You can find plenty of staged and pseudo survival shows on television these days, but when your young reader needs to get off the couch and read about true human courage against all odds, we recommend one (or all) of these ten classics. Full of staggering and stirring adventures, each one takes place in the wilderness, these tales of rebellion, hardship, and victory are perfect for inspiring even the most jaded tween or teen…naturally.
Sign of the Beaver, by Elizabeth George Speare
When thirteen-year-old Matt is left alone to guard his family homestead in Maine, he barely survives a terrifying bee attack and has his only gun stolen, leaving him not only defenseless but unable to hunt for food. Taken on and doctored by a Native American Penobscot and his grandson, Matt repays his new friends by teaching the grandson to read. An important book about friendship, cultural differences, and overcoming prejudice, this historical novel stands the test of time.
The Long Winter, by Laura Ingalls Wilder
This Newbery Honor classic details both the never-ending Winter of 1880 and 1881 in the wilds of South Dakota, and how the Ingalls family manages to survive for nearly seven months in epic conditions. Jaw-dropping descriptions of apocalyptic snowfall, budding cabin fever, twisting hay into cords when the firewood is depleted, and dwindling food stores are eventually buoyed by hero Almanzo’s 60-bushel wheat delivery to starving townspeople, not to mention a well-deserved Christmas in May.
My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George
This award-winner chronicles the gripping story of 12-year-old runaway, Sam Gribley, who leaves New York City for the Catskill Mountains, where he lives off the land in a hollow tree with a pet falcon and a weasel. While its main theme details wilderness survival skills, it’s also a significant account of rebellion, liberty, and independence. A must-read for all restless tweens.
Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O’Dell
This Newbery winner is based on the true story of Juana Maria, but receives a stunning fictionalized treatment with its main character, 12-year-old Karana, a young woman who lives alone on a deserted Pacific Island after jumping from a rescue ship. Karana remarkably teaches herself how to survive by constructing weapons and tools, befriending a feral dog, and building a whale-bone shelter before eventually, and somewhat reluctantly, returning to civilization.
The Cay, by Theodore Taylor
Dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr., this classic teaches important lessons regarding tolerance, racism, and ultimately love. When a young boy, Phillip, is blinded in a tragic boating disaster, he finds himself raft-bound with an old man and a cat, and eventually on a deserted island where he must learn to overcome his deep-seated prejudice if he hopes to live. A tense but terrific story about the human condition, The Cay is a classic that was written in just an astounding three weeks.
Julie of the Wolves, by Jean Craighead George
This stunning library essential is about the life of Miyax, a 13-year-old Eskimo girl, who flees an unbearable arranged marriage and sets out across the frozen Alaskan tundra in the hopes of making it to San Francisco to meet her pen pal. A glorious account of her friendship with her companions, the wolves, this selection touches on adult themes like alcoholism and feminism, against the breathtaking backdrop of the Last Frontier.
Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen
This riveting classic tells the story of Brian, a 13-year-old struggling with his parents’ divorce who survives a plane crash on route to visit his father in the wilderness of Canada. Alone in the forest, Brian relies on the only thing he has: his hatchet, which ultimately provides him with food, fire, and shelter. Hatchet is a must-read for all middle readers and teens, as it touches on common coming-of-age topics in a way that does not patronize, but rather resonates and inspires.
The Swiss Family Robinson, by Johann David Wyss
A quintessential adventure read, The Swiss Family Robinson tells the story of a family who survives a shipwreck and must build a new life for themselves in the middle of nowhere. Chock full of descriptions about hunting, gathering, farming, and tree house-building, this time-tested book will delight those who enjoy all the nitty gritty details of engineering a life from scratch.
I am David, by Anne Holm
All of David’s twelve young years have been spent in an Eastern European prison camp. He has never seen the outside world, but when he finally gets an opportunity to escape, he does. With only a compass, some bread crusts, and his enemies hot on his trail, David sets off for the safe haven of Denmark in the hopes of finding his mother. A profound novel about family, freedom, and the unbreakable human spirit.
Call It Courage, by Armstrong Sperry
This is the story of 15-year-old Maftu, a Polynesian boy who has been deemed a coward by his peers for his fear of the ocean. To prove them wrong and to escape the bullying, Maftu sets out to sea on his canoe with his pet dog and albatross. A storm eventually leads him to an island where he must learn how to care for himself by fighting off sharks, wild boars, and cannibals. When Maftu finally returns to his home, he has transformed into a confident and imposing figure that even his own father does not recognize. An empowering story of triumph.
What tales of survival do you recommend to middle grade readers?