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To Stay Alive: Mary Ann Graves and the Tragic Journey of the Donner Party
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To Stay Alive: Mary Ann Graves and the Tragic Journey of the Donner Party

4.06  ·  Rating details ·  642 ratings  ·  183 reviews
Told in riveting, keenly observed poetry, a moving first-person narrative as experienced by a young survivor of the tragic Donner Party of 1846.

The journey west by wagon train promises to be long and arduous for nineteen-year-old Mary Ann Graves and her parents and eight siblings. Yet she is hopeful about their new life in California: freedom from the demands of family, ma
Hardcover, 304 pages
Published October 11th 2016 by Candlewick Press (first published 2016)
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4.06  · 
Rating details
 ·  642 ratings  ·  183 reviews

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Krista the Krazy Kataloguer
Like her earlier novel in verse, Caminar, this book is about a true historical disaster, the Donner Party. Brown skillfully uses poetry, in different forms, to convey the range of emotions of one family, the Graves family, as they journey west with the Donner Party. What these people suffered before they ever reached Donner Pass was unbelievable. I don't know if I could have withstood the sore feet, exhaustion, hunger, thirst, sweating, freezing, never bathing, and fear that these people endured ...more
R. G. Nairam
Jul 14, 2018 rated it it was ok
Once I found out this was about the Donner Party I SHOULD HAVE STOPPED
Mar 25, 2017 rated it really liked it
Definitely keep this historical fiction title in mind for displays and book lists related to the theme of "Nevertheless, she persisted." The desperation by the end made my teeth chatter. Wilderness survival adventure told in verse from the point of view of 19 year-old Mary Ann Graves who made the 1846-1847 journey west with the Donner Party. Everything about this feels more YA than middle grade to me: the narrative style, the cover, the age of the main character, the real life horror that led to ...more
Cheryl Gladfelter
Some of the most beautiful writing I've read this year, these poems tell the story of Mary Ann's family's journey west towards California and their fight for survival when the snow comes and they're trapped. Knowing what happens to the Donner party just makes the story fraught with tension as you start getting attached to the different people Mary Ann knows and you wonder who will survive and who won't.

Any book that can make me cry at work is legit.
Rachael  Fryman
Oct 30, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2017
Six word summary: Do we eat him? We gotta.

Loved: The story through poems allowed for creative layouts in the text that really added to the emotional setting.

Recommend for: History fans who love interesting stories, preferably if you like poetic formatting.

Reminds me of: Milk and Honey meets the Oregon Trail game.
Amy Layton
Realizing this book was about the Donner Party made me want to read this novel like you wouldn't believe.  I mean, winter, the Oregon Trail, cannibalism?  Sign me up.  What I already knew was a horrendous and terrible history in our journey west ended up giving me goosebumps, stomachaches, and lots and lots of moments where I just needed to take a minute and gather myself.  

Told from the point of view of Mary Ann Graves, we join her and her family as they begin to travel west and leave behind ev
The Book Girl
May 03, 2018 rated it really liked it

This was such a beautiful book. It was gritty, horrifying, real, and extremely deep. To Stay Alive is a story told in short poems that tell the fictionalized yet somewhat true story of Mary Ann Graves. Who was a member of the tragic Donner party.

The author tells the story straight up. She makes is engaging but honest. She tells the really gruesome parts without sensationalizing things. She really shares the horrible and bleak things that the pioneers faced. The boring parts, the dirty parts, an
Dec 13, 2017 rated it really liked it
Pasted right from the kids' books blog I share with my daughter:

This is a novel told in verse. It takes a few pages to get used you to but then you don’t even realize except you are flying through the pages.

The subject of the story is a family’s journey across the America from Illinois to California in 1846. The main character is from the Graves family who was part of the wagon train of the famous Donner Party who tragically got stranded in the mountains d
Eva Seyler
Apr 11, 2017 rated it really liked it
I picked up this book because the cover was so beautiful that I had to look at it more closely, and when I saw it was about the Donner Party I didn't even hesitate. (I know, I'm so morbid. XD) When I finally got around to reading it, I was surprised that the story was written as a series of poems (a bit like Brown Girl Dreaming, which I also loved), and it was a pretty quick read because the poems generally don't fill a full page.

It was very thought-provoking and moving and well-done. I highly
Terry Maguire
Mar 17, 2019 rated it really liked it
This is a carefully researched and powerful retelling of the tragedy of the Donner Party, told from the point-of-view of 19-yr-old Mary Ann Graves (the real Mary Ann Graves would have been 16 at the time of the mountain crossing). I've recommended this book to students who had never read novels-in-verse and they loved it. Beautiful writing & deals with the events in a way that is not too graphic for middle grade readers.
Beautifully written novel in verse about Mary Ann Graves, who was a real-life member of the Donner Party. I read this in one sitting because I couldn't put it down. Definitely inspired strong feelings of horror and awe.
Mar 18, 2017 rated it did not like it
A historic western was nice change of pace, but I would have preferred it in regular story mode. Books written in poetry really need to flow in order for me to enjoy. This one was a