March 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Teen vs. Nature: Spine-Tingling Wilderness Survival Stories

The high-stakes adventures featured here have it all—impenetrable woods and treacherous mountain peaks, churning seas and roiling rapids, the gnawing threat of starvation and dehydration, and encounters with gargantuan bears and tooth-snapping wolves (and the occasional bad guy). Whether braving hurricane-force winds on the Atlantic Ocean, finding themselves lost and alone on the Appalachian Trail, or facing down kidnappers in remote Afghanistan, these teen protagonists encounter extreme circumstances that require them to dig deep for the courage, acumen, and constancy needed to look death in the eye and survive another day.

Suggest these offerings to fans of danger-fraught outdoor survival films such as Everest (PG-13; 2015), which recounts the true events of the disastrous 1996 climbing season on Earth’s highest mountain, or In the Heart of the Sea (PG-13; December 2015), a thriller inspired by Nathaniel Philbrick’s nonfiction title (Viking, 2000) about the sinking of the whaling ship Essex in 1820, directed by Ron Howard and starring Chris Hemsworth.

Challenged by the present, haunted by the past

Wilderness4Hoping to escape the fallout from a past tragedy, Matt, 17, and his pragmatic best friend John, are working summer jobs at a state park in Montauk, NY, before returning home to their blue-collar neighborhood in Queens for senior year. Sundays are spent on the beach, lugging heavy coolers and hawking soda and ice cream to make extra money. This is how Matt meets Driana, who’s unique among the country club crowd for her beaded dreadlocks and brown skin; her cousin Estefania from Brazil; and Stef’s boyfriend, João. Unable to stop thinking about Dri, Matt accepts an invitation to a party at her seaside mansion, and John reluctantly tags along. When Stef takes a windsurfer out for a dangerous midnight ride on an ocean tossed by a building storm, the other four teens launch a small, ill-equipped boat to go to her rescue. Thus begins a desperate voyage that leaves the quintet Adrift (Scholastic, 2015; Gr 9 Up) for two weeks, an ordeal from which not all of them return. In this gripping psychological drama, Paul Griffin deftly depicts the emotionally traumatic, nail-biting action while doling out details about his characters’ individual pasts, personalities, and principles. Matt’s staccato first-person narrative is pulse-poundingly descriptive and lyrically evocative. As the situation becomes increasingly dire and the choices more impossible, he and his cohorts confront heart-rending questions about just how far each one of them will go to survive.

Wilderness2Consumed by survivor’s guilt after the automobile accident that resulted in her younger sister’s death one year earlier, Emma, 17, embarks on a physically demanding weeklong paddle/trek through Minnesota’s pristine Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, hoping that the excursion will somehow help her get her life back on track. When a freak windstorm results in the death of their guide, she and three other surviving teens are left Stranded (S. & S., 2015; Gr 9 Up) deep in the unforgiving northern woods. With few supplies and little food, the group must decide how to proceed—do they stay put or try to chart a course to Lake Superior, where they hope to be rescued before a forecasted storm. The challenges escalate, as the teens must cope with injuries, forest fire, hunger, and marauding wolves, as well as the selfish—maybe even sociopathic—behavior of one of their troupe. Throughout her trials and tribulations, Emma comes to realize that her own life is important and even worth fighting for, but the teens will have to work together to save themselves. Though Emma’s inner conflict adds a bit of psychological grit, Melinda Braun’s fast-paced novel focuses more on action than characterization, with nature serving as a powerful and unforgettable antagonist.

Wilderness5jpgOnce a self-confident young woman who loved to sing, sophomore Hallelujah Calhoun has remained mostly silent since the “incident” with the pastor’s son, an innocent though ill-conceived encounter with her major crush during a youth group retreat. Six months later, Luke continues to buoy his own popularity by slandering her and spreading lies about what really happened, and her only defense seems to be self-isolation. Forced by her clueless parents to attend another retreat, this one in the Smoky Mountains, Hallie becomes fed up with Luke during a day hike. When new girl Rachel decides to return to the lodge, Callie tags along, followed by her one-time best friend, Jonah. They become lost, beginning a five-day odyssey that not only tests their skill to survive but also their ability to hold on to hope. Hallie discovers that The Distance Between Lost and Found (HarperCollins, 2015; Gr 7 Up) may have more to do with summoning inner strength, reconnecting to others, and once again finding her voice than with geographical miles. Kathryn Holmes’s exquisitely written novel expresses appreciation for the beauty and ferocity of nature, eloquently conveys the soul-devastating effects of emotional bullying, and intimately portrays struggles with many different types of faith. Readers will cheer on Hallie as she finds friendship and love and makes herself heard.

