Middle Grade Survival: A Reflection on Favourites


In my previous post I talked about totally skipping over the Middle Grade section in the library — well, upon thinking back on it, I did read one type of Middle Grade book, the survival story. I know! And I’m totally a fantasy or sci-fi girl, but I do hold a special place in my heart for these kinds of stories. I think what started me into this “genre” was the required reading for grades 6-9 wherein I had to read Hatchet, Island of the Blue Dolphins and Lord of the Flies. Somewhere in there I found a gold mine of great books to read about kids who experience setbacks, mistakes and small triumphs in their own, often unique, survival situations. Indeed, the captivating difference between the “survival” Middle Grade and other genres for this age group, to me, was the that these kids were my age and thrown into situations not entirely implausible and surviving in the real, harsh, world all by themselves – they faced death and true loss, as well as hardship, starvation and when they had to think for themselves, they did. I loved it.

Here’s a bunch of books that I truly enjoyed as a kid, and a few that I read as an adult too, and why I loved them (mini reviews ahead!) (oh, and don’t worry, I won’t talk about Lord of the Flies again, go ahead and see my other posts about that book).

Let’s start with one that I still recommend to readers:

Hatchet by Gary Paulsen.


Thirteen-year-old Brian Robeson is on his way to visit his father when the single-engine plane in which he is flying crashes. Suddenly, Brian finds himself alone in the Canadian wilderness with nothing but a tattered Windbreaker and the hatchet his mother gave him as a present — and the dreadful secret that has been tearing him apart since his parent’s divorce. But now Brian has no time for anger, self pity, or despair — it will take all his know-how and determination, and more courage than he knew he possessed, to survive.

 This book captured my attention and imagination, Paulsen’s fast pace and high stakes had me whipping through it all in one night – and then, of course, having to read it chapter by chapter with the rest of the class (I was a strong reader, but also the school system underestimated our reading potential, let your kids read!). Brian’s story of survival is logical (he remembers that he has to stay in one spot, he has to figure out how to signal for help etc…), dangerous and somewhere in between introspective and action driven. Brian does share his thoughts and fears, but it’s not overwhelming (as say, The Road might be for adult literature). Really, it’s a great read and adults would like it too. Read it with your kids! Give it to your kids as a gift. Reluctant readers and avid readers will enjoy it’s short chapters, Brian’s easily accessible thoughts and logic, and the way that nature is both his adversary and partner in survival.

Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain


Terribly unhappy in his family’s crowded New York City apartment, Sam Gribley runs away to the solitude-and danger-of the mountains, where he finds a side of himself he never knew.

I think I discovered this book in grade 9 and blew through it, passed it around to my group of readerly friends and we all adored it. Sam is a fascinating, and obviously a fiercely independent character. I don’t remember his motivation for leaving civilization, but once he made up his mind he stuck to it. He made a home out of tree (which he burned out and cleaned and made a door for and windows) and he hunted, and he befriended a hawk, which he trains as well. It’s not really a spoiler to tell you that civilization eventually claims him again, but his summer on the mountain was certainly memorable.

Jean Craighead George’s other survival tale, Julie of the Wolves


To her small Eskimo village, she is known as Miyax; to her friend in San Francisco, she is Julie. When her life in the village becomes dangerous, Miyax runs away, only to find herself lost in the Alaskan wilderness. Without food and time running out, Miyax tries to survive by copying the ways of a pack of wolves. Accepted by their leader and befriended by a feisty pup named Kapu, she soon grows to love her new wolf family. Life in the wilderness is a struggle, but when she finds her way back to civilization, Miyax is torn between her old and new lives. Is she Miyax of the Eskimos — or Julie of the wolves?

  This is really a fascinating tale about the survival of a girl in the Northern wintry wilderness. She uses her upbringing as an Eskimo, close to the natural world of the north, and her unique empathetic bond with the wolves to survive, and it’s really a thrilling read. It’s difficult to say whether or not the ending of this story, as with My Side of the Mountain is a happy one. In nature these children are so much more free and happy, unfettered by adults and growing up – but then, that’s just it, they must “grow up” and rejoin civilization even though it may be that they’ve grown in the wilderness more than they possible could have in the confines of civilization. I really like this cover, as opposed to some of the other’s – even though they all show a girl’s face, in this one we see that compassion and determination, the fieriness and her connection and will to survive with the wolves.

Some other great nature-survival stories:

THE SIGN OF THE BEAVER by Elizabeth George Speare.

LOST IN THE BARRENS by Farley Mowat.


