Last week a book made an unexpected jump from the arts and entertainment section to the front page, playing a minor part in an amazing story of survival. William Hickman, a thirteen-year-old boy on a hike with his father, fell into the rushing waters of the Wallace River near Gold Bar, Washington, and was swept toward the 265-foot precipice of Wallace Falls. As he was carried downstream, he remembered advice from a fantasy novel he’d read in which the main character was in a similar predicament: “Go feet first, stay to the side, and kick off the rocks.” That’s exactly what he did as he went over a preliminary ten-foot drop, and he stayed upright and alert enough to grab hold of a ledge on the other side. Clinging to that rock, just a few feet from the main falls, he was subsequently extracted by a helicopter search-and-rescue team.
The book he had in mind was part of the Pendragon series by D.J. MacHale, and when the author heard about the role his fiction had played in the harrowing events, he contacted the recovering Hickman, who described the conversation as “awesome.” Nice to know that teenagers stay teenagers even after something like this. MacHale was of course delighted that everything turned out OK, but also pleased about the positive response from the media: “I just had a conversation this past weekend with another author. We were lamenting that we’re given a lot of caution about what we write in books for fear that kids will get hurt. It’s nice that it can work the other way, too.”
It’s true that books for young people are often lambasted for putting dangerous ideas in the heads of their audience, as though no child has ever fallen off a roof without reading about it first. Fiction can be a safe space for kids to encounter dangers that parents hope they’ll never have to face in real life, and there’s a benefit to confronting them that’s often overlooked in these protective times. Plenty has been written about the loss of the necessary free time and open space that allow children to develop physical skills and, more importantly, the ability to make good decisions. Just for starters, there’s The Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv and 50 Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Children Do by Gever Tulley and Julie Spiegler.
We at Island Books were inspired enough by William Hickman’s hopefully-never-to-be-repeated adventure to put together a display of some of our favorite stories of kids and their powerful encounters with the wild. Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet and Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain trilogy, among others, shared a table under a sign that read “Are Your Kids Ready for Summer?” Not that we expect or hope for trouble—just the opposite—but it’s good to remember that raising them right means eventually turning them loose on the world.