Thursday, February 15, 2007

Making It As a Modern Male III: YA Novels and the Teenaged Boy

Nominated for the 2006 National Book Award, Nancy Werlin's novel The Rules of Survival tells the story of a young teenager who is forced to become the protector of his two younger sisters from his progressively psychotic mother. From age four, when she cut him with a butcher knife to "teach" him not to eat a cookie without permission, Matthew realizes that his mother is fighting a losing battle to control what he calls "her demons." He and his sister Callie psychologically walk on eggs around their unpredictable mother Nikki, whose verbal abuse and terrifying rages threaten them and their little half-sister Emmy constantly. In Matthew's words, "The events we lived through taught me to be sure of nothing about other people. They taught me to expect danger around every corner....all of us full of fear."

Although their father Ben and their Aunt Bobbie are aware of Nikki's long absences and explosive behavior, Matthew's appeals for help are brushed aside with vague excuses of legal custody obstacles. Matthew almost obsessively seizes upon a man named Murdoch whom he observes defending a stranger's child, and when Murdoch actually becomes Nikki's boyfriend for a time, Matthew hopes that he has at last found an adult who will protect them. However, when Nikki sees that she is losing control over her children's lives with Murdoch around, she slips into a nearly constant manic rage against him, a rage which threatens several lives. When Nikki is finally jailed for her attacks on Murdoch and his neighbor, Matthew is able to unite the three adults, his father Ben, his Aunt Bobbie, and Murdoch, in freeing the children from his mother's control.

When Nikki is released from jail and kidnaps Emmy, Matthew manages to rescue his sister and take the final steps to break the bonds of Nikki's manipulation and possessive cruelty. In a hopeful conclusion to the story, Matthew comes to an early manhood, learning both to take responsiblity for himself and finally to trust the three adults who care for him and his sisters.

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  • Hi,

    I'm the publisher of a group of children's webs sites called Mama Lisa's World at My sites are primarily focused on children's music and culture around the world.

    I've been enjoying your blog about children's literature. I wanted to let you know I just posted a blog entry about it at .

    Good luck with your site!

    Best regards,

    Lisa Yannucci
    Mama Lisa's World

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:19 PM  

  • Thank you, Lisa. It's kinda lonely blogging alone sometimes, and it's so nice to know that people like you are out there. I'll check out your site! Thanks so much!

    By Blogger GTC, at 9:03 AM  

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