Thursday, April 12, 2018

Verse Novel Review: To Stay Alive by Skila Brown

by Skila Brown
Candlewick Press

TO STAY ALIVE by Skila Brown is a young adult historical verse novel told from the perspective of Mary Ann Graves, one of the survivors of the Donner party's tragic trek through Sierra Nevada in 1846.

Reading this book is like a journey. The story begins with a sense of anticipation as the Graves family heads west with their wagons full supplies and their hearts full of hope. The narrator, Mary Ann, is looking forward to a new life in California, where they will no longer have to suffer the hardships of winter.

As the journey progresses, anticipation gives in to weariness and tension. Mary Ann's traveling dress, at first crisp and green and new, gradually becomes more faded and filthy--a fitting metaphor for the human body and spirit when subjected to suffering.

Tension builds as the autumn nights grow colder and their supplies run low. Readers familiar with the basic story of the Donner party may find themselves wanting to shout a warning into the pages. When the inevitable happens, and the party becomes stranded due to winter's early arrival, readers' hearts will ache as Mary Ann watches the people around her succumb to hunger and cold, all while doing what she can to help herself and her family stay alive.

The verse in this story is well done. The way the author formats the poems, at times with words that jump jarringly about the page, is as effective as her choice of words at evoking the appropriate emotions.

TO STAY ALIVE is gripping, heartbreaking, and at times horrifying. An excellent, beautifully written story of survival.


  1. Fascinating. I remember learning about the Donner's in high school, on a class trip out West. I love the cover art of this book...

    1. I love the cover art too. There's something really appealing about it. Even my teenage son noticed it and asked about it.


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