Oh! And also Terry Lynn Johnson, an Ottawa area author…

ice dogs - terry lynn johnson

More recently, Ice Dogs and other titles by Terry Lynn Johnson – really a great story, in the vein of Iron Will but with a female protagonist who works with a boy and her dogs to survive. Gripping, really, and also more contemporary.  

Forbidden City by William Bell




Seventeen-year-old Alex Jackson comes home from school to find that his father, a CBC news cameraman, wants to take him to China’s capital, Beijing.  Once there, Alex finds himself on his own in Tian An Men Square as desperate students fight the Chinese army for their freedom.  Separated from his father and carrying illegal videotapes, Alex must trust the students to help him escape.
Closely based on eyewitness accounts of the massacre in Beijing,Forbidden City is a powerful and frightening story.

I read this book for school, though I don’t remember which grade, maybe grade 7? I was fascinated. I had never heard about this incident and in many ways this is what sparked my interest in international issues. How could I not know about this? Students were massacred, and only roughly 15 years before I’d read the book. While the story is fictional, following Alex on his romp through Beijing and then his terrifying, high-stakes flee from the city with the help of the students, and one student in particular Xin-Hua (a girl!) who helps him find his father and escape. I don’t think that I was prepared for the amount of death presented in this book, and the realistic way that the massacre was carried out. The gunshots rang in my head, Alex gets shot and the fate of Xin-Hua was one I wasn’t expecting, though perhaps I should have. It’s a very good read, and a great segue into international issues. Certainly, this is a survival story.

The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis.


Since the Taliban took over Afghanistan, 11-year-old Parvana has rarely been outdoors. Barred from attending school, shopping at the market, or even playing in the streets of Kabul, the heroine of Deborah Ellis’s engrossing children’s novel The Breadwinner is trapped inside her family’s one-room home. That is, until the Taliban hauls away her father and Parvana realizes that it’s up to her to become the “breadwinner” and disguise herself as a boy to support her mother, two sisters, and baby brother. Set in the early years of the Taliban regime, this topical novel for middle readers explores the harsh realities of life for girls and women in modern-day Afghanistan. A political activist whose first book for children,Looking for X, dealt with poverty in Toronto, Ellis based The Breadwinner on the true-life stories of women in Afghan refugee camps.

 As with all of Ellis’ titles, this book’s authenticity is just astounding. The amount of research and detail and backstory and logic involved in Ellis’ storytelling is mouthwatering. The Breadwinner is just an excellent book that will open anyone’s eyes. Ellis tells the story of a young Afghan girl and her family as they struggle to survive right at home. I mean, juxtaposed with My Side of the Mountain where Sam tries to escape civilization to survive, here Parvana and her family struggle to survive and blend in to the civilization that they are born into. Wonderfully realistic and poignant, Parvana finds her courage and her place in the world – this book is truly terrifying at time because it is so real and there are real lives at stake, there are real people living these kinds of stories every day in fact. Again, like The Fobidden City this will really open up conversation beyond the borders of Canada.

Ok, and there is one more “survival” story that I’d like to mention that I’m sure you all know already…

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg.


When suburban Claudia Kincaid decides to run away, she knows she doesn’t just want to run from somewhere, she wants to run to somewhere — to a place that is comfortable, beautiful, and, preferably, elegant. She chooses the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Knowing her younger brother Jamie has money and thus can help her with a serious cash-flow problem, she invites him along.

Once settled into the museum, Claudia and Jamie find themselves caught up in the mystery of an angel statue that the museum purchased at auction for a bargain price of $225. The statue is possibly an early work of the Renaissance master, Michelangelo, and therefore worth millions. Is it? Or isn’t it?

Claudia is determined to find out. Her quest leads her to Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, the remarkable old woman who sold the statue, and to some equally remarkable discoveries about herself.

If you haven’t read this book, go and get it and read it. It’s a fast paced read full of imagination, charming hilarity and, well, survival! These two kids have these kind of crazy ingenious ideas about how to survive alone in the museum. Clever and witty, the story pulls together in a totally unanticipated way – I loved it, devoured it time and again, and so will you and your kid ;)

OH! There are so many good Middle Grade books out there – I hope this list helps out a little, I really enjoyed all of these books and I hope you will too! Please let me know what your favourite “survival” stories were when you were a kid, or if you have any more updated titles to add to the list! Cheers!

One response to “Middle Grade Survival: A Reflection on Favourites

  1. Some great books in here, Steph! I vaguely remember The Mixed-up Files – I know exactly what happens at the beginning and some of the practicalities of living in a museum, but the detective part is a blur. Definitely time for a reread!

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