We immediately ordered Lost On A Mountain in Maine, and as a family, found ourselves lost, tangled in the briars, starving, navigating, and hallucinating our way to what may have been nowhere, but fortunately for Donn, he was finally somewhere, and back home with his family.
We were, of all things, camping in the mountains when we neared the end of the book. We could not bring ourselves to begin to enjoy our trip until we were finished with the story. Perched on the edge of our seats, which happened to be a picnic table in the Tallulah Gorge State Park Camp Ground, we wept as Donn was finally rescued and reunited with his family.
From tales of pioneers in the early 1900s to fictional dystopian societies, survival stories draw us in and hold us captive. They teach us more about ourselves than we may even want to know. They force the reader to cope with suffering, strength, weakness, problem solving, death, fortitude, and self-reliance – life.
With the protracted war in Ukraine and immense human suffering in Israel and Palestine, I find myself thinking through the idea of what children need to think with. What I need to think with? Whether or not adults, and especially adults in positions of authority, can see beyond a fixed set of possible solutions to crises around us, it is important to remind children that their capacity for discovery and growth is part of what changes our world.
Student responses to survival texts:
My Side of the Mountain by Jean George
- “The story is inspiring. It recounts different ways Sam did things to survive with pictures and descriptions. It shows how different our lives might be, but he was just a regular person like us.”
Diary of an Early American Boy by Eric Sloan
- “It’s the creative thinking that I want to apply to my life, especially because they are stories about someone my own age. I read about them, and they are doing things I feel like I could do, but I can try them in a safe situation.”
Little Britches by Ralph Moody
- “I can relate to a son trying to get along with his father and trying to be a man. It has normal everyday life, like learning to tell the truth: for example, when he steals a chocolate – it deals with what he did right and what he did wrong.”
Relevant Application and Readings
In middle school and high school classrooms, reading about resourceful children, children who learn and survive, sets the stage for space to write, sketch, and dialogue. As students find parallels in their own lives, they connect to the text and to each other. I challenge us all as educators to enter the process with our students. In My Side of the Mountain, Sam journals and sketches his daily experiences as he attempts to survive in the wilderness. How can I bring that to students?
My students and I sketched our bedrooms. Some were crud pencil sketches, some were maps, while others were elaborate with minute colorful details. Their bedroom is a wilderness tamed, a safe space for them to navigate and create.
One student talked about her head mannequin set up on her desk. She practices doing hair and make-up because she wants to be a mortician! By sharing about it in this context, classmates were able to ask questions, and she was able to share about her world, and how she is making sense of beauty and life and death. If we give them the opportunity to talk about their lives, we find a path for them to be able to communicate and dialogue openly with us and with each other.
We can find capacity for discovery and growth with our students and survival texts provide an outlet that allow us to navigate this wild world.
Diary of an Early American Boy by Eric Sloan, tells the story of the evolution of a frontier settlement to a colonial town as a series of problems solved through fifteen-year-old Noah Blake’s journal. Complete with rich illustrations and diagrams that invite the reader into the visual and tactile problem solving space where Noah was growing up.
The Grace Year by Ken Leggett: In gaslit Garner County, women and girls are said to harbor diabolical magic capable of manipulating men. A rebellious 16-year-old is sent to an isolated island for her grace year when she must release her seductive, poisonous magic into the wild before taking her proper place as a wife and child bearer. In reality, it is a year of fighting for survival against hunger, the elements, and the other girls sent away with her.
My Side of the Mountain by Jean George tells the story of a young boy who learns courage, independence, and the need for companionship while attempting to live in Upstate New York’s Catskill Mountains. He teaches himself wilderness survival skills by reading a library book. Sam forages for edible plants, trap animals for food. The book is written through his journals.
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen: After the plane he is in crashes, thirteen-year-old Brian struggles to survive alone in the Canadian wilderness with one tool: A hatchet. He also works to understand his parents’ divorce as he finds his way into adulthood.
Julie of the Wolves by Jean George: Split between two worlds, Julie/Miyax runs away when her life in an Alaskan village becomes dangerous. She finds herself lost in the harsh Alaskan wilderness. She survives by copying a pack of wolves that become her family. The story shows the interdependence between people and animals and the struggles between cultures and communities.
Little Britches by Ralph Moody is the story of a New England family who moves out west at the beginning of the 20th century. From Ralph’s point of view, he tells of their innovative carving out a life in the Wild West. It tells the stories of the dangers and difficulties they face as well as everyday experiences with farm work, horses, and land rights.