If your reader likes edge-of-your-seat survival books for kids (chapter books and middle grade books) that are fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat adventures, I’ve got great recommendations your children will love.
Because a parent recently told me that her tween daughter only likes survival stories, I wanted to share with you the best of the best. (Incidentally, I think her daughter is not alone; lots of tween kids ages 8 – 12 love to read about kids who are survivors despite seemingly insurmountable odds.)
One could argue that many other stories can also be considered survival stories such as Holocaust stories, dystopian chapter books, and books about surviving medical issues, abuse, or bullying. And they’d be right. There are many types of survival.
That being said, this book list features survival stories of children surviving in the wilderness, surviving as refugees, and surviving natural or man-made disasters. These stories primarily showcase “Man vs. Nature” themes although I did include a zombie apocalypse book just for fun. (If that can be called fun.)
You’ll also see that I’m including the I Survived series which is a wonderful easier chapter book series about historical events. Hook your child on this series and they’ll be reading survival stories while learning about history.
Survival Books For Kids Ages 7 – 12
I Survived series by Lauren Tarshis
Excellent, fast-paced survival books set during significant historical events, these are always about a young person trying to survive the historically important, life-changing event. These books are great for reluctant readers who like a lot of action to go with their history…
Survivor Diaries Overboard! by Terry Lynn Johnson
Kids will devour this fast-paced, short (112 pages) adventure. It’s entertaining and will teach kids some basic survival skills, both in the story itself and afterward in the notes. While on a whale watching trip, their boat capsizes. Travis and another girl are adrift in the icy, stormy waters off the coast of Washington state.
Survivor Diaries: Avalanche! by Terry Lynn Johnson
If you like short, fast adventures, try this survival story about twins who get caught in an avalanche. How they survive, well, that’s the story! I think this series will entice many reluctant readers.
Storm Runners by Roland Smith
Roland Smith writes non-stop action and adventure books. This series is about what happens when a hurricane hits, flips the school bus, and Chase and his classmates are stuck in a swamp. Be warned, the first book ends on a cliff-hanger but there are three in the series so you can keep reading with book two, The Surge.
Lost in the Pacific, 1942: Not a Drop to Drink by Tod Olson
Gone to the Woods by Gary Paulsen
This is a compelling, disturbing, and hopeful childhood story of hardship and survival with moments of kindness and time in nature that sustain the neglected, determined young boy. If you love Gary Paulsen’s stories or just enjoy survival and growing up stories, DON’T MISS this powerful book! Also, Paulsen writes his memoir in the third person which is an interesting choice and one that works extremely well…
Alone by Megan E Freeman
A fast-paced, incredible survival story (in verse) with a female protagonist! Everyone in her town is evacuated town expect for Maddie because no one knows where she is. She and her neighbor’s dog are forced to survive for days, then months, then years….They face food shortages, hard winters, springs, and no humans except for looters once. She realizes that people can’t come back for her if they’re all dead and is determined to keep surviving.
Beast by Watt Key
The Poet’s Dog by Patricia MacLachlan
Short but filled with tenderness! When a grief-stricken dog rescues two lost children in a terrible snowstorm, he takes them to the cabin of his deceased poet friend. Told from the dog’s perspective we watch the kids and dog bond while they try to survive without any adults.
If your kids love action, danger, adventure plus environmental focuses, too, they’ll love this story. When Sam and a friend get swept out to sea, they’ll fight to survive the dangers of hypothermia, drowning, and large predators.
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
On his way to visit his dad, 13-year-old Brian’s plane crashes in the Canadian wild. All alone with only a hatchet, he grows up quickly in order to survive each harrowing day. Readers will quickly imagine themselves in Brian’s perilous situation. Award-winning with a compelling narrative.
Santiago’s Road Home by Alexandra Diaz
Santiago is thrown out of his cruel tia’s home in rural Mexico with nowhere to go. He unexpectedly meets a kind woman and her daughter who let him join with on their journey to el Norte. Santiago is a keen survivor and helps them find a trustworthy coyote but when their group is attacked, they must find the route without the coyote’s help. The heat and lack of water almost kill them but he and his adopted little sister are rescued and taken to separate internment camps where he must survive again. This book is amazing — unflinchingly honest about the situation of illegal immigrants with a heroic main characters who you’ll love.
