Title: The Rules of Survival
Author: Nancy Werlin
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Themes: Overcoming Obstacles, Family, Child Abuse
Age Range: 7th Grade and Up
Matt and his sisters are used to living with their physically and emotionally abusive mother. They spend their days constantly on the alert for their mother's moods, trying to gauge how whether they are in for a peaceful or tumultuous day. One sweltering night, after their mother has locked them in the house while she goes on a date, Matt and his middle sister sneak out to get a Popsicle. While at the convenience store, Matt witnesses a man stand up to a father who is physically bullying his son, and he creates a fantasy where the man rescues him and his sisters from their miserable life. Imagine Matt's surprise when the man ends up actually dating his mother. However, when the inevitable break-up happens, Matt holds on to hope that the man, named Murdoch, will still be the hero he hopes for. As his mother's obsessive behavior towards Murdoch escalates, will Matt be able to protect his sisters from the toxic tornado that she creates?
This book totally sucked me in! Written as a long letter from Matt to his youngest sister, explaining things that she may have been too young to understand, the book is at times heartwrenching, heartbreaking, and heart stopping. Matt and his sisters live in a state of constant fear, with the kind of hyper-alertness that is common among the abused, similar to what soldiers and people living in war-torn countries experience. It is not always easy to read. Matt's honest portrayal of the abuse that they suffer at the hands of the person who is supposed to care for them is sometimes raw, and sometimes disturbing in its dispassion. Werlin does a great job of showing, through Matt, how noramlized the emotional and physical abuse becomes when that is all that you know.
There are lots of triggers in this book for youth who may have experienced similar experiences, but there are also many things to discuss, both in the writing style and the themes presented in the story. I don't think that the subject matter should be avoided, but if you want to use it in a school setting it should be read with adult supervision and discussion. If it is part of a classroom library, there may be kids who seek it out as a cathartic experience, but I'd keep an eye on who was reading it and how they respond to it. I firmly believe that kids self-select the books that they are ready for, and put down or ignore the ones they aren't, and this novel certainly has an emotional impact that will engage readers in a very visceral way.
Rhode Island Teen Book Awards Discussion Guide
Discussion Guide from Nancy Werlin