A mix of titles currently on my shelves.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Meanwhile, on Bear Island

Characters in young adult novels are always trying to survive, it seems — everything from bullying to dystopian government to bad romance or a dysfunctional family. Surviving Bear Island, a debut novel by Alaskan Paul Greci, distills that drive to survive down to the “bare” (so sorry!) essentials: a teenage boy struggling to stay alive, all alone, in a harsh and wild environment.

Alaska’s Prince William Sound affords a perfect setting for Greci’s gripping middle-grade tale of teen against the wilderness. While sea kayaking with his father, Tom Parker is stranded on Bear Island after their kayaks overturn in rough water. With only a small emergency kit in his pocket, Tom must rely on himself to survive. The story advances through numerous hardships and challenges — bears and other wild animals, the constant search for food, cold weather, fashioning spears for fishing and building shelters — paced by flashbacks that fill in details of how the accident occurred. 

Surviving Bear Island by Paul Greci
Illustrations by Paul Madden

The story keeps the reader wondering throughout, Could I do that? The cold answer is, Maybe — or not. Tom’s quest for physical survival is difficult at best. Yet often his struggle is inward, as well — to think clearly, to not give up, to keep fear and despair at bay. While the momentum of the plot is always about trying to stay alive and find his dad, much of the emotional development comes through Tom’s thoughts as he spends weeks alone. Though sadness over the death of his mother and his father’s subsequent lapse into grief and depression sometimes overtake him, Tom ultimately draws strength from their nurture and love.

Greci’s website explains that the author spends a lot of time outdoors and is a veteran sea kayaker, as well as a teacher. These experiences bring a richness of detail about kayaking and wilderness conditions to the story, as well as a first-person narrative voice that rings true.

Surviving Bear Island was chosen as a Junior Literary Guild offering for 2015 in the category of High Interest for grades 5-8. The publisher, Move Books, specializes in middle-grade books for boys. I confess that when I first picked up Surviving Bear Island, I thought “Great boy book.” But don’t be fooled! 

My 11-year-old friend Olivia was riveted by the story, which she read avidly while on a family camping trip. Girls (including me) like adventure and survival stories, too.