The Last Kids on Earth by Max Brallier, illustrated by Douglas Colgate
Based on this book, you’d think the zombie apocalypse was totally fun. At least that’s how Jack approaches life, zombie fights, and survival. He and his best friend, Quint, live in an upgraded, well-defended treehouse where they plan for rescuing his crush June (she doesn’t need rescuing being quite capable) and fighting zombies and monsters. Illustrations throughout make this even more appealing to read and imagine.
A heartbreaking and hopeful survival story. Raymond’s neglectful parents abandon him completely so he takes his dog Rosie, and they set up camp in the woods behind his middle school. There, he survives on his own, foraging in dumpsters and fishing for food as he continues to attend school. When a playful coyote hurts Rosie, he meets an old man who helps them both — which is especially significant because it’s over the Christmas break when he can’t get dumpster food from school. Raymond doesn’t want to tell anyone, including the old man or his two friends at school what he’s surviving, but the truth comes out when another boy discovers his campsite and a snake bite almost kills him. HOW TO STAY INVISIBLE is a powerful story of grit, survival, and longing for family. I couldn’t put it down.
Paradise on Fire by Jewell Parker Rhode
Addy’s a city kid whose parents were killed in a fire that she escaped. Sent to a wilderness program in California for the summer, she’s surprised to learn that she loves it there; particularly if she can draw maps of her surroundings to know all possible escape routes should a fire happen. Then, the worst does happen. Addy’s on a hike with other campers and counselors when a wildfire tears through the mountains. She knows the best way to safety but it won’t be an easy route and not everyone trusts her to lead. It’s a well-written survival story literally and metaphorically that will enthrall readers.
Hero: Hurricane Rescue by Jennifer Li Shotz
96 Miles by J.L. Esplin
“Dad always said if things get desperate, it’s okay to drink the water in the toilet bowl.” Isn’t this a great first sentence? An apocalyptic event has happened, there’s no electricity, the brothers are alone, and all their dad and their survival supplies were stolen at gunpoint. Now John and Stewart are on the road trying to get to a friend’s ranch for their supplies. It’s not going well–they’ve picked up a girl and her little brother not to mention Stewart is nonstop fighting with John. If you like survival stories, sibling stories, and adventure, this is a great choice.
Wild Robot by Peter Brown
When a ship of robots crashes into an island, Roz is the only survivor. She observes her surroundings and tries to make friends with the animals who consider her a monster. When she adopts a gosling whose family she accidentally killed, everything changes. Roz gets help from other animals to raise her new son, Brightbill. Loudwing helps him learn to swim, the beavers build them a lodge, Tawny the deer helps with the garden. Throughout the months, Roz learns to be wilder and kinder, and in the end, makes the ultimate sacrifice to protect her friends.
The Bridge Home by Padma Venkatraman
Set in India, Viji writes about how she and her sister ran away from an abusive father and sick mother to the big city. There, they meet kind brothers and live with them under a bridge, scrabbling to survive by collecting trash. Their days are hard but Viji learns how much more capable her sister is than she previously thought. Unfortunately, her sister Rukku gets a terrible cough and fever. Viji might need to trust an adult to get Rukku help. It’s an honest, eye-opening story that reveals the plight of many homeless children in India.
A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park
Sudan’s reality, past and present, collide in this beautifully written true story. In 1985, we follow the harrowing journey of a young boy who, after his village was attacked, walks miles and miles to a refugee camp. In 2008, we read about a girl who must walk two hours morning and night to get fresh water. Above all, their stories are compelling; you won’t be able to put this book down or take clean water for granted again. A must-read.
Refugee by Alan Gratz
Follow three distinct stories showing kids displaced from their countries, on the run, and in danger. First is a young Jewish boy who escapes from Nazi Germany on a ship to Cuba, only to be turned away from the Cuban port and sent back to Europe. Next is a Cuban girl in the 1990s who, with her family and neighbors, flees in a homemade raft to the United States at great peril. Finally, is a story about a Syrian boy whose home is bombed in a country at war. He and his family travel a great distance to find a country that will allow them shelter. Gatz skillfully connects all three stories with a satisfying, realistic conclusion.
