A List of Books That Teach Us How To Do Important Stuff
By REBECCA, June 18, 2012
Most of my friends are divided on whether or not they liked survival books as kids. Some (like me) found them exhilarating and educational, where others found them boring and/or stressful. It seems clear to me, however, that with the current (YA lit-indicated) threat of apocalypse, the resurgence of DIY culture, and people’s obvious desire to prepare for the impending zombie hordes, it is time for a crash course in SURVIVAL!
To that end, I have collected some of my favorite YA titles that teach us how to do stuff. I can personally guarantee that if you read all these books you will have significantly improved your chances of surviving—nay, thriving!—in the face of a zombie attack, economic collapse, the overthrow of capitalism, extreme global climate change, or whatever generalized apocalypse is your own personal bête noire. In short, this is for your own good! Crunchings and Munchings is trying to save your life (don’t say we never did anything for ya)! Don’t worry—this list does not stop at digging tubers and chopping firewood; read on.
SO, YOU NEED TO . . .
The Little House Books, Laura Ingalls Wilder (1932).
I don’t think I can possibly overstate how much useful stuff the Little House books can teach us. My favorites are the really descriptive ones, like when Pa makes bullets, and builds the smoker or their new house when they move to the prairie; when Ma makes head cheese (that is so disgusting) or weaves hats out of summer grass; when Mary and Laura churn butter. And, of course, there is my all-time favorite chapter, when they go to Laura’s grandparents’ house for sugaring time and they eat fresh maple syrup on everything, and make maple candy by pouring the syrup on pans of snow (which never worked for me no matter how many times I tried it with Mrs. Butterworth’s as a child). A must read for all hopeful homesteaders.
Survive off the land:
Hatchet, Gary Paulsen (1987).
The first in the Brian’s Saga, Hatchet introduces us to Brian Robeson, who must survive in the wilderness after the tiny plane he’s riding in crashes in the Canadian wilderness and the pilot dies—and let me tell you, it is a saga, indeed. Brian is wicked smart even though he’s only 13 and has nothing but (you guessed it) a hatchet to work with. I like this book because he makes lots of mistakes, but you can totally follow the logic of the things he does. In the sequel, The River, the government wants Brian to DO IT AGAIN! They’re so impressed by him that they want to watch what he does and use it to train military folks in impromptu survival. And Brian agrees. And, therefore, he is not as smart as Hatchet made me think he was, because obviously everything goes wrong and he has to survive again for real.
My Side of the Mountain, Jean Craighead George (1959).
Obviously, this cover looks like nothing that you would ever be caught dead reading, but I totally love this book. For New Yorker Sam, it is a damp, drizzly November in his soul, so he pulls an Ishmael and goes to sea—well, to the Catskills. And lives in a hollowed-out tree. And learns to live off the land. And has a falcon and a weasel for friends. I’ve loved this book since I was a kid, particularly because Sam’s feelings about the world and wanting to be in touch with himself are so sincere and lovely.
Island of the Blue Dolphins, Scott O’Dell (1961).
Twelve year-old Karana is being evacuated with the rest of the population of the island she lives on (horrible!), but realizes that her brother has been left behind. She jumps off the boat to stay with him and ends up living on the island alone for years and years. While totally horrifying as a concept, Island of the Blue Dolphins is a really beautiful book, and the descriptions of how Karana finds food, uses bone and wood to make tools, and creates shelter are really interesting and lyrical. It’s based on the true story of a girl who survived on an island 70 miles off the coast of California for 18 years.
Survive off the land while fighting people who are trying to kill you:
The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins (2008).
One of the most exciting things about The Hunger Games series for me is seeing how the strengths of each district translate into the survival skills of those districts’ tributes. That Peeta’s cake decorating could provide some form of protection in the Games gave me hope that perhaps my skills of cat-petting, color-coding, editing, and my frankly impressive ability to watch an entire season of tv on dvd without stopping to sleep might some day prove as useful as Katniss’ skill with a bow or at climbing trees. Note: please do not disabuse me of this notion; it is all that stands between me and terror.
Tomorrow, When the War Began, John Marsden (1993).
When Ellie and her friends get home from a camping trip in the Australian bush they find that their town has been invaded and their families taken prisoner. So, they have to survive off of what they can scavenge from the abandoned houses of their neighbors and pool their knowledge to fight back against the invaders. I am a fan of seeing how the little bits of seemingly useless knowledge we have can be put together with someone else’s seemingly useless knowledge to outsmart other people and make . . . you know, bombs and stuff.
The Grounding of Group 6, Julian F. Thompson (1984).
