The Rules of Survival

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Published by: Originally published by Dial Books/Penguin Random House, current edition by Nancy Werlin.
Release Date: 2006, 2022
Pages: 282
ISBN13: 979-8986758602



Finalist for both the National Book Award and the LA Times Book Prize.

Matt has long since put himself in charge of protecting his younger sisters from their enemy.

Who is their enemy? It’s their mother, Nikki O’Grady Walsh.

Matt’s done okay. But secretly, inside, he's growing tired and hopeless. Then, suddenly, there's a possible ally on the horizon. Murdoch, his mother’s ex-boyfriend, who maybe can help him get free of his mother—for good.

(Cover design by Edie Freedman)


While I was lucky enough to grow up with loving, responsible parents, as an adult I encountered someone like Matt’s mother, Nikki Walsh. I ended up doing a good deal of thinking about what it might be like for a child to be in the power of someone like that.

This novel began its life as a short story that wouldn’t leave me alone. There was a longer story there for me to explore. Eventually I realized I had to sit down and go into its dark places and find out.

The Rules of Survival is "told" by Matthew to his little sister Emmy. This approach was a deliberate artistic choice to try to involve the reader more intensely into the story. If "you," hearing the story, are not only yourself but are also a five year old girl...a child in danger...that does things to your emotions as reader that cannot be done when you are reading as an outside observer.

This is a realistic novel. There are children and indeed, adults, who are prey to people like Nikki Walsh. Many readers have written to tell me that they grew up in circumstances like those in the book. It's not always the mother, of course. More often, frankly, it is the father. Sometimes, it is a boyfriend, a husband, or a wife. It might be a sister or brother who terrorizes the family. Or a neighbor. It could be anyone . . .

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"The Rules of Survival spoke to me. The outcome made knots in my chest come undone."
—Tamora Pierce

"Werlin tackles the topic of child abuse with grace and insight.”
—School Library Journal (starred review, 9/2006)

"Werlin reinforces her reputation as a master of the YA thriller."
—Booklist (starred review, 8/2006)

"The suspense is paced to keep Matthew's survival and personal revelations chock-full of dramatic tension. Bring tissues."
—Kirkus Reviews (starred review, 7/15/2006)

"One of [Werlin]'s most deliciously harrowing works."
—Voya ("Perfect 10" 5Q/5P, 9/2006)

"Not only a suspenseful psychological thriller but a compelling and unusual insight into the experience of child abuse."
—Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, Recommended (9/2006)

"One of literature's most despicable mothers."
—Publishers Weekly (10/9/2006)

"An exceptional novel."
—Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy (4/2007)

  • 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.
  • An ALA Quick Pick for Reluctant Teen Readers.
  • A School Library Journal Best Book of 2006.
  • A Kirkus Reviews Best Children's Book of 2006.
  • A Voya Review "Perfect 10" for 2006.
  • A Top Ten BookSense Winter 2006-2007 Children's Book Pick.
  • A Kansas City Star Noteworthy Book of 2006.
  • A New York Public Library Best Book for the Teen Age.
  • A Capitol Choices Noteworthy Book selection, 2007.
  • A Junior Library Guild selection.
  • Cybils Young Adult Book award finalist, 2007 (online community award)
  • JHunt Young Adult Book award nominee 2007 (online community award)
  • A Texas Tayshas reading list selection for 2007-2008.
  • A Rhode Island Teen Book Award nominee for 2007-2008.
  • A Virginia Readers' Choice list selection for 2008-2009.
  • A Missouri Gateway Readers Award list selection for 2008-2009.
  • An Iowa High School Book Award 2008-2009 Master List selection.
  • A South Carolina Book Award 2008-2009 Master List selection.
  • A Tennessee Volunteer State Book Awards selection, 2008-2009.
  • A Washington State Evergreen Master List selection for 2009.
  • An Oklahoma Sequoyah Young Adult Master List selection for 2009.
  • A Garden State (New Jersey) Teen Book Award Master List selection for 2008-2009.
  • A Heartland Award (Kansas) in young adult literature finalist for 2009.
  • An Illinois Abraham Lincoln High School Book Award finalist for 2010.
  • An ALA popular paperback selection, 2010.


PDF Discussion Guide

[From Chapter 1]

"Callie and I headed straight for the ice cream freezer, and we'd just reached it when the yelling began. We whipped around.

"It was the barrel-shaped man and the little kid. The man had grabbed the boy by the upper arms and yanked him into the air. He was screaming into his face while the kid's legs dangled: 'What did you just do?'

"The little kid was clutching a package of Reese's Pieces and he started keening, his voice a long, terrified wail, his small body rigid.

"The big man--his father?--shook him hard, and kept doing it.

" 'I'll teach you to take things without permission! Spend my money without asking!'

"And then the other man, the one I later knew was called Murdoch, was between the father and son. Murdoch snatched the little kid away from his father and put the kid down behind him. Then Murdoch swiveled back.

"Emmy, I like to freeze the memory in my mind and just look at Murdoch. He was a medium kind of man. Medium height, medium build, hair shaved close to the skull. You wouldn't look twice--until you have looked twice.

"He wasn't afraid. I noticed that right away about him. Here was this huge enraged man, facing him. But this other man, Murdoch, was calm. At the same time, there was this sort of tension coiling off him.

"Callie and I were behind Murdoch and to the left, so we had only a partial view of his face and expression. But we had a full-on view of the little kid, who was so shocked that he stopped crying and just stared up at Murdoch's back with his mouth open.

"Meanwhile, Murdoch said, quietly but audibly, 'If you want to hurt somebody, you can hurt me. Go on. Hit me. I won't hit back. You can do it until you're not angry anymore. I'll let you.'

"There was an endless, oh, five seconds. The father's eyes bulged. His fists were clenched. He drew one arm back. But Murdoch was still looking straight at him, and I knew--you could feel it vibrating in the air--that even though Murdoch had said he wouldn't hit him, he wanted to. He wanted to hurt him.

"I liked him for that. No, Emmy, I loved him for that. Immediately."