"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)
Awards & Reviews:
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
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.
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
Discussion Questions and Ideas:
There are numerous discussion questions available at www.nancywerlin.com. The above were just a sample of what is available.
ChildHelp - http://www.childhelp.org
Prevent Child Abuse Rhode Island - http://www.preventchildabuse-ri.org
Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth & Families - http://www.dcyf.ri.gov
Rhode Island Office of the Child Advocate - http://www.child-advocate.ri.gov
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