Check out that totally ’80s cover; I love it. So, five teens are sent to a boarding school by their parents to whip them into shape. Or so they think . . . duhn duhn duh! In actuality, this boarding school offers rich parents the chance to send their nuisance children there to be killed and disposed of in a terrible accident during the start-of-year camping trip. Nat, the only-slightly-older leader of this year’s group 6, has second thoughts and decides to help the kids survive in the woods instead, allowing them to escape the fate planned for them. This is a super fun (and super dated) book; after reading it I accused my parents (who were trying to send me to summer camp, horror of horrors) of trying to group 6 me. As you can see from my presence here today, I must have scared them into calling off the hit.
Escape in order to avoid certain death:
Long Live the Queen, Ellen Emerson White (1989).
So, long story short, I had no idea until like two weeks ago that this book, which I read as a stand-alone as a kid, was actually book three in a series (so now, of course, I have to go back and read the rest)—anyway, it works just fine as a stand-alone. Anyhoo, Meg’s mom is the president and Meg gets kidnapped. She has to escape, once it becomes clear that she won’t be let go, and then she has to make her way to help. I really like Meg as a character and her feelings and tactics while she’s held captive feel super realistic. She has to do some gnarly things to get away, but they’re all rendered logically, so it seems like a totally useful primer if one were ever to be kidnapped.
Survive urban(-ish) perils:
Slake’s Limbo, Felice Holman (1974).
Slake is bullied at school and abused by his aunt, with whom he lives. Finally, Slake can’t take it any more and he runs away to live in the subways of New York City. I will confess to being straight up fascinated with any kind of off-the-grid living stories, so this is right up my alley. I mean, I read Jennifer Toth’s Mole People: Life in the Tunnels Beneath New York City and watched the documentary Voices in the Tunnels. Holman details how Slake gets food, makes shelter, and makes friends in 1970s underground New York.
The Borrible Trilogy, Michael De Larrabeiti (1982).
Borribles are runaways who live hidden around London. They lie, cheat, and steal to survive, and they’ll always stay young unless they are captured by adults and have their (pointy) ears clipped, which is the ultimate horror for a Borrible. When creatures invade their Battersea neighborhood, a specially chosen group of Borribles sets out on a mission across London. Great world-building, and a super fun adventure story. The Borribles could teach anyone a trick or two about surviving on the streets, from nabbing fruit to breaking into buildings, and, of course, evading the capture of those most evil of creatures, adults.
Stick, Andrew Smith (2011).
Fourteen year old Stick has always had his brother, Bosten, to look out for him, but when Stick finds out that Bosten is gay he realizes that Bosten has to leave home to survive their abusive father. Once Bosten leaves, Stick sets out across three states to find him. Without much money or any connections, Stick finds himself in, erm, sticky situations (sorry!), which he handles because he has no other choice. Anyone who reads C&M regularly knows that I basically fucking adore everything that Andrew Smith writes, so I’m thrilled whenever I compile a list that can include his marvelous books, which you should all be reading. You can check out my full review of Stick here.
Survive intergalactic perils:
Tunnel In the Sky, Robert A. Heinlein (1955).
To pass their Advanced Survival class, Dr. Matson’s students have to take a practical final exam, which could take place on any terrain and in which anything goes, including weapons. But, when something goes wrong, Rod Walker and the rest of the class are stranded at an unknown place in the universe (AHHHH!) through a tunnel in the sky. With no promise of rescue, the class must try and survive in this unknown and, of course, hostile place. So, basically, this is close to my worst nightmare about space travel (my worst nightmare involving drifting in the vastness of space after my spacesuit has come untethered while I have enough of an air supply left to fully take in the complete and total existential horror before me that can only be ended by my slow and terrified death, but I won’t get into that).
Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card (1985).
Although Orson Scott Card is a raging idiot, I am annoyed to say that Ender’s Game is one of my all-time favorite books. Monitored for a particular personality type and level of intelligence, Ender makes the grade and is sent to interplanetary Battle School to train for command in an army that will one day fight the next in a series of Bugger Wars with an alien species. Small for his age and cumbersomely smart, Ender is certainly one of the most iconic survivors in YA literary history. His survival takes the form of a dizzying understanding of strategy, including interpersonal psychological strategy: knowing why people do things and, thus, being able to predict what they will do. He’s an amazing (but still believable) character and anyone who wants to think a bit about how we use strategy in our daily lives should absolutely pick this up.
Take down a corrupt government institution and stop the nation from turning into a police state:
Little Brother, Cory Doctorow (2008).
Hacker Marcus and his crew are gaming in the wrong place at the wrong time—in San Francisco after a terrorist attack. After being taken into custody by the Department of Homeland Security, they’re placed in a secret prison and interrogated mercilessly. After their release, Marcus realizes that the city has become a police state, with limited access to internet resources, surveillance of private citizens, and civil liberties violations up the wazoo. Marcus sets out to free the people (and the information), bending his not inconsiderable skills toward taking down the DHS himself. Awesome example of kids using the resources available to them to change the world. And Doctorow practices the freedom of information he preaches; you can download Little Brother here.