Working in a children’s library, the main objection of the job is to literally help kids find books they’ll be interested in. The I Survived… series by Lauren Tarshis is a consistent request from our patrons and one that we recommend when someone is looking for action, adventure, historical fiction or all of the above.
There are currently 20 chapter books in the series, with a few adapted as graphic novels. Each book allows the reader to live through some of the world’s most terrifying historical events, as experienced through the eyes of a child. Events include the September 11 attacks, the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the destruction of Pompeii. For this review, I read I Survived… The Sinking of the Titanic. Having just returned from a cruise, it seemed like an appropriate read, as even on a huge ship in the middle of calm waters, it’s almost impossible not to imagine a rescue-at-sea situation at least once during the voyage. Even if it only flits through your mind as you assemble at the muster drill, the story of the Titanic is so ingrained in our psyche that you can’t help but imagine ‘what if?’
In this case, we don’t have to wonder what it would be like because the fictional 10-year-old Titanic survivor George Calder gives us a first-hand account of exactly what happened in the early morning hours of April 15, 1912. As he stands, petrified, on the deck of the once-believed unsinkable ship, hearing the desperate screams of those who have not yet been loaded into the very small number of available lifeboats, he witnesses mothers handing their children over to strangers more likely to escape the ship. He hears glass breaking, furniture crashing and then the horrible sound made by the ship as it begins to split in two. He holds on to the railing as tightly as he can but he eventually loses his grip, tumbling out of control and smashing his head into the deck. Everything fades to black.
It was never supposed to end like this, certainly not onboard the famed Titanic, the great, unsinkable ship. Built to transport the wealthiest people of the day across the Atlantic, the Titanic was the most glamorous ship to ever set sail. George Calder and his younger sister Phoebe had joined their wealthy aunt Daisy on the maiden voyage, returning home to New York after spending the summer in London. They were fortunate to enjoy first-class accommodations but George was a curious boy and his imagination could not be contained within the walls of the first-class dining rooms and suites. He longed to explore the vessel, often getting in trouble for going missing or being found where he wasn’t supposed to be.
He’d met new friends on such an adventure, wandering below decks to the third class passenger accommodations. It was here that a little Italian boy named Enzo became George’s immediate friend. He was traveling to America with his father, Marco. Like George, Enzo had also lost his mother at a young age and he felt a responsibility to the boy.
On the evening prior to the Titanic’s sinking, George was up to his usual antics, sneaking out after his aunt and sister went to bed, prowling the ship for anything exciting. He and Phoebe had learned from a conversation with the ship’s architect Thomas Andrews that there were secret ladders leading from the boiler rooms up to the dining rooms. George figured he’d investigate the ladders on another night. After all, they would be at sea for 3 more days.
That same evening, the children learned there was a rumor that a wealthy explorer was on board and had brought the mummy of an ancient Egyptian princess with him. Well, who wouldn’t want to investigate a rumor like that?! George locates a crate in the freight area of the ship that looks like it might be large enough to hold a mummy. As he tries to pry it open with the bowie knife his father gave him, he feels the sensation of someone behind him. Sure enough, there’s an unsavory character lurking just behind him and he doesn’t seem to care that George is a young boy. He steals George’s knife and then demands that he lead him to his first-class stateroom.
Fearing what the man would do if he were able to gain entry to their suite, George tells the man about the mummy. He turns his attention towards the crate, hoping to steal the ancient artifact. Just as he pries open a corner of the crate, there’s a terrible sound and the two of them are thrown off their feet. George is confused but he wastes no time leaping to his feet and putting as much distance as possible between himself and the man. As he ascends to the higher levels of the ship, he sees that many other passengers are looking over the railing. Peeking over, George sees huge chunks of snow on the deck below! Some of the men are playfully tossing them at each other. George feels relieved that the adult passengers don’t seem bothered by the earlier noise. He decides that all is well and he should probably get back to his room.
