Study Guide

The Rules of Survival

By Nancy Werlin

The Rules of Survival Introduction

Are you having a good day today? Feeling pretty good about the world? Got a bounce in your step? Well, consider yourself warned: This all might change once you start reading Nancy Werlin's The Rules of Survival, a brutally honest tale about abuse at the hands of the one person every kid is supposed to be able to trust: their mother.

Okay, so this isn't the kind of book that you pick up for a fun, breezy beach read. It isn't just serious, though—it's seriously awesome, too. Or so the folks who nominated it for a National Book Award think, anyway. So while it's a raw and heart-wrenching read, it's also a well-written tale about the Walsh siblings and their struggle to survive their mom's chaotic and violent reign of terror.

This book does not shy away from descriptions of some pretty awful abuse. Nikki, the kids' mother, commits monstrous acts against her own children. She throws them to the ground, veers into oncoming traffic, locks them into rooms, and even holds knives to their necks while they're sleeping. She is scarier than any imaginary monster these kids could dream up… and the story shows us how they survive their situation, and then eventually overcome it.

In The Rules of Survival, Matthew and his siblings need to be clever and brave and find ways to survive living with their mother. But it's not until after they shake her off that their own stories are really allowed to emerge—no longer trapped in survival mode all the time, they can finally start really living their own lives.

What is The Rules of Survival About and Why Should I Care?

We've all felt helpless before, right? Hopefully it's over something relatively minor—say, the inability to get our parents to sign off on a Spring Break trip—but for plenty of people, feelings of helplessness are in response to something major. The Rules of Survival takes a long, hard look at one of the more overwhelming experiences people find themselves faced with: abuse.

And this, Shmoopers, is why you should read it. Whether you've struggled to navigate these dangerous waters yourself, know someone who has, or count yourself lucky to so far have gone through life without coming in contact with this terrible dynamic, the unfortunate reality is that abuse is alive and well in our world. And for this reason, it's important that we read about it—that we familiarize ourselves with some of the forms it takes so we can better understand how it works and how to heal from it.

Because ultimately, The Rules of Survival is a story about healing. It's about the Walsh siblings and their intense struggles while living with their mother, yes, but it's also about how they learn to hope and lay claim to their own futures, too. And since we've all felt helpless at one point or another, we can all take a cue from Matt and his sisters—if they can go from surviving to thriving, well, then there's hope for the rest of us, too.

The Rules of Survival Resources


The Whole Story
Learn all about Werlin and her other books about scrappy teenage protagonists on her official website.

Not Just Fiction
Sadly, while the Walsh kids and Nikki are made up, child abuse is a very real problem in our world. If you or someone you know needs help, this link is here for you.

Articles and Interviews

Words of Wisdom
One of Werlin's favorite quotes is that, "in the end, the survivor gets to tell the story." That's certainly true in Matthew Walsh's case.

Werlin reveals that the reason she had Matthew say up front that they were all okay and living elsewhere now is because she didn't want the reader to feel anxious about the kids (and the ending) throughout the whole book. How thoughtful, right?


Listen Hard
If you'd rather listen to The Rules of Survival as narrated by some dude named Daniel Passer, well, then you're in luck!


Dark Times
The cover of The Rules of Survival makes it pretty clear that this is not going to be a warm and fuzzy read.

The alternate cover of The Rules of Survival shows a bowl filled with glass shards… yum?

Hello, Goodbye
Do you always wonder what the author of a book looks like, and whether or not they resemble the main character? Well, we're pretty sure that Werlin looks nothing like Matthew Walsh.