Survival and self-discovery

Wilderness3McKenna, 17, and her best friend, Courtney, have deferred college for a year to hike the Appalachian Trail, a 2,000-mile trek from Maine to Georgia. Having carefully planned, trained, and packed her high-tech gear—and brushed up on Thoreau—she is impatient to test her mettle, so when Courtney backs out, McKenna decides to go forward alone (without telling her parents). Meanwhile, Sam, also 17, has just reached Maine, having traveled the trail for three months from Seedling, WV, where he walked out on his abusive father, leaving high school and everything else behind. With no better plan, he simply turns around and heads south, walking on worn-out sneakers, carrying his ancient canvas tent and mostly empty pack, and once again hunting, foraging, and working odd jobs for food. Their very different lives intersect when they meet on the trail; The Distance from Me to You (Putnam, 2015; Gr 10 Up) grows ever smaller as McKenna and Sam gradually form a friendship, their hearts fall into step, and romance blossoms in a slow and satisfying style. Presented from alternating points of view, Marina Gessner’s characterizations flourish against a backdrop of lushly described action and details of rugged terrain and trail culture (shared meals, simple acts of generosity, and oral legends). When Sam convinces the usually rule-following McKenna to go off trail and things go horribly wrong, these vivid portrayals go far in making the unfolding events all the more hair-raising, harrowing, and heartfelt.

Wilderness6jpgIn her enthralling Girl Underwater (Dutton, 2015; Gr 10 Up), Claire Kells effectively uses time shifts in alternating chapters to spin out two tales—a riveting wilderness survival story and an emotionally poignant account of navigating the aftereffects of a traumatic experience. College sophomore Avery Delacorte is on her way home to Boston for Thanksgiving when her plane goes down over the Colorado Rockies and crashes into a secluded mountain lake. She survives, along with three little boys and Colin Shea, a fellow member of the university swim team (and the only one who ever challenged her to speak up and swim the event she loves). The five of them struggle to stay alive in the harsh conditions, enduring cold, hunger, injuries, and even a bear attack. Meanwhile, the post-rescue Avery grapples with guilt about her actions, separating herself physically and psychologically from the others and even telling the media that she was alone and had nothing to do with their survival—far from the truth. She also wrestles with her sheer fear of getting back into the water and her impossible-to-deny feelings for Colin. Kells’s strongly drawn characterizations and affectingly conveyed emotional truths make it clear to readers that Avery and Colin are meant to be together; teens will be rooting for this magnetic romance even as Avery tries to ignore it, fighting to stay afloat as the aftermath of tragedy ripples through every aspect of her life.

Facing survival situations and human adversaries

Wilderness7jpgHaving recently moved from Chicago to upstate New York, Callie Velasquez, 16, is totally clueless about camping but agrees to go on a five-day backpacking trip with her two new besties, the school’s most popular girls, in order to seal their friendship. Plus, her new boyfriend, super nice-guy Jeremy, has decided at the last minute to tag along for moral support. Callie is already skittish, and her state of calm isn’t helped by a few false scares and her friends’ chilling campfire story about the Skinner, a psychopath who haunts the woods looking for victims. Then the real trouble starts—the group becomes lost, their supplies accidentally end up dumped in the river, and someone seems to be stalking them. When they finally meet a charismatic college-age hiker, he offers to lead them to safety, but should they trust him? Unease continues to escalate, disconcerting personal secrets are revealed, and Callie becomes suspicious of all of her companions…even Jeremy. And that’s before one of them ends up dead. Fueled by cliff-hanger chapter endings and plot twists, heavy doses of relationship drama and teenage angst, and truly eerie moments, Kieran Scott’s thriller will keep readers obsessively turning pages to discover What Waits in the Woods (Scholastic, 2015; Gr 7 Up).

