Monday, June 29, 2015

Book Review: Survival Strategies of the Almost Brave by Jen White

Take away the gingerbread cottage, and there is nothing sweet about Hansel and Gretel. Two children are abandoned in the woods to die by their stepmother, then entrapped by a witch who plans to turn them into dinner. The children escape with wits and fingers intact, and the witch meets a gruesome end, roasted in her own oven. It's classic Grimm Brothers -- children's darkest fears expressed and then resolved, with a happy ending that's only happy for the deserving.

Survival Strategies of the Almost Brave by Jen White
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014)
Jen White's debut middle-grade novel, Survival Strategies of the Almost Brave, is Hansel and Gretel set in the modern world. Hansel is now12-year-old Liberty, and her little sister is 8-year-old Billie, abandoned by their father in a grimy gas station in the middle of a desert. Liberty and Billie fear predators of the two-legged kind -- the drifters, long-distance travelers, and maladjusted overnight-shift workers of rest stops, interstates, and motels.

The girls have already lost their mother to a fatal traffic accident, and when their reluctant, unstable photographer father takes them in, his RV seems as a good as a gingerbread cottage. But when things go wrong, he abandons the girls, as he has once before, this time without even a pocketful of bread crumbs.

Liberty reassures herself with an endless trove of animal facts and survival strategies gleaned from Animal Planet and National Geographic and recorded in her notebook for just this kind of emergency.  Survival Strategy #8: Escape if you dare. Survival Strategy #35: Beware of Unexpected Gifts. She's more than almost-brave -- she's all the way there, resourceful even in fear and protective of her sister. Encountering people who might be dangerous and some who turn out to be helpful, Liberty invents new survival strategies based on her own experiences: Survival Strategy #41: Dr Pepper can ruin everything. Survival Strategy #48: Rescue yourself. These strategies are way beyond anything on Animal Planet.

Before I picked up Survival Strategies of the Almost Brave (my copy was provided by the publisher for an honest review), I read Sage Blackwood's Jinx, which opens with a Hansel and Gretel beginning: Young Jinx is lead into the vicious and dangerous Urwald by his step-father-many-times-removed to be abandoned to his inevitable death. His eventual triumphs take many more wrong turns than Liberty and Billie's -- he must battle trolls, ally with werewolves, defeat evil wizards, unite a kingdom, recover from his own death.

Yet Liberty and Billie's trials are more frightening. Survival Strategies of the Almost Brave is filled with heart, color, and good humor -- Liberty and Billie are vivid and appealing characters, and Liberty's first-person voice is authentic and convincing. But this is not a comic adventure -- the girls face loss and peril that is all the more real because of the realistic contemporary setting.

And this is when I remember that the Grimm Brothers didn't write of events that were remote, but of fears that were all too possible. Their stories were not just stories, and neither is White's.

Take away the rest stop Twinkies, Dr Pepper, and Nutter Butters, and there is nothing sweet about Survival Strategies of the Almost Brave. The losses and risks Liberty and Billie are the primal and darkest fears of modern children, and for many children they are too real. Liberty and Billie save themselves in the end, as surely as do Hansel and Gretel, but there is no witch, no gruesome justice enacted -- just survival strategies that Liberty and Billie take forward to the next time life takes them somewhere they don't want to go.


  1. What a wonderful, lyrical review. I want to read this right away, because of what (and how!) you wrote about it, Kell.

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Thanks for adding to the mayhem!