Survival Fiction for Young Adults

Posted on: August 22, 2012

From time to time, I have readers contact me asking for recommendations of books about survival suitable for younger readers. Typically, they are looking for books that have at least some degree of practical information surrounded by an engaging story. Nothing too scary or gory, of course, but enough suspense and thrill to keep the reader interested.

Post-apoc and dystopian stories for young adults are rapidly taking the place of vampire romances (THANK GOD!). Here are a few I’ve read in the last year or two and are always at the top of my list of recommendations for young readers.

Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick
Alex is camping in the woods, coming to terms with the death of her parents, when the world changes in an eyeblink. She comes to realize she has gained some new abilities and can’t understand how or why. She meets Ellie, an eight year old girl who is camping with her grandfather. Ellie is whiny, argumentative, and spoiled, so like many kids her age. The grandfather dies suddenly and Alex is left to take care of Ellie as they work to find their way out of the forest and figure out what has happened. All electronics are on the fritz and many people are acting…weird. Along the way, they meet a young soldier named Tom who is rather secretive but is determined to help his new friends stay safe.

Ashes is the first in a trilogy and the book does end in a pretty big cliffhanger — fair warning. The next book, Shadows, is due out in September.

Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer

Miranda is a sophomore in high school when her world changes forever. An asteroid strikes the moon, driving it closer to Earth. This radically affects the climate, leading to chaos. Suddenly August becomes the dead of winter. She, her mother, and two brothers are living in Pennsylvania, trying to survive the brutal winter with only a small wood stove for heat and with food becoming increasingly scarce.

Life As We Knew It is written as a series of journal entries, beginning before the asteroid hit. Because of this writing style, we’re only really given one character’s point of view and given that at times she acts like a rather typical teenage girl, this can get old quickly for those of us who aren’t 15 anymore. But overall, it is a great book for introducing the concept of societal collapse to younger readers. We are shown the riots at the supermarket and how quickly people can devolve into brutal actions.

There are two sequels to the book but honestly I don’t think either are even close to the quality of the first book.

Ashfall by Mike Mullin

Ashfall remains one of my favorite reads in the last several years. Fifteen year old Alex is home alone when the world as he knows it comes to an end. His parents and sister traveled to another state to visit relatives and he’s enjoying his freedom when the Yellowstone caldera blows, shooting millions of tons of ash into the air. His home is severely damaged and he seeks shelter with his neighbors. It doesn’t take long before society collapses around him and Alex decides to set out and find his family. Along the way he battles hunger, thirst, exhaustion, and the ever-constant ash that falls around him. Piling up like snow, it is more than a foot deep in most places.

During his trek, he is severely injured in a fight and is rescued by Darla. She is a little older and a whole lot smarter, a born survivor. Together, they face a world changed forever.

The sequel, Ashen Winter, came out a couple months ago and is just as good as Ashfall. (The third book in the trilogy will be out next year.) In this second book, Alex and Darla have settled into their new world and are making something of a life together. But when a clue to where Alex might find his parents falls into their lives, they again set out on the road.

Empty World by John Christopher

This book will always have a place in my heart as it was the first post-apoc novel I ever read. While it is a few decades old now, it holds up surprisingly well. Neil is a teenage orphan who is now living with his grandparents. His parents were killed in a car crash and he is still coming to terms with their deaths when a virus begins sweeping the globe. The plague starts as a fever but morphs into rapid aging, killing off all adults and many children.

After his grandparents die, Neil decides to explore the changed world and eventually makes contact with a few other survivors, with mixed results.

What I like about this book is that Neil is not the strongest, fastest, or even smartest kid alive. He’s just an average boy with average intelligence. He makes mistakes and pays for them. Yet, he still manages to do the right thing much of the time.

You may be hard pressed to find this book for sale at a reasonable price as it has long been out of print. However, most public libraries should be able to locate a copy.

Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
Ok, this one isn’t really post-apocalyptic at all but it still deserves a spot on any list of survival fiction, no matter what the intended audience.

Brian is headed to Canada to spend time with is father, who recently divorced his mother. Along the way, his small commuter plane crashes, leaving him stranded in the wilderness with nothing more than the clothes on his back and a small hatchet that was a gift from his mother.

Brian has no wilderness survival skills, though he does remember a few things he learned in history class about primitive tribes. Despite this lack of knowledge and skills, he manages to survive, learning as he goes. He makes a lot of mistakes and pays for them dearly. He is a bright kid and is able to puzzle his way through many obstacles.

This is the first in a short series of books and all are recommended. Hatchet though is, to my way of thinking, the quintessential survival book for kids.

3 thoughts on “Survival Fiction for Young Adults

  1. I would like to say the “Hunger Games”, and it’s other two books is also a clean, easy to read and entertaining book. Relevant information as well

  2. Thanks for the list. I’ve read Hatchet by Gary Paulsen. I agree; it’s a great book.

    In fact, after reading it, my oldest son (who wasn’t quite a teenager at the time) wanted to learn to process chickens. I told him that the next time I had a batch to process, he could help. He did everything, staring from a live bird to putting it on the counter for his mom to cook.

    Thanks again for the post. I’ll have to look into the other books.


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