The Rules of Survival is told in first-person as a letter to his youngest sister, Matthew recounts his childhood and what exactly the Rules of Survival are when living with an abusive, unpredictable and mentally ill mother.
The “Rules of Survival” include incessant vigilance and awareness of where of his sister Callie, and his baby stepsister Emmy are and learning that “fear isn’t actually a bad thing…It warns you to pay attention, because you’re in danger.”
Matthew’s terror is palpable in the novel and his despair as he comes to realie that the adults in his life, Murdoch, his mother’s former boyfriend, who knows what Nikki is like, and his own father, will not protect him or his innocent, terrified younger siblings from their mother’s violence and irrationality.
Nancy Werlin creates a taut thriller with Matthew’s narrative, after all the reader only knows what Matthew knows as he lives precariously on the edge of violence.
What we learn, and what Matthew learns, is that the adults in his life do have power, and will cause a drastic change in his and his sisters situation, but what we learn is the price that everybody will have to pay for freedom from abuse.
What are the ways that Matthew, Callie and Emmy survive in their dangerous situation?
In what ways did their mother, Nikki, try to deal with her illness, how did she fail or succeed?
The adults in the Walsh childrens lives seem powerless to help them, but at the end of the novel, they reveal a plan. Why do you think the adults kept this plan a secret? How did it affect the Walsh children when they thought that their Aunt Bobbie, Murdoch, Matthew, and Callie’s father were powerless to help them?
Discuss how the Walsh children lives were similar to the lives of the POW in the movie they watched with Murdoch? How were they different? In what ways were they prisoners?
Discuss Nikki and her sister, Bobbie’s relationship as young women and as adults. What did Nikki gain from tormenting her sister? How did this early manipulating behavior repeat itself in Nikki’s relationship with her children?
A 2006 National Book Award finalist, Young People’s Literature
A Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist.
An ALA Best Books for Young Adults: Top Ten Choice.