The theme of survival has perennial appeal for young fans of adventure stories, a theme that a pair of publishers is currently mining through historical and contemporary series. The destruction of Pompeii, the sinking of the Titanic, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks are three of the catastrophic events covered in Lauren Tarshis’s I Survived novels from Scholastic, showcasing young people’s resilience and strength in the face of unimaginable disasters. Launched in 2010, the series interlaces history and fiction, and has ignited the interest of booksellers, educators, librarians, parents, and kids: there are more than 23 million copies in print of the book and digital editions of I Survived titles in the U.S. alone. And that number will likely grow after the 15th installment, I Survived the American Revolution, 1776, pubs on August 29 with a 685,000-copy first print run across all Scholastic channels.
A new entry into the field, which puts a contemporary and practical spin on the survival theme, is Survivor Diaries by Terry Lynn Johnson, a series debuting this month from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt with Overboard! Also meshing fiction and fact, this series offers novels about kids combatting extreme forces of nature, followed by concise survival tips, vetted by relevant organizations, for those confronting a similar challenge. I Survived and Survivor Diaries have another trait in common: both authors have a deep personal interest in—and passion for—their book projects.
Reeling in Difficult-to-Catch Readers
Tarshis’s inspiration for I Survive sprang from two distinct parts of her life. Almost a decade ago, searching for a way to hook the third of her four children, who is now 19, on reading, she recalled, “I asked him ‘What kind of book would you want to read?’ and he said, ‘Cool stories that are about things like the Titanic or tornadoes and have a character like me in them.’ I had written two novels about Emma-Jean Lazarus for Dial, and I love her so much, but I began thinking that maybe I should try to write a book for kids like my son. I never thought it would launch a series that is still going strong so many years later, but the truth is that now I feel a sense of mission to make these stories—which are not just about survival, but also about history, the environment, and human nature—accessible, and to get more kids reading.”
Tarshis’s professional life also fueled the creation of I Survived—and continues to inspire new ideas for storylines. A 28-year Scholastic employee and currently v-p, editor of classroom magazines for the company, she edits Storyworks, a national language arts classroom magazine for grades 4–6, as well as the recently launched Storyworks Jr. for grade 3). “When I became the editor of Storyworks, I recognized that there was very little nonfiction in classrooms,” she said. “I’d been told that teachers wanted fiction, poetry, and plays, but I remembered, as a child who was a struggling reader, loving reading real-life Readers Digest stories in my dentist’s waiting room.”
Though the author originally envisioned I Survived as narrative nonfiction, the lack of primary source material about children who have survived cataclysmic events led her to write the series as historical fiction. Feedback from Storyworks readers, and from kids she encounters on her frequent school visits, helps keep her supplied with book ideas. In turn, nonfiction adventure and survival tales that have appeared in Storyworks inspired Tarshis’s spinoff series, Survival: True Stories, which Scholastic Press debuted in 2014. That series’ third and most recent release, Tornado Terror, was released last March.
True Stories has been eagerly embraced by teachers, who pair those tales with I Survived books to shape classroom curricula. “With teachers using these series side-by-side to augment their lesson plans, they’ve become mega bestsellers in print and digital,” observed Nancy Mercado, Scholastic Press’s editorial director, who edits both series. “There is significant crossover in the series’ material, so teachers and parents can use whichever channel works best to introduce these topics to readers—kids who like historical fiction can enter through I Survive, and nonfiction readers can enter through True Stories.”
And, added Mercado, both series show no sign of slowing down. “I have a running list of ideas on my iPhone, since friends, co-workers, and people I meet on school visits are constantly suggesting book topics,” she said. “And Lauren obviously has no shortage of ideas—her curiosity knows no limits, and she loves diving headfirst into these books. So as long as kids have such a huge appetite for these series, we’ll continue to do them. They could go on forever!”
Contemporary Stories, Timeless Survival Advice
“Stay calm. Stay smart. Survive.” The tag line for Johnson’s Survivor Diaries, which starts up this month with Overboard!, conveys the series’ goal of educating while entertaining. In this debut novel, Travis’s family is on a whale-watching tour off the coast of Washington state when the boat capsizes, throwing everyone onboard into the icy ocean. Separated from their families, Travis and a girl who was also a passenger struggle to stay afloat—and survive. The book closes with cold-water survival tips approved by the U.S. Coast Guard.
Johnson is very much at home—literally—with the book’s premise and Northwestern setting. The author, who previously wrote Ice Dogs (HMH, 2014), a novel about a teenage dogsled racer, has lived in northern Ontario for more than four decades. She is a conservation officer with 17 years’ experience working in remote areas and cold-water environments, and has trained with the Canadian Coast Guard. A survival expert with extensive knowledge of many wilderness environments, Johnson is also well equipped to tackle the forthcoming Survivor Diaries topics: Avalanche! (Jan. 2018), Lost! (July 2018), and Dust Storm! (Jan. 2019).
Survivor Diaries was the brainchild of HMH associate editor Christine Krones, who met Johnson at the 2016 winter Kindling Words retreat in Vermont. Krones had known of the author through Ice Dogs, which was edited by HMH executive editor Ann Rider. “Terry and I happened to be sitting together at dinner, and she was talking about her experiences as a conservation officer,” Krones recalled. “Not only were her stories incredibly compelling, but I was intrigued by her storytelling. And it occurred to me that given that, and her expertise as a survivalist, Terry could write a great series combining adventure stories and real-life survival tips. So I cleared it through Ann, and approached Terry with the idea.”
Johnson agreed without hesitation, signing a four-book Survivor Diaries deal. “I immediately saw this series as an awesome chance to combine my work experiences, personal experiences, and love of writing,” she said. “Christine and I brainstormed about plot premises, and she let me decide how to write them. I had a lot of leeway and, since I have been on the water my entire life, having grown up on a lake and now working as a conservation officer in a marine unit, I chose a subject I know very well for the first book.”
The author did extensive on-site and additional research for the subsequent Survivor Diaries books, hiking Wyoming’s Grand Teton mountains for Avalanche!, drawing on visits to the Costa Rican jungle for Lost, and exploring the wilds of New Mexico for Dust Storm. In addition to the common thread of kids relying on survival skills when realistic adventures go awry, each Survivor Diaries title also contains an element dear to Johnson’s heart. “I’ve always had a deep interest in wildlife, and find humans’ interaction with animals and the environment fascinating,” she noted. “So each of these books includes a key encounter with animals.”
With only a six-month gap between the pub dates of Overboard! and Avalanche, and two other children’s novels due out in between—Falcon Wild (Charlesbridge, Sept.) and Sled Dog School (HMH, Oct.)—Johnson will publish four books in seven months, a realization, she said, “that makes me feel as though my head is going to explode!” But in a good way, of course.
In fact, the author looks forward to meeting future deadlines. “I would love to do more Survivor Diaries books,” she said. “The 112-page length of the books really suits me, since I have a short attention span and can get bogged down by longer projects.” But more importantly, she added, “I love researching different catastrophes and survival situations, and it is awesome to be able to travel to such exciting places. Plus, I do have lots more ideas for the series.”
Survivor Diaries: Overboard! by Terry Lynn Johnson. HMH, $9.99 July ISBN 978-0-544-97010-6
I Survived the American Revolution, 1776 by Lauren Tarshis. Scholastic Press, $4.99 paperback Aug. ISBN 978-0-545-91973-9