuity and grit, and probably a bit of luck, are key to their surviving what many of their neighbors do not, and Miranda records it all in her diary, all the while trying to find something to look forward to in what seems to be a dying world.

This novel was so popular it launched the Last Survivors series. With none of the visual drama of a film showing the floods and earthquakes and eruptions, Life As We Knew It still makes a lasting and vivid impression of the quieter struggle that follows, thanks to Hannah’s voice and point of view. The novel demonstrates the strength and frailty of the human spirit while also showing the strength and fragility of family bonds. ***Because it is such a possible scenario and such a devastating one (and because I’m an overprotective mom!) I only recommend it for readers 13 and up.

Life as We Knew It

By Susan Beth Pfeffer,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Life as We Knew It as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

New York Times bestseller! A heart-stopping post-apocalyptic thriller that's "absorbing from first to last page."*

When a meteor knocks the moon closer to earth, Miranda, a high school sophomore, takes shelter with her family.

Told in a year’s worth of journal entries, Life as We Knew It chronicles the human struggle to hold on to the most important resource of all—hope—in an increasingly desperate and unfamiliar world.

As August turns dark and wintery in northeastern Pennsylvania, Miranda, her two brothers, and their mother retreat to the unexpected safe haven of their sunroom, where they subsist on stockpiled food and limited…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in survival, Alzheimer's disease, and earthquakes?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about survival, Alzheimer's disease, and earthquakes.

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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