It is fourth grade. A big year for you—new house, new school, new friends. Or at least new kids who mostly will be mean to you but eventually will be your friends. But don’t worry about all that right now. In fourth grade, you’ll be asked to learn lots of things. But only two of them will stick with you forever.
The first is how to dip yarn in glue and wrap it around a balloon. Let it dry. Pop the balloon. Boom. You have an ornament. This is not really helpful information to learn and you’ll never actually do it again, but you’ll always remember how. So there’s that.
The second is that your teacher will insist sneezing down your shirt is way less germ-spreading than sneezing into your elbow or your hand. This is actually helpful information and one day dozens of kids (your students, your own children) will learn the same thing from you. So thank you, Mrs. Bilbrey.
The rest of fourth grade is kind of boring frankly. Even though you’ll try to make it interesting by constantly switching BFFs each week and driving your teacher crazy with all the desk rearranging.
But then—one day—you’ll discover something that makes it interesting. A book. The Diary of Anne Frank.
You’ll discover this book in a public library because it has the word diary in the title and you love diaries and the idea that someone could publish their own book of secrets and ponderings intrigues you. And then, you’ll take it up to the check-out desk and the lady there will try to dissuade you from the book. She’ll tell you it’s a little too grown-up for you. She’ll look at your mother and they’ll have one of those conversations grown-ups have about kids in front of them like the kids can’t hear. So annoying.
But that clinches it. You have to read the book now. (This will be a pattern your whole life, really. Doing the thing people tell you not to do.)
And so, you bring it with you to school and you read it at your desk while you’re waiting on everyone else to finish their spelling or their cursive. And once you will go up to the teacher’s desk to ask her what a word in the book means but that’s bogus really. You’ve never had a problem with context clues. You only want her to see what you’re reading and be impressed. You won’t remember if she is. But you will remember that book. That girl. It will change something inside of you, shatter some bit of childhood that made you think the world was basically a kind place.
You’ll learn this year that kids have bigger problems than being teased or dodgeball or even poverty. You’ll never stop thinking about Anne Frank and kids like her. Ever. You’ll grow up and write stories about kids who survive really tough things because you just can’t get those kids out of your head, no matter how hard you try.
But that’s a long way off. It’s fourth grade for you now. So go back to it. You have some books to read. I’m not talking about those Sweet Valley High books. Just put those aside. Really. Read the other stuff, the stuff that makes you think more and tastes less like marshmallow cream.
Because that’s the stuff that will shape you into who you become to be.
“The gravity of the cannibalism, now synonymous with the Donner Party, is treated deftly, conveying Mary Ann’s visceral reactions without becoming steeped in grisly detail. As loss compounds loss, brevity and repetition…intensify key moments in a harrowing, exhausting trek.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review
The journey west by wagon train promises to be long and arduous for nineteen-year-old Mary Ann Graves and her parents and eight siblings. But she is hopeful about their new life in California, and the possibility of freedom from family demands that she aches for.
But when winter comes early to the Sierra Nevada, the Graves family, traveling alongside the Donner and Reed families, experiences one of the most harrowing, tragic, and storied journeys in American history.
Amid the pain of loss and the constant threats of freezing temperatures and meager supplies, Mary Ann learns what it means to be part of a family, to make sacrifices for those we love, and, above all, to persevere. To Stay Alive is a moving narrative told from the viewpoint of one of the survivors of the ill-fated Donner Party of 1846.
Find To Stay Alive on IndieBound, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble or ask for it in libraries and bookstores near you.
|Skila Brown is the author of verse novels Caminar and To Stay Alive, as well as the picture book Slickety Quick: Poems About Sharks, all with Candlewick Press. She received an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She grew up in Kentucky and Tennessee and now lives in Indiana where she writes books for readers of all ages. |
Connect with Skila on skilabrown.com.