The Case of the 10-Year-Old Survivalist

This is more of a "gee, I've always known this but am now formulating it as words/thoughts" rather than "Oh my, I never knew this" sort of post. And it is this: what's with the 10-year-olds and the need for wilderness training? 

I mean, I remember packing various earnest satchels when I was kid, and usually it started with "We're going to need water," which I packed in a non-air-tight container that I put in first, where it proceeded to leak over everything else I put in with it. Then rocks, which I planned on chipping into useful knives (why didn't I take actual knives? Maybe not quite so sharp, I fear). Then dried nuts and berries. Maps. Then, once everything was wet, I would empty it all back out. I could have used a few more of these books.

Chestnut, on the other hand, has been on a tear. I am seeing it all from the outside, and it is…marked.

There's My Side of the Mountain, and Island of the Blue Dolphins, and Hatchet. There's a lot of the whole survivalist things in The Hunger Games, as a matter of fact, and I can even see a faint strain of it in From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (the search for sustenance, the scrounging for coins at night, the surviving in a not-entirely-hospitable environment). It's in The Thief Lord. And it makes me wonder—is this all about the fears of kids this age, the sense that they don't know whether they would be able to survive in the world?

Is this an all-too-obvious thought that everyone but me has already had?

When my kids were much littler, I read some parenting book or other in my glazed-over exhausted state, and it said that by the age of 5, most children should be able to survive if they were stranded in the woods—that somehow 5 is the age of survival. 

At the time, all I could think was, "Wow, I've really screwed this raising children thing up, because that is NOT what I'm seeing." But now, as I see Chestnut string her bow and arrow and pack serious looking bags for mysterious journeys, I wonder if this is some interior benchmark we are all worrying over, that in the midst of all the moronic test prep and the hopscotch and the angling for candy, we're all just preparing for some potential apocalypse.

If so, my money is on Chestnut, who has a real flair for engineering, and has been doing enough reading to know how to make moccasins and a pretty impressive array of weaponry.

Also: she's looking for something to read. What are the great survival novels for the enterprising 10-year-old? 


UPDATED: I meant to tell you all, if you are somewhat fascinated by the whole idea of a the wild child, an excellent and strange adult book is Train Dreams by Denis Johnson. It was really amazing.

20 thoughts on “The Case of the 10-Year-Old Survivalist

  1. You’ve already suggested The Hatchet, which is what I first thought of, but also you might try Julie of the Wolves (a girl joins a wolf pack in order to survive in the Alaska wilderness). It’s got the survival stuff mixed in with wolf-pack descriptions and I remember it vividly.


  2. If she doesn’t mind reading things that are dated, I remember loving the descriptions of how they rig things up in Swiss Family Robinson. And The Black Stallion, too.


  3. I have noticed with my three girls that up until a certain point, they can’t tell where I leave off and they begin, and vice versa. Not that it’s a conscious thought. I think the fascination for survivalist stuff begins when they start to realize that they are truly separate beings. And what follows is the realization that since they ARE separate beings, what would it mean/be like to be TRULY on your own? It’s a huge thought for young people, and one they’re intensely fascinated in exploring.
    I would echo your book choices above, and you’ve made me want to go research more. My eight-year-old is fascinated by The Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbook: Extreme (Junior Edition). She reads snippets of it all the time.


  4. Farley Mowat’s “Lost in the Barrens”? I remember being entranced by it as a young reader. (Warning: as it was written in the 1950’s, Inuit are referred to as Eskimos, as they were back then.)


  5. Some more to consider:
    *Naya Nuki: Shoshoni Girl Who Ran by Kenneth Thomasina (About a Shoshoni girl who gets captured by a rival tribe and then escapes her captors.)
    *A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park
    *The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare
    *Walkabout by James Vance Marshall (This book has a theme of prejudice as well as survival. I read it for the first time when I was eleven and was appalled by the attitude of the girl in in toward the Aborigine boy who keeps them alive and teaches them to survive in the Australian desert. You might want to read it first.)


  6. Well, my goodness, everyone has suggested all the books I’ve thought of in this arena. But I just wanted to say that this “survivalist” developmental stage is apparently something that all children go through – in Waldorf education they call it the nine-year change. The curriculum in Waldorf education around that age focuses a great deal on these kinds of skills (gardening, building, etc. – alongside measurement, geometry, botany, etc.) because kids that age want to be confident that they could, indeed, survive on their own. Evidently it’s when many kids begin a deeper contemplation (or even fear) of death, and so they begin to consider the possibility of being left to make it on their own. So! Not to get too deep here! I’m not a Waldorf teacher or anything – just a Waldorf parent – but just wanted to chime in to say that your daughter’s exploration is right in line with developmental changes for this age. Heck, I remember eating acorns after reading My Side of the Mountain… I don’t recommend it! Ugh.


  7. OK I got another one: The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle. She boards a merchant ship as a good English girl and has to adjust to sailor life. No spoilers, you’ll have to read it to see what happens!
    It’s a bit less “survivalist” in terms of nature stuff, but it definitely is about Charlotte learning what she is really capable of.


  8. The true story, Lost on a Mountain in Maine by Donn Fendler, even though it’s about a boy. It now comes as a graphic book too. Let me know if you want a copy – I’ll send it along!


  9. Gordon Korman has written several series on this theme. One is Dive and another is Everest. Not sure about reading level, but he’s a clever writer generally.


  10. The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larson
    It’s about a 12 year old boy that journeys from Montana to the Smithsonian. Very adventuresome!


  11. It’s not exactly the same, but establishing a camp/household on their own is a recurring theme in Arthur’s Ransome’s sailing books from the 1920s and 30s. The first is Swallows and Amazons- which we used to read aloud to my daughter as the first two or three chapters drag- once they get to the island it speeds up. We also read a much later book in the series “We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea” as a family read aloud. It was so good that even though my husband and I took turns reading books before bed to our girl (the parent having the luxury of time to him/her self), this one we made sure to be there to hear what was happening next.


  12. I know I definitely went through that phase, even now sometimes I daydream about packing up my own little survival kit.
    I read them all, but one very silly one that stuck with me was Baby Island by Carol Ryrie Brink. It’s about baby sitters that get stuck on a deserted island with a bunch of babies. My survivalist phase may have had some overlap with my babysitters club phase 🙂


  13. I loved this kind of stuff when I was a kid. My favourite of the genre was actually an old Air Force survival manual we had kicking around that was called “Down but not Out” I loved that thing for some weird reason. It had everything from shelter building to bandaging sucking chest wounds, and reading it made me feel invincible.
    Another book that this brings to mind is “The 18th Emergency” by Betsy Byars. It’s not really about survival in the wilderness, but the main character is obsessed with survival strategies for emergencies like falling into quicksand and being attacked by crocodiles. He uses them as a way to feel powerful. Then they become a kind of a metaphor for surviving a bullying situation. So, not really about survival, and frankly the book is kind of dated now, but it just goes to show that kids do love thinking about survival techniques.


  14. I’ll second the nomination for The Sign of the Beaver. I *still* love that book…almost 30 years after hearing it for the first time.


  15. Again, more housekeeping and house setup than true survival, but Mandy by Julie Edwards (nee Andrews!) has elements of this and was a favorite of mine as a kid.


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