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The Rules of Survival
by Nancy Werlin

Publishing Information: Dial Books : New York, 2006
ISBN: 0803730012 / 0739349082 (Audio)
: 242 p.
Ages: 12 & Up

Matt is a 17-year-old teen who is trying desperately to save his younger sisters, and himself, from the very real dangers of life with a disturbing and dangerous woman: their mother.

Book Talk:

"You're too young now to understand what really happened, or the danger we all lived in. But someday, you might wonder. You might have questions. So I'm going to write down everything that happened, from the time I was four and first understood what my job was in our frightening and unpredictable family, until now, when I'm eighteen, and getting ready to leave you and Callie for the first time.

"It's hard to remember, Emmy, because it means that I have to live through the horror and the fear all over again. But I need to do it, not just for you, but also for me. If I can understand what happened to me, to us, and how our mother changed all our lives, if I can understand where I came from, what shaped me, maybe I can understand who I am now, and who I have a chance of becoming.

"For me, it all started when I saw Murdoch stare down an angry father twice his size who was about to start pounding on his son. I heard him tell the little boy that no one had the right to hurt him, no one, not even his father. I'd never heard anyone say that before. I was thirteen years old, and what I thought I knew was that no one could be trusted. Especially the people who said they loved you.

"I was about to learn that I was right. And that I was wrong.

Matthew" (Booktalk written by Dr. Joni Brodart)

Subject Headings & Major Themes:

Abuse, Emotional
Abuse, Physical
Child Abuse
Dysfunctional Families
Family Relationships
Mental illness

Awards & Reviews:
ALA Notable Children's Books, 2006
National Book Award Finalist (Young People's Literature), 2006

School Library Journal Best Books (Children's), 2006
VOYA's List of "Perfect 10's"
YALSA Best Books for Young Adults, 2007
YALSA Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, 2007

Gr. 7-10. Living with an unpredictable, psychotic mother has taught Matthew how to survive. Constantly on alert, he and his sister, Callie, devotedly shelter their younger stepsister, Emmy, from their mother's abuse and worry about staying safe. Matt insists that "fear isn't actually a bad thing .... It warns you to pay attention, because you're in danger. It tells you to do something, to act, to save yourself," but his terror is palpable in this haunting, powerful portrayal of domestic dysfunction, which is written in retrospect as a letter from Matt to Emmy. Unfortunately, the adults in the children's life, a distant father and an apathetic aunt, don't help, though Matt sees a spark of hope in Murdoch, who dates his mother, Nikki, and then leaves when he becomes another target for her escalating rage. It is Murdoch, with a violent past of his own, who is willing to risk getting involved and eventually becomes the change agent that the children so desperately need. The author of Double Helix (2003), Werlin reinforces her reputation as a master of the YA thriller, pulling off a brilliant departure in this dark but hopeful tale, with pacing and suspense guaranteed to leave readers breathlessly turning the pages. Cindy Dobrez
, August 1, 2006, p76

In this heartbreaking tale of abuse and love, 14-year-old Matthew rescues himself and his younger sisters from a dangerously unstable mother. Nikki's abusive behavior would be hard for a police officer or social worker to identify. She doesn't beat them (much) or sexually molest them. Instead, the children survive manic behavior, mood swings, reckless endangerment and constant, unremitting fear. No benevolent adults can rescue the children: Matthew's absent father loves his children but not as much as he fears his crazy ex-wife; Aunt Bobbie closes her eyes to the violence and psychological abuse she knows occurs; and social services, Matthew knows, are utterly useless. As Nikki's mental problems descend further into dangerous psychosis, Matthew looks for a rescuer. Though he thinks he's found a fairy godfather in protective neighbor Murdoch, the instigation to push the adults into doing the right thing comes from Matthew himself. Beautifully framed as a letter from Matthew to his younger sister, the suspense is paced to keep Matthew's survival and personal revelations chock-full of dramatic tension. Bring tissues.
Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 2006 (Starred Review)

Werlin tackles the topic of child abuse with grace and insight. Narrated by 17-year-old Matt as a letter to his youngest sister, Emmy, The Rules of Survival is his effort to come to terms with the vicious treatment he and his two sisters suffered at the hands of Nikki, their beautiful and unpredictable mother. One of Matt's early memories involves getting up during the night to sneak a cookie back to bed and being caught by his mother. Giggling and yelling Cookie thief, she holds a knife to his throat, cutting him just a little bit to teach him not to steal. As much as he fears her manic highs and lows, his greater concern as he grows older is for the safety of his sisters. He and Callie shield Emmy as much as possible from Nikki's volatile moods. Compounding the problem are the adults in their lives - their father and their aunt - who recognize Nikki's instability but find it easier to look the other way. When Nikki's ex-boyfriend Murdoch befriends the children, they want to believe that a more normal future is possible, but are afraid of being disappointed by an adult yet again. The characters captivate readers from the beginning, and short, terse chapters move the plot along with an intensity that will appeal to seasoned Werlin fans and reluctant readers alike. Teens will empathize with these siblings and the secrets they keep in this psychological horror story. --Kim Dare, Fairfax County Public Schools, VA
School Library Journal
, September 2006, p221 (Starred Review)

Discussion Questions and Ideas:

  1. There are many ways to survive in a dangerous situation. What are some of the ways Matthew, Callie and Emmy survive?
  2. How did Matt and Callie's protecting Emmy endanger her instead? Speculate on how you think Emmy thought about their mother, both before and after they were separated from her.
  3. Why is it that the people you love the most are able to inflict the most pain on you?
  4. Nikki knew her children very well, and knew exactly what buttons to push to manipulate them. Give several examples of her ability to do this.
  5. What were some of the reasons behind Nikki's eccentric and dangerous behavior? What did she gain by acting that way?
  6. In what ways was Ben a good father? In what ways did he let his children down?
  7. There are several turning points in the book where the children's lives get significantly better or worse. Describe several of them and discuss what caused them and what the results were.
  8. Discuss what Murdoch's quote means: "Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them." Give examples of each of these kinds of people. Can you find examples in the book of these kinds of people?
  9. Why did Aunt Bobbie and Ben suddenly decide to start protecting the children? What caused them to start acting differently?
  10. Matthew said he changed in the boatyard when he came face to face with Nikki. What caused that change, and why did he say that it was irreversible?
  11. Discuss Matthew's queen bee/mosquito theory. How did the change occur? Are there "queen bees" in your life that you might be able to change to "mosquitoes?"
  12. How would Matthew's life have changed if he had killed or seriously injured Nikki? How would his sisters' lives have changed?

There are numerous discussion questions available at The above were just a sample of what is available.

Related Websites:
Nancy Werlin's Website - - Author biography, list of books and awards, discussion questions, book talks, and more!

ChildHelp -

Prevent Child Abuse Rhode Island -

Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth & Families -

Rhode Island Office of the Child Advocate -

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Other Books by the Author:
Are You Alone on Purpose?, 1994
The Killer's Cousin, 1998
Locked Inside, 2000
Black Mirror, 2001
Double Helix, 2004
(A 2006 RITBA Nominee)

About the Author:
Nancy Werlin was born and raised in Peabody, Massachusetts, and now lives near Boston. She received her bachelor's degree in English from Yale. Since then, she has worked as a technical writer and editor for several computer software and Internet companies, while also writing fiction. She says, "I write novels for older teenagers. Most (but not all) of my books are thrillers, usually with a high component of psychological suspense."

Interview with Nancy Werlin - Here you can find out about her experiences as a writer and what makes her tick.
| ©2004 - Rhode Island Teen Book Award Committee | Aaron Coutu, Chair