7 True Historical Adventure Tales for Kids Who Can't Get Enough "I Survived"

Nonfiction survival stories remain a popular genre for tweens. These seven titles offer unique perspectives and riveting adventure.
Trends in fiction are easy to follow. One year it’s all vampires; the next it’s dystopia. Hybrid middle school humor becomes super popular and publishers are eager to add to the genre. Recognizing and predicting trends across nonfiction are a bit trickier—but not impossible. One year you may notice a slew of new Titanic books; the next year it might be the American Revolution. These trends often revolve around specific dates, events, or famous people and their anniversaries. Regardless of historical anniversaries and curriculum staples, one nonfiction genre that has staying power is historical survival stories. Fairly recently, these books enjoyed a resurgence of interest with Lauren Tarshis’s popular “I Survived” series, published by Scholastic. If your readers can’t get enough of these high-octane true tales, check out these recent nonfiction survival series and stand-alone titles. Reluctant or struggling readers, or even those who are just not ready for more complex and challenging fare, will appreciate Capstone’s long-running “You Choose” series. These adopt the popular “Choose Your Own Adventure” style, dropping readers into the middle of a historical epic. The “Battlefield” set came out in 2015 but is still a strong choice, covering several U.S. and world wars. In At Battle in World War II, readers can join in three major battles: Stalingrad, Okinawa, and the Battle of the Bulge. In Stalingrad, kids can participate as a Russian defender of the city or in the German Sixth Army. In Okinawa, they fly a U.S. fighter plane. In the Battle of the Bulge, readers are part of the infantry. The titles pull no punches—most options end with death or capture, and even those few endings where readers initially survive, it’s clear there’s no guarantee they will make it through the whole war. A newer series, released in 2016, takes readers into ancient Greek myths. In The Epic Adventures of Odysseus, readers follow along on Odysseus’s journeys, encountering Circe, Cyclops, and many other perils, many of which end in death (or getting eaten). It’s a great introduction to classic myths that is sure to intrigue Rick Riordan fans and send them looking for more mythology. The book includes additional information about the myths of ancient Greece as well as further reading suggestions.   For readers looking for more variety in their disaster and survival stories, a new series by Tod Olson, “Lost,” is the answer. So far two titles have been published, with a third promised in 2018. Lost in Outer Space tells the story of Apollo 13 and the tiny error that turned a mission to the moon into a mission for survival. Olson transcribes dialogue from the event, introduces characters, explains the technology, and creates an edge-of-your-seat read. Kids will appreciate references to one of the astronaut's daughters, teenager Barbara Lovell. Through her eyes, readers see the challenges of those on the ground, waiting for news. When kids are ready to move to more challenging titles, I look for unusual, unique survival stories and those that bring in new perspectives or opportunities for discussion and deeper examination. A riveting new survival story is Samantha Seiple’s latest historical narrative, Death on the River of Doubt. After his failed bid for a third term as president in 1912, Theodore Roosevelt traveled to South America. Originally intending to visit as a tourist and lecturer, Roosevelt could not refuse the invitation to explore an unmapped river, the River of Doubt. Along with his son Kermit and experienced Brazilian explorer Cândido Mariano da Silva Rondon, Roosevelt survived bugs, malaria, starvation, and injury during their dangerous adventure. Roosevelt often used what is now outdated and offensive language when referring to the native peoples, and the narrative overall has a strong “Great White Explorer” emphasis. Educators will want to encourage in-depth analysis and discussion of the exploration genre. Students can compare and contrast the relative perspectives and experiences of Roosevelt and his team with that of the native population. How did Roosevelt’s experiences compare with those who considered the jungle their home and not a wilderness to “explore”? Students could also discuss how the narrative overlooks the contribution and experiences of the local guides and the far-reaching consequences of mapping “undiscovered” but inhabited lands. For students of American presidential history, the title also presents an interesting portrait of the 26th POTUS, including references to his close-knit family life and relationships. It's difficult to find female protagonists in historical survival stories. Their tales often remain untold while white male explorers, soldiers, and heroes take the spotlight. However, by thinking a little differently about what it means to “survive,” I’ve found success in introducing readers to several female survivors. A recent biography of daring female reporter Nellie Bly is a great example. Ten Days a Madwoman by Deborah Noyes focuses on Bly’s famous 10-day stay in a mental hospital; Bly got herself committed in order to report on the treatment of the mentally ill. Noyes skillfully portrays Bly’s fears, the very real perils, and how she made it out. The story expands from that point to examine how Bly—and other women over time—broke into professional journalism. Noyes includes thoughtful commentary on the restrictions and lives of women in the late 1800s and at the turn of the century. The descriptions of life in the insane asylum and some of Bly’s other adventures are not for the faint of heart. Noyes also touches on the racism within many of Bly’s reports, especially those chronicling her famous trip around the world. Overall, this is a nuanced portrait of a complex character and an exciting story of daring, danger, and drama. For a slightly more recent historical survival tale, Jewell Parker Rhodes’s Ninth Ward, a Coretta Scott King Award winner, follows the harrowing journey of 12-year-old Lanesha, a resident of New Orleans, as Hurricane Katrina wreaks havoc and destruction upon her city. Haunting prose and nuanced character development are coupled with nail-biting suspense. For today’s middle grade and tween readers—for whom Katrina would be considered historical—this is an excellent introduction to the events.     Lastly, there’s Deborah Hopkinson’s Dive!: World War II Stories of Sailors & Submarines in the Pacific, a book with unique subject matter, a diverse array of protagonists, and an enthralling narrative. While there are many selections focusing on World War II, this one looks at submarines, a subject not often referenced in histories for children and young adults. Hopkinson includes stories from African Americans who were directly or peripherally involved with submarine warfare. Heavily researched with copious notes and references, the volume is organized by the tours of duty and the experiences of specific submarines and their crews. Hopkinson also includes spotlights on contemporary warfare, timelines, and the place of submarine warfare in the larger context of the war in the Pacific. This dense book may initially look intimidating to slower readers, but the short chapters and spotlights will encourage them to put in the effort to make it through. The many quick glimpses and portraits of soldiers, nurses, and others will encourage readers to continue expanding their knowledge of history and the stories not often told, perhaps tackling titles by Steve Sheinkin or Mary Cronk Farrell next.   Works Referenced At Battle in World War II by Matt Doeden. 2015. Capstone. ISBN 978149142152 Epic Adventures of Odysseus by Blake Hoena. 2016. Capstone. ISBN 9781491481196 Dive!: World War II Stories of Sailors & Submarines in the Pacific by Deborah Hopkinson. 2016. Scholastic. ISBN 9780545425582 Ten Days a Madwoman by Deborah Noyes. 2016. Viking. ISBN 9780803740174 Lost in Outer Space by Tod Olson. 2017. Scholastic. ISBN 9780545928151 Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes. 2010. Little, Brown. ISBN 9780316043076. Death on the River of Doubt by Samantha Seiple. 2017. Scholastic. ISBN 9780545709163  
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