Themes in Young Adult Literature: Nature and Survival

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2658

Titles Discussed

Hatchet by Gary Paulsen

Apocalypse by Tim Bowler

The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean

Thematic Overview

The theme of nature and survival is not new to storytelling; many cultures have told stories that involve nature and the natural world and, particularly, humankind's struggle with and triumph over nature....

(The entire section contains 2658 words.)

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Titles Discussed

Hatchet by Gary Paulsen

Apocalypse by Tim Bowler

The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean

Thematic Overview

The theme of nature and survival is not new to storytelling; many cultures have told stories that involve nature and the natural world and, particularly, humankind's struggle with and triumph over nature. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, realism became increasingly popular in literary storytelling in the United States. As Americans explored and settled the frontier, readers and writers moved away from the interests of the Romantic movement. In the last decade of the nineteenth century, a worldwide perspective emerged that made human beings the focus of its study. Naturalism emerged first in novels dealing with an urban setting. Regardless of setting, however, the concept was simple: to show objectively the human animal and how it behaves in relation to the world around it.

While urban settings became the ideal environment for writers such as Émile Zola to chart the survival of humans against indifference, violence, and the determinism of society, writers in the United States found a different setting to showcase the struggle of humankind. Reacting against the conceptions of nature set forth in previous decades by writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman, naturalist writers saw the vast landscape of the America as a natural force indifferent to the lives of human beings. In these spaces, individuals showed their true nature through their survival against the harsh, untamed world. Writer such as Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, and Jack London thrived as the twentieth century began, telling stories that showcased the triumph of individualism and free will in the American frontier and beyond.

While humankind's survival and triumph against nature set the stage historically for the theme of survival in the natural world, over the course of the twentieth century, new perspectives emerged on the relationship between humanity and nature. In the nineteenth century, the novel was predominantly seen as a form of entertainment and not an entirely serious literary endeavor. But as more serious authors began to write prose and more serious readers began to read novels, the novel began to be seen as a more serious literary form. However, adults were the audience for the majority of novels throughout the twentieth century, until the publication of S. E. Hinton's first novel, The Outsiders, in 1967. While literary works had been written for audiences of a variety of ages, not until the late 1960s did that form of young adult (YA) literature came into its own. For the first time, novels were written for and marketed to an adolescent audience, written from the perspective of a teenage protagonist and dealing with themes related to the transitory time period between childhood and adulthood.

YA literature quickly grew in the decade following Hinton's novel, finding its place within US and world literature, but it did not hit its true height until the 1990s and the first decades of the twenty-first century. Originally focused on realism and adolescent characters dealing with themes of identity, dating, love, and other difficult issues, YA literature began to splinter into subgenres. While there were a great variety of forms in YA literature, each was simply a different way to access and portray similar important issues of growing up.

The theme of nature and survival is one that became popular in YA literature nearly a century after its origins in American literature. The one distinct difference of this subgenre in the twentieth and twenty-first century is the relationship between human beings and their natural surroundings. Where the protagonists of books by authors such as Jack London found themselves pitted against nature in largely antagonistic relationships, the main characters of YA survival stories find a more holistic perspective. Hatchet (1987) by Gary Paulsen is one of the first YA novels dealing with the theme of nature and survival. Although written during the 1980s, when YA literature saw a brief dip in popularity, Paulsen's story became a popular and respected one. In the twenty-first century, writers Tim Bowler and Geraldine McCaughrean have followed Paulsen's lead and have added new perspective on the nature and survival theme through novels such as Apocalypse (2004) and The White Darkness (2005).


Hatchet begins with the main character, Brian, on a small plane from New York to visit his father. Brian's parents have been separated for some time, but this trip marks the fact that they are getting a divorce, an idea that Brian cannot deal with as he sits in the copilot chair in the airplane. He feels hopeless, powerless, and alone, but before he has time to think too long about his circumstances, the pilot has a massive heart attack and Brian crash-lands the plane into a lake in the wilderness somewhere between New York and northern Canada. After Brian escapes from the plane, he learns to survive on his own in nature. With the hatchet that his mother gave him before the trip, Brian fends for himself. However, Paulsen does not simply depict the theme of survival as the triumph of the individual against nature. Brian survives by learning to become a part of nature, by accepting his place, such as when he comes face to face with a wolf, which “knew Brian, knew him and owned him and chose not to do anything to him. But the fear moved then, moved away, and Brian knew the wolf for what it was—another part of the woods, another part of all of it.” Brian sees everything as connected and natural, and by becoming a part of the woods himself, there is no longer conflict between him and the predators he had learned to fear.