Wilderness1When Ruth Carver, 17, wakes up in the back of a moving pickup truck, concussed with an injured arm, it takes her a while to figure things out. She has been kidnapped from her South Carolina home and taken to a remote hunting cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains, where her abductor, she soon discovers, has already brought six other young redheads whom he judged in need of punishment and purification. Dubbing him Wolfman for his hulking size and strength, Ruth vows to utilize every ounce of her competitive nature—fine-tuned by years of show horseback riding—to escape and bring the serial killer to justice. In fact, her intense desire to win earns her the nickname Ruthless (S. & S., 2015; Gr 10 Up). She manages to flee into the dense woods with Wolfman hot on her heels, initiating a life-or-death game of hide-and-seek that tests her courage and cleverness, ability to survive wilderness conditions, and the very nature of her soul. In this dark psychological thriller, Carolyn Lee Adams mixes roller-coaster action and tense suspense with well-drawn characterizations, embellishing protagonist and antagonist with revealing flashbacks into their pasts. Intense, unsettling, and riveting.

Wilderness8jpgIt’s been six months since Peak (2007) attempted—and intentionally failed—to summit Mount Everest, and now the 15-year-old climber embarks on a new adventure that once again places him on The Edge (2015; Gr 6-10; both HMH). A billionaire is recruiting participants for a Peace Climb, during which more than 200 mountaineers, all under 18, will make simultaneous ascents across the globe, with footage being compiled into a documentary. Peak reluctantly agrees to participate in order to help out his film crew buddies. Accompanied by his mother, who signs on as technical advisor, he heads to Afghanistan and the isolated Hindu Kush Mountains to join Zopa, a respected Sherpa climb master and friend from Everest, and four other climbers, including the attractive and capable daughter of the French ambassador in Kabul. The scramble up a crumbling and cave-riddled cliff face is tough and technical, but the danger level truly ramps up when mysterious kidnappers snatch members of the party, including Peak’s mom, and kill several others. The protagonist mounts a desperate rescue attempt, despite harsh terrain and even harsher odds. Pulsating with action and suspense, Roland Smith’s engrossing novel also includes fluid descriptions of climbing techniques and culture, a strongly delineated setting, appealing moments of humor, and—as the fate of a majestic shen (snow leopard) becomes intertwined with that of Peak—a touch of magical realism.

Publication Information

ADAMS, Carolyn Lee. Ruthless. S. & S./Simon Pulse. 2015. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781481422628; ebk. $10.99. ISBN 9781481422642.

BRAUN, Melinda. Stranded. S. & S./Simon Pulse. 2015. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781481438193; ebk. $10.99. ISBN 9781481438216.

GESSNER, Marina. The Distance from Me to You. Putnam. 2015. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780399173233; ebk. $10.99. ISBN 9780698184787.

GRIFFIN, Paul. Adrift. 2015. Scholastic. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780545709392.

HOLMES, Kathryn. The Distance Between Lost and Found. HarperCollins/HarperTeen. 2015. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780062317261; ebk. $9.99. ISBN 9780062317285.

KELLS, Claire. Girl Underwater. Dutton. 2015. Tr $26.95. ISBN 9780525954934; ebk. $12.95. ISBN 9780698186194; audio book download $20. ISBN 9780698189676.

PHILBRICK, Nathaniel. In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. Movie tie-in ed. Penguin. Nov. 2015. pap. $17. ISBN 9780143126812.

SCOTT, Kieran. What Waits in the Woods. Scholastic/Point. 2015. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780545691116.

SMITH, Roland. The Edge. HMH. 2015. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780544341227.

SLJTeen header

This article was featured in our free SLJTeen enewsletter.
Subscribe today to have more articles like this delivered to you twice a month.

Joy Fleishhacker About Joy Fleishhacker

Joy Fleishhacker is a librarian, former SLJ staffer, and freelance editor and writer who works at the Pikes Peak Library District in southern Colorado.

Empowering Teens: Fostering the Next Generation of Advocates
Teens want to make a difference and become advocates for the things they care about. Librarians working with young people are in a unique position to help them make an impact on their communities and schools. Ignite your thinking and fuel these efforts at your library through this Library Journal online course—April 24 & May 8.