Book Review: Staying Alive: Cave-In by Joseph Monninger

I won this book at a door prize at one of the sessions at Longwood University’s Summer Literacy Institute this summer. The class was about how to integrate activities to prepare children for disaster situations using literature.

I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of disaster situations. Maybe it’s because I’m a writer, and my imagination is prone to think of the “worst,” or maybe it’s that I was obsessed with Gary Paulsen survival books when I was younger. But think about it: people involved in a disaster situation rarely ever think anything interesting will happen to them that day.

The only real “disaster” I was in that wasn’t predicted (as in a hurricane) was a minor earthquake. It wasn’t anything dangerous, but it was jarring. I was at work—planning in my classroom before the start of school. At first I thought someone was wheeling one of the very heavy laptop carts down the hallway, but the rumbling got worse, and the projector was shaking up at the ceiling. My sister is more of a preparation expert than I am, and she told me to find a doorway or a triangle support area if I was ever in an earthquake, so I made my way to the metal doorframe of my classroom. The precaution wasn’t needed, but it got me thinking: what if a major disaster happened at school? We would all be unprepared. After all, teachers and students are not allowed to have things that would be helpful in a disaster situation—guns, firestarters, etc.

Which is why I am fascinated with books like Cave-In. In this middle-grade novel, a small group of students join their teacher and student teacher on an isolated island right after Thanksgiving. Their goal is to clean up the island for the wildlife that will be arriving in the spring. Their teacher insists on an authentic experience, and cell phones are not allowed. While there, they check out an aging and abandoned storage structure—just when an earthquake hits, trapping them inside.

I enjoyed reading about the different ways the students react—there is a whole range of emotions. I also enjoyed seeing how resourceful some of them were in finding food and water (after their supplies are crushed by the cave-in). Some of the elements of the situation seemed a bit too coincidental, such as the fact that the teacher didn’t bring ANY phone to call for backup (would a school district even allow such a field trip?) or the fact that the person scheduled to pick them up died of a heart attack before he was able to get them. Still, it’s these types of coincidences that no one ever plans for, and they’re the types of decisions and events that can make or break a situation.

The book does contain deaths, and not just the fisherman’s. I enjoyed this—not because I enjoy reading death, but because it is more realistic than a toned-down book in which everyone survives. The deaths were glossed over, though, to keep the book appropriate for a middle-grade reader.

Monninger uses multiple perspectives to tell the story. I did enjoy hearing each student’s thoughts and perceptions, but I felt that all the jumping around limited the extent to which I was able to truly understand or sympathize with any one character. I would have liked to stay in one character’s perspective for longer. Still, it should be noted that the situation, and not the characters, is the purpose of this novel.

It was a fun read, one I would have enjoyed to augment my Gary Paulsen collection as a child, and a series I would recommend as an entry for any student wanting to know more about survival.