Similarly, the juxtaposition of the city and nature becomes an important device in the story. In the beginning, Brian knows only the muted colors and sounds of the city; the natural surroundings are foreign. As he continues to learn from his environment, he also learns what does and does not belong, and he is able to make his own judgments about what is right for him, such as when he leaves the rifle from the plane: “Without the rifle he had to fit in, to be part of it all, to understand it and use it—the woods, all of it. With the rifle, suddenly, he didn't have to know; did not have to be afraid or understand.” Brian learns to follow his own intuition. In the end, both his ability to survive and his understanding of himself are intricately connected. He survives exactly because he re-creates the agency and identity that he thought he had lost in his parents' divorce.

In Apocalypse, written by British author Tim Bowler, the protagonist of the story, Kit, is marooned on a small island with his parents after their yacht goes off course. The island is inhabited by a group of people known as Skaerlanders, who capture Kit's parents soon after they land on the island. Like Brian in Hatchet, Kit is forced to rely upon and trust in himself in the absence of his parents. He is aided by Ula, a local girl, as he attempts to find his parents and escape from the island. For the most part, though, he acts on his own, and in surviving, he realizes he is more than just a child: “He did not know how he had reached this place. … The boundaries of what he had believed in had long since fallen away.” Yet while Kit comes into his own by being placed in extraordinary circumstances, the scope of the novel goes beyond the character of Kit. Through the beliefs of the Skaerlanders and the presence of a mysterious man on the island, Bowler also introduces the idea of good and evil and morality in general. In the end, Kit's survival redefines many of his previous assumptions about morality.

In early twentieth-century stories about nature and survival, writers wrote mostly about male protagonists. In general, these men faced direct, brutal competition with nature and found the independent determination to survive. In many ways, this tradition has continued in YA literature. Many novels with nature and survival at the heart of the story line revolve around young male protagonists. However, a growing number of writers have begun working with nature story lines that involve female protagonists as well. The White Darkness is one such story of a female protagonist finding empowerment and self-fulfillment in nature. As an author, Geraldine McCaughrean has found a voice telling and retelling favorite stories with empowered female characters. Her other works include Not the End of the World (2005), a version of the biblical flood and the story of Noah; The Glorious Adventures of the Sunshine Queen (2010); and Gilgamesh the Hero (2002), a retelling of the ancient Sumerian epic.

The White Darkness focuses on Symone Wates, a young girl who is obsessed with Lawrence Oates, a real-life British Antarctic explorer and whose life and family have always revolved around the mysterious continent. After Symone's father dies, a family friend known as Uncle Victor persuades her mother to let her go to Paris with him. However, this trip is motivated by devious ideas and devout beliefs. Victor takes her instead to Antarctica, where she is finally able to separate fact from fiction. Surviving in near-death conditions with her sanity slipping, she sees Oates as a regular human being (not an untouchable idol) and separates her childhood fantasies from the reality of her situation. She moves out of the past and starts her own life.

From the beginning of the novel, Symone is interested in adventure. It is a part of her family heritage and a part of herself, and an Antarctic adventure becomes a way for her to find herself by exploring the interests of her parents. Although she does not choose her adventure, nature and survival does not simply stir something within Symone as it does for Brian in Hatchet, but rather leads her to discover her identity. However, McCaughrean treats the theme of nature and survival as more than a vehicle for self-discovery, and this twist distinguishes her novel from other YA books that deal with nature and survival. By both surviving the brutal climate of Antarctica and challenging Victor, Symone is able to create an identity that makes her story a continuation of her father's and her ambitions both personal and part of a larger narrative. Symone is able to create something distinct and real for herself through the fulfillment of her personal dreams and her connection with Oates. By finally separating fact from myth in every aspect of her life, Symone can face the realities of her life.

