The Enduring Appeal of Survival Stories

 In Support for Struggling Readers

There’s nothing like a good survival story: The conflict is clear, the stakes are as high as they get, and you know exactly what you’re rooting for.     
Todd Olson, The Children’s Book Review

What is it about Survival Stories that is so appealing to readers of all ages – especially boys?  Well, it goes without saying that a well-crafted survival tale is exciting, keeping readers on the edge of their seats, wondering whether the character will survive or succumb. But there’s more to it than that.

The theme of survival pits characters against an external force:  the environment, disease, a powerful antagonist.  What a character does to survive against these forces is what makes these stories so compelling; after all, the character could be you or I.  These stories show us what characters just like us can do in dire circumstances and push us to ask, “What would I do?” They remind us that life is about resilience, resourcefulness and choice. And they give us hope that we, too, will be able to confront the challenges that we encounter every day.

When we teach students the features of the genre, it helps them anticipate what to expect in the reading, to make connections to prior knowledge and other reading, and to learn more about important themes in their world. According to media specialist Peter Butt, here are five features to look for in Young Adult Survival Fiction:

  • The protagonist is alone, often physically and emotionally alienated.
  • There are no adults to depend on or to inhibit the protagonist’s emerging independence.
  • The protagonist must confront his or her own fears, doubts and limitations.
  • Physical change, actions and thoughts reflect the protagonist’s growth.
  • The challenges are often symbolic of the protagonist’s personal challenge.
  • There is usually some reintegration into the society with a hero’s welcome.

The HIP SURVIVAL THEME PACK offers a collection of 10 stories about teens just like our readers confronting blizzards, tsunamis, criminals and plane crashes.  Corresponding Teacher’s Guides offer complementary nonfiction reading, discussion points and graphic organizers.

There are many websites available to help plan units of instruction around teaching survival skills. includes nonfiction articles on “Cool Survival Skills.” Don’t Die in the Woods is a blog post with a range of activities from building your 0wn Survival Kit to making s’mores. Montclair University’s School of Conservation website has a number of activities for critical and creative thinking and action.

Stories of survival resonate because they remind us of the human capacity to adapt and change. We always have choices, and survival is about choosing to move forward. Let’s read some Survival Stories!


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