In recent years it has become a best practice to supplement or even substitute whole class reading of core novels with themed book clubs which incorporate student choice, small group work with their peer discussions and cooperative learning, including final presentations during which the whole class can hear about each selection and decide if this would be a book they might select for independent reading. The topic of survival is engaging for middle school aged children and is a popular topic in literature. Many books have been chosen along the theme of survival in nature so students can choose one with characters or a setting they are most interested in. The books curated here are only a sampling of what is available on the topic of survival in the wilderness for your teens. Ideally, each individual teacher would select a range of titles appropriate for their students.
Book clubs are introduced with a whole class read of the first two sections of The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich. This particular text was chosen for the whole class to read because the author is an enrolled member of the Chippewa Indians and the class will benefit from learning a little about her. The book also begins with an episode of survival and there are beautiful descriptions of nature both as resources as well as a threat. A model book group will be held to familiarize students with the protocol for survival book clubs.
Sample Lesson - Introduction to Survival Book Clubs
Students will learn the purpose of reading books about survival in order to enhance their knowledge about nature and nature writing.
Students will learn how to discuss literature and responses in a small group of peers who have read the same literature.
Students will hear about various books offered for the classroom clubs and choose their top three.
Copies of the first two sections of The Birchbark House for each student
Graphic organizer for two-column notes
Book Club Reflection Handout
Multiple copies of survival themed books appropriate for middle school students
- The teachers will introduce the concept of survival literature that is set in the natural world and place it in the context of a yearlong study on nature and nature writing.
- The students will be instructed to read the short story “The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell and annotate the story with question marks placed in parts they do not understand.
- Students will be given a graphic organizer with directions to select three sentences which describe the natural aspects of the setting. Students will be asked to look for how natural phenomena are both a help and hindrance to survival.
- Teacher will ask for volunteers to engage in a fishbowl discussion in front of the class, and select four students, who along with the teacher will make up a discussion group.
- The fishbowl group will sit in a circle in front of the class. Members will take turns sharing the quotes from the story they have selected, going round robin. They will discuss their answers to the questions in step three.
- Following the fishbowl discussion the teacher will open up the discussion on the story to the whole class.
- The teacher will give brief book talks on each of the books selected for the clubs and also pass the books around to the students.
- Each student will rate their top three books.
- The teacher will formulate a heterogenous group for the purpose of the clubs.
Curated Titles for Survival Book Clubs
Damselfly by Chandra Prasad - The modern retelling of Lord of the Flies is the story of an ethnically diverse mixed gender fencing team whose plane goes down on the same remote island as its fictional inspiration. However, this version closely explores power struggles between various personalities while elaborating on the description of the natural environment. The knowledge of one of the protagonists about nature and survival is a key focus and she even instructs the survivors in the close observation of a square foot of the island in an exercise that can be replicated by the class. The ambiguous ending of this tale captures the imagination of many students who can be encouraged to add their own final chapters.
The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich - This is the first book in a series about the Ojibwe People of Lake Superior written by a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe. We meet and fall in love with Omakayas, an independent, spirited and clever orphan who is adopted into a loving family. In reading this book the middle school student learns much about the varied conditions of nature requiring survival skills, as well as the respectful and reciprocal relationship that Native Americans have with nature. Some of the highlights include a close encounter Omakayas has with two young bear cubs who become her spiritual brothers, and the chapter describing maple sugaring mentioned above.
The Day My Mother Left by James Prosek - Keen natural description characterizes this tale of how nature can help a nine-year-old boy with emotional survival in the face of abandonment by his mother. Jeremy is devastated, confused and angry over the sudden and complete loss of his mother to another family and only by spending time in nature and drawing birds does he find the inner strength to face life and even find some level of inner peace. Students who have experienced loss of a parent may find inspiration in this straightforward story with detailed pen and ink drawings by the author.
Dry by Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman - This semi-apocalyptic novel is set in California but during a drought so severe that a whole city is completely cut off from any water supply. Teenagers need to figure out how to survive without their parents in a place where people are literally killing each other over water. This book does a good job at illustrating how precarious our current society’s relationship with natural resources is and what could happen if we don’t change things now.
Game of Silence by Louise Erdrich - In the sequel to The Birchbark House, Omakayas grows up as a full-fledged member of the Ojibwe, but also learns that soon they must leave their paradise island on Lake Superior and move further west due to the expansion of white settlements. The novel is rich with details about daily life of a people and time in close relationship to nature. Characters in this book include young people and adults who cross traditional gender roles and challenge stereotypes regarding indigenous and white settlers as well.
Makoons by Louise Erdrich - The saga of Omakayas continues with the next generation and follows the development of her very own twin sons, Chickadee and Makoons, who each have their own book in the series. This final book in the series is particularly interesting with its male protagonist who is actually kidnapped, has to survive by his own wits under dire circumstances as a 9 year old , and also participates in one of the last large-scale buffalo hunts of his tribe. This may be appealing to those who want to read a novel in the voice of a boy and with a focus on animals.
Lost on a Mountain in Maine by Donn Fendler - This true story is well known to Maine schoolchildren as the author spent the latter part of his life visiting schools around the state to tell it. When he was 12 years old in 1939 Donn Fendler became separated from his father and friends at the peak of Mount Katahdin, the state’s most difficult and highest mountain to climb. He spent six days wandering in the wilderness with no supplies and barely any clothing. His story is an inspirational real life adventure tale that illustrates the value of close observation in a life and death situation.
Paradise on Fire by Jewell Parker Rhodes - Children growing up in the city will relate to Adaugo’s journey from the Bronx, where she was orphaned in a house fire and is being raised by her Nigerian grandmother, to wilderness camp in California, where she makes her first friends and also winds up having to lead them out of the woods in a life threatening forest fire. Adaugo, whose name in the Nigerian language means flies with eagles, uses her keen observational skills to develop a close relationship with nature starting from nothing. The book demonstrates how nature can both heal from trauma and be a source of strength.
Playing with Fire by April Henry - This is another book about teens, and adults, who need to escape from a life-threatening forest fire when only one of their group has much hiking experience. The main character, Natalie, has taken some first aid classes and gets to apply many of her skills and extrapolate them to new situations. A variety of medical conditions along with their first aid remedies are described. In addition, Natalie has to deal with a panic attack and her own anxiety caused by PTSD and describes the 5-4-3-2-1 technique that many students would find really helpful! The book is written in short chapters and is very suspenseful; it may appeal to reluctant readers.
Wild Bird by Wendelin Van Draanen - This novel is perfect for a mature reader who can handle material about a high school student who has become mixed up in drugs and stealing and is angry at her parents for moving her across states and being too busy to pay her any attention. She is forced to go to a wilderness rehabilitation program where she has to learn to start a fire with a bow drill and survive in the wilderness. Here too, we see nature healing young people and helping them discover their own inner strength.
Sample Lesson - Culminating Book Group Projects
Each group will learn how to give a presentation to the class outlining main features of the book along with a critical review in order for members of the class who have not read it to learn about the book and decide if they want to read it.
Books about survival in nature used for the clubs
Access to Google Slides
Template for note taking on all the presentations
- Following the group reading of the book they will be directed to prepare a slide deck with the following information each on its own slide:
- Title of book with picture of the cover
- Information about the author
- Main characters
- Setting with an emphasis on nature and including photos
- Main conflict of the book
- Rating of the book using five star system and justification for rating
- Who would enjoy this book and why
- The students will be instructed to take notes on all the presentations and then encouraged to borrow ones they would like to read from the classroom library to be used for independent reading.