Before he’s able to fall asleep, there’s a knock at the door. It’s Henry, the steward assigned to their room. He’s polite but insistent that George wake his aunt. When Daisy arrives at the door, Henry informs her that the captain has asked all passengers to come to the upper deck. Daisy finds it preposterous; they’re in their pajamas, it’s the middle of the night AND it’s freezing outside. But Henry insists so they begin dressing. Daisy goes to wake Phoebe and finds she’s missing! But where could she be? Then George remembers that Phoebe was there for the conversation about the mummy. She left to find him when she awoke to find him missing!
George and Daisy mount a panicked search that leads them to the third class deck. Here they find that the lower decks are taking on water at an alarming rate. Passengers are being kept from ascending to the upper deck by a gate… and a pistol-wielding steward! It’s at this point that your reader may learn that many passengers were not allowed to leave the bowels of the ship. They were left to drown because they were considered lesser than the first- and second-class passengers.. This knowledge may be very upsetting so consider this your fair warning.
Without warning, George is attacked from behind! A tiny pair of arms encircles his waist to the point that he can’t breathe. It’s Enzo, his young friend from Italy! He and Marco are waiting for their chance to leave the ship. Enzo beckons George to come see something. But when George sees it, he realizes that Enzo means ‘sea’. Water is coming in fast and it’s now clear that the Titanic is in trouble! But they still can’t find Phoebe. After explaining this to Marco, he asks Enzo to scream for Phoebe. The power of his loud, little voice carries around the area and they are quickly able to locate her.
But there’s no escape, at least not an obvious one. It’s only when he realizes that everyone is depending on him that George recalls the conversation with Mr. Andrews. The secret ladders; they can use them to get to the top deck! They begin climbing and come up through a crew dining room. From there, it’s a short walk down a corridor, up a staircase and out onto the crowded deck. They’d made it!
But when they attempt to board a lifeboat, they’re told it’s only for women and children. Marco is forced to stay onboard as Enzo leaves with Daisy. It’s heartbreaking but at least the children will be safe. But no! One of the ship’s officers refuses to let George board the lifeboat! Daisy pleads with the officer. He’s only 10 years old! But the officer is unmoved and the boat plunges into the water below, leaving George all alone.
This is when our story catches up with the first few pages. George is clinging to the ship’s railing, looking up towards the stars. Pandemonium surrounds him but he’s focused on holding on as tightly as he can. But eventually, he loses his grip and that’s when he injures his head, losing consciousness. He awakens to the feeling of strong arms gripping under his shoulders. It’s Marco and he tells George that the time has come to jump into the water. It’s ice cold and takes George’s breath away. But there was no hope for survival on the ship; this was their only shot.
They manage to pull themselves onto crates that are bobbing in the water. Using a rope, they’re able to tie their crates together. But when they finally manage to reach a lifeboat, no one will help them! They push them away, saying they’ll capsize the boat if they get on. George keeps trying to board the boat and eventually, no one tries to stop him. But no one tries to help him either, so he has to heft the weight of an adult man onto the lifeboat himself! But he succeeds; he and Marco are at least out of the water.
Marco is badly injured from the cold water but they are fortunate to soon be rescued by the passenger ship, The Carpathia. The ship has also rescued other survivors of the Titanic and many of them are staring over the railing, hoping to glimpse their loved ones. That’s when George spots them: Aunt Daisy, Phoebe and Enzo, waving frantically. They’d all managed to survive their harrowing ordeal.
The book ends with the Carpathia delivering the survivors to New York City. George and Phoebe are met by their father. Daisy decides to stay in New York to care for Enzo until Marco recovers from his injuries. But George can’t help but notice how Daisy and Marco look at each other. He hoped this meant that the pair would stick around to become a part of their lives.
I recommend the I Survived series for 3rd-6th grade readers who enjoy historical fiction. Remember that some of the story elements may be terrifying for young readers so it’s best to consider your child’s specific needs and maybe consider reading the books together.