Stranded by Jeff Probst and Chris Tebbetts
A great adventure with realistic conflicts between step-siblings who are on a sailboat trip with their uncle! A storm sinks their ship and they barely make it to a deserted island alive. Now they’ll have to work together if they want to survive.
The Midnight Zoo by Sonya Hartnett
Tissue alert — this breathtaking historical book is essentially a fable set in Nazi Germany. We follow three Gypsy siblings who have witnessed the capture of their family and friends and are trying to survive on their own. While walking and searching for food, they find an abandoned zoo with talking animals. It’s a beautiful but heartbreaking story.
Some Kind of Courage by Dan Gemeinhart
It’s the 1890s and after losing his entire family, Joseph journeys to find and buy back his beloved horse, which he considers his only living family. As he travels, he develops a friendship with a Chinese boy who speaks no English, wins a horse race, helps deliver a baby, and fights an outlaw. Excellent writing — your kids will be mesmerized by Joseph’s journey of survival.
Scar Island by Dan Gemeinhart
Sent to an isolated boy’s prison, Jonathan has little time to adjust before all the prison’s adults are killed in a freak lightning accident. Soon a Lord of the Flies scenario develops, Jonathan’s friend is banished from the group, and a mysterious old librarian gives Jonathan books to read that strangely seems perfect for his situation. When a dangerous storm threatens the entire island, Jonathan must decide if he will step up to help the other boys survive. Moral dilemmas, suspense, and action, plus good writing make this an engrossing survival adventure.
The Outcasts: Brotherband Chronicles, Book 1 by John Flanagan
A well-written story of a young, fatherless boy named Hal whose mom was an Araluen slave. To survive the town’s prejudice against him, he is helped by another outcast, his dead father’s former shipmate, a one-armed recovering drunk. When it’s time for his Brotherband training, he becomes the leader of a rag-tag group of boys. They’ll compete against better, stronger teams who don’t always play fair. The stakes are high and Hal must win even with his group of misfits.
Horizon by Scott Westerfeld
Their plane crashes over the Arctic Circle, 8 kid survivors can’t figure out why they’re in a sinister jungle filled with attacking vines, shredder birds, and two moons in the sky and no Arctic…an action-packed survival book series with unique characters.
Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell
This classic, award-winner is the incredible survival story of Karana, a girl who lives on an island by herself with only animals for companions. You can’t help but put yourself in her shoes as she faces incredible challenges in order to survive including an earthquake, hard winters, wild dogs, and finding food and shelter. It’s supposedly based on a true story but I recommend you read about the historical inaccuracies here.
Touching Spirit Bear by Ben Mikaelsen
Angry at the world, 15-year-old Cole beats a classmate into a coma and brain damage. To avoid jail time, Cole agrees to spend a year by himself on an island in Alaska, thinking he’ll escape as soon as possible this form of Native American justice. But after Cole almost dies, he decides to give the year-long process a chance. Throughout the experience, you’ll feel Cole’s pain and anger deeply which makes his healing and transformation that much more powerful. While this is a powerful character arc, there are many incorrect and harmful stereotypes. I’d recommend that if you read this, read this with a critical eye and make it a learning experience.
Northwind by Gary Paulsen
If you like solitary stories in nature, this boy’s coming-of-age life alone in nature will appeal to you. Leif is a ship’s slave in Norway. When cholera kills his fellow shipmates, he alone survives and heads north in a dugout canoe. As he searches for food and makes mistakes with safety, Leif learns more and more about the wonders of the natural world around him including bears, ravens, orcas, whirlpools, salmon, and whales.
The Explorer by Katherine Rundell
Wild Outside Around the World with Survivorman by Les Stroud illustrations by Andres P. Barr
Les Stroud recounts exciting personal adventure stories of exploration and survival in all sorts of places around the world. Fascinating stories are accompanied by photos, illustrations, maps, and informational insets. I couldn’t put this book down and HIGHLY recommend it.
The Living by Matt de la Pena
Shy is a teenager from the ‘hood working on a cruise line when a huge earthquake causes a tsunami that sinks the ship. As you can imagine, it’s a harrowing fight for survival on the open ocean with only a spoiled rich girl. The shipwreck survivors eventually make it to an island where there’s a strange illness, men with guns, and more danger than the open ocean.