Calamities and Other Forces of Nature

As weather gets weirder (yes, Sandy. Yes, a nor'easter in November), here are a few of the Y.A. and middle-grade books we've relied on in the past for guidance and clarity when our environment appears to go off the rails.

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As I've written before in this column, some of the power of Y.A. books—and a reason they're so touted for teens—is that they give kids the chance to experience difficult things on the page instead of in real life, both to prepare them for the possibility (or inevitability, depending on subject matter) that those things will happen, or to help them empathize with those who've had such things occur. This is true with books about dating, finding oneself, and puberty as well as those about divorcing parents, troubled friends, illness, tragedy, and struggles to fit in. It's also true with books that deal with natural disasters, extreme weather, and calamities of the environmental sort.

There are of course hundreds of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic reads for teens—the Hunger Games, for example, set after what can be interpreted as catastrophic climate change. But often these calamity plots aren't simply the backdrop for dystopian societies; they're plot elements in themselves. As weather gets weirder (yes, Sandy. Yes, a nor'easter in November) we're sure to get more of them. Here are a few of the Y.A. and middle-grade books we've relied on in the past for guidance and clarity when our environment appears to go off the rails. Even as we start to truly acknowledge climate change, there's a certain amount of comfort in knowing that nature has always been kind of a bear.

The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder. You could argue that the entire Little House series is about dealing with the environment and its harsh realities, but The Long Winter is particularly suited to long days spent inside reading when faced with, say, a hurricane or nor'easter. This is librarian-endorsed—Sage Stossel, cartoonist and contributing editor of The Atlantictweeted: "Librarian's suggested reading for Sandy-afflicted kids: The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder"—and reader-endorsed for empathy, too:

The Long Winter, the sixth book in the Little House series, takes place in South Dakota in the winter of 1880-1881, when Laura turns 14. There are seven months of blizzards. Laura and her sister Carrie eventually can't walk to school, given the conditions‚ plus there's not enough coal to keep the schoolhouse warm. Hot potatoes in one's pockets only last so long. "Food and fuel become scarce and expensive, as the town depends on trains to bring supplies but the frequent blizzards prevent the trains from getting through. Eventually, the railroad company suspends all efforts to dig out the trains that are snowed in at Tracy, stranding the town until spring." The family has to make do with new sources of fuel, and mostly eating potatoes and brown bread. Think gas lines and subways down; the connection in terms of more recent extreme weather patterns are obvious. From a Bridgeport, Connecticut, resident on November 1, as reported in a piece in The Wall Street Journal about Sandy, "'This is like Little House on the Prairie,' Ramirez said." The good news is, things end fairly happily (a Christmas dinner in May) for the Ingalls family in the largely biographical novel. Also on the topic of cold weather and snow-ins, there's Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's Blizzard's Wake, published in 2004, about a historic 1941 storm in North Dakota, and Whiteout, part of the Hunted series by Walter Sorrells, about a 16-year-old trying to solve a murder in the midst of a Minnesota blizzard.
To Build a Fire by Jack London. Part of that canon of books read in middle- and high-school English classes, this quintessential man-versus-nature story was originally published (with a different ending) in 1902, and re-published in the form you likely read in 1908. Also with biographical elements, it's considered "a reflection of London's own life after his experiences in the Yukon Territory." In the 1908 version of the story, a man who is new to the Yukon travels, accompanied by a dog, to meet friends, but on the way falls in the snow, gets wet, begins an epic struggle to keep warm, and ultimately fails and dies of hypothermia. (If that's a spoiler, you need to read more!) In the original version of the story, the man lives, albeit with frostbite. Nature is probably the most important character in this book, a fact it reminds us of occasionally in real life, too. This is probably the first book I think of when I think of the mercilessness of weather, but for a more recent, excellent though frustrating demonstration of the insurmountability of nature, read Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild.
Watership Down by Richard Adams. Do you remember this classic tale (and movie) about adorable bunny rabbits fleeing their warren because of imminent destruction by a land developer? (See also Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, which dealt with the destruction of Mrs. Frisby's home due to a farmer's plow.) O.K., these are not "natural weather conditions," exactly, but the plot realities of displacement due to forces outside of one's control can be seen as allegories for extreme, destructive weather, in some ways—we're talking about talking animals and not people, after all. Watership Down, published in 1975, tells of "a hardy band of [anthropomorphized rabbit] adventurers forced to flee the destruction of their fragile community...and their trials and triumphs in the face of extraordinary adversity as they pursue a glorious dream called 'home.'" FYI: It's not all adorable bunny rabbits.

Diane Hoh's Med Center series for Scholastic. From the mid-90s, these were natural-disaster focused paperbacks that were something of an early percursor to, say, Grey's Anatomy, and before that, ER. Themes (and titles) ranged from Fire to Blizzard to Blast to Poison to Virus and Flood. In Fire, "Casualties from a raging fire at a nearby oil refinery turn the Med Center into a disaster center, as swarms of patients suffering from burns, smoke inhalation, and other injuries arrive." In Blizzard, "In the wake of a terrible blizzard, Kate vows to help a homeless family that seeks refuge at the hospital despite Callie's protests, Abby fears for her wheelchair-bound boyfriend, and Sam risks his life to help someone." There's romance, of course, as you'd expect, along with the rescues and nail-biting drama.

Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer. This 2006 novel, the first in a series of what-could-happen-if, combines any number of extreme weather conditions, to devastating effect. The character of Melinda and her family have to deal with what happens after a meteor knocks the moon closer to the earth, resulting in worldwide tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanic ash blocking out the sun, and climate change that turns summer into Arctic winter. "Food and gas shortages, along with extreme weather changes, come to her small Pennsylvania town; and Miranda's voice is by turns petulant, angry, and finally resigned, as her family is forced to make tough choices while they consider their increasingly limited options." But there's an ultimately hopeful message given all these all-too-realistic details: "Yet even as suspicious neighbors stockpile food in anticipation of a looming winter without heat or electricity, Miranda knows that that her future is still hers to decide even if life as she knew it is over." (See also The Dead and the Gone and This World We Live in.)

Aftershocks, by William Lavender. Published in 2006, this historical novel is set at the time of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, which Jessie, the 14-year-old daughter of a prominent doctor, is about to experience in conjunction with some more personal internal dramas. From Booklist, "As much soap opera as historical novel, this brings many story threads together--Jessie's desire to become a doctor, the treatment of Asians in the early twentieth century, the role of women--all set against the dramatic backdrop of the San Francisco earthquake."

Also on the subject of earthquake is Joe Cottonwood's 1996 book, Quake!, based on true events. Cottonwood tells the story of 14-year-old Franny in the aftermath of the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989, or "the World Series quake." From the description: "Franny's next-door neighbor is trapped beneath a car, her parents are gone, gas tanks are exploding, her best friend is acting weird, and even her dog is missing. Has the world fallen apart?"

Sand Dollar Summer by Kimberly K. Jones. There's a hurricane (named Fern) in this one. 12-year-old Annalise and her brother, Free, who is 5 and doesn't speak, are taken to Maine by their mother as she recovers from a car accident. And then comes Fern, who changes everything.

And, in more wind-based calamity, Night of the Twisters by Ivy Ruckman deals with the real-life deadly series of seven tornados that went through Grand Island, Nebraska, in a three-hour period in 1980. See also Betsy Byar's Tornado, for younger readers (and a guaranteed happy ending).

Speaking of Y.A. and natural disasters, a group of young adult and middle-grade fiction authors are holding an auction to support Sandy victims. Check back for more on that here.

Little House books via Flickr/Chiot's Run.

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