The complexity of Symone's problems places her as the most mature protagonist of the three novels. In Hatchet, being lost in nature is the opportunity for Brian to become his own person and to make his own decisions. Kit experiences similar revelations on the island of Skaer. An extreme situation forces him to deal with problems that he might never choose to face on his own and gives perspective to his own problems. Through survival, Brian is empowered, which returns to him the power he thought he had lost because of his parents' divorce. Similarly, Kit looks for strength and finds knowledge of the world he is growing into, but his lessons are similarly basic compared to the deeper revelations that take place for Symone. By adding fantasy to the theme of nature and survival, McCaughrean creates a deeper and more substantial personal development for her character.

While employing theme of nature and survival in YA literature, each of these novels is also characteristic of each writer's body of work. Paulsen began his writing career in the late 1960s, making him one of the first YA writers. While Paulsen's earlier work focused on period pieces and Western stories, nature has always been a part of his books. Hatchet is one of Paulsen's most successful novels and the first book of the series known as Brian's Saga. Apocalypse is Tim Bowler's seventh novel and contains the themes of fantasy, the supernatural, and horror characteristic of Bowler's other novels. Bowler also employs a dark tone, aimed at older readers on the YA spectrum. The White Darkness is Geraldine McCaughrean's first contemporary YA novel, although its use of historical figures connects it with the other period pieces of McCaughrean's body of work. The long publication history of books that examine survival in nature means it will likely continue to be a successful subgenre of young adult fiction.


The continued success of Paulsen and the popularity of other novelists who make nature and survival central to their YA narratives suggests that this theme appeals to adolescent readers of any decade. Paulson, Bowler, and McCaughrean have won awards for their works, but many novels using the nature and survival theme have not seen the same commercial or critical success as YA works such as the Harry Potter, Twilight, or Hunger Games series.

Even though nature and survival stories have not had the runaway successes of works in subgenres such as fantasy and science fiction, traces of this theme can be found in some successful YA series. For example, Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games (2008) is a story about the survival of Katniss Everdeen. Similarly, James Dashner's The Maze Runner (2009) tells the story of protagonist Thomas's survival within a maze. Although the maze is built by humans, Thomas's relation to it seems to recall the indifferent nature faced by the protagonists of early American naturalism.

Audiences of YA literature are drawn to the struggles faced by adolescent protagonists. While audiences of the early twenty-first century are drawn to fantasy and other speculative-fiction subgenres, there continues to be a place for books that engage the theme of nature and survival. The theme of nature has a universal appeal beyond the genre of YA literature. Because of its characteristics—mysterious, intimidating, and terrifying but also hospitable—nature has long had a place in literature and storytelling.

Further Reading

  • Falconer, Rachel. “Crossover Literature and Abjection: Geraldine McCaughrean's The White Darkness.” Children's Literature in Education 38.1 (2007): 35–44. Literary Reference Center. Web. 28 May 2015. <>.
  • McCaughrean, Geraldine. “The Booklist Printz Interview: Geraldine McCaughrean.” Interview by Stephanie Zvirin. Booklist 1 Mar. 2008: 65. Literary Reference Center. Web. 28 May 2015. <>.
  • Ringrose, Christopher. “Lying in Children's Fiction: Morality and the Imagination.” Children's Literature in Education 37.3 (2006): 229–36. Literary Reference Center. Web. 28 May 2015. <>.


  • Gilbertson, Irvyn G. “McCaughrean, Geraldine.” Continuum Encyclopedia of Children's Literature (2003): 529. Literary Reference Center. Web. 28 May 2015. <>.
  • Gross, Claire E. “Apocalypse.” Rev. of Apocalypse, by Tim Bowler. Horn Book Nov.–Dec. 2005: 713–14. Literary Reference Center. Web. 28 May 2015. <>.
  • Lubar, David. “The History of Young Adult Novels.” ALAN Review (2003): 117–22. Web. 19 Mar. 2015. <>.
  • Reutter, Vicki. “Adventure and Survival.” School Library Journal May 2004: 63. Literary Reference Center. Web. 28 May 2015. <>.
  • Stowell, Theresa L. “Gary Paulsen.” Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition (2010): 1–3. Literary Reference Center. Web. 28 May 2015. <>.
  • Rev. of The White Darkness, by Geraldine McCaughrean. Booklist Jan. 2008: 14. Literary Reference Center. Web. 28 May 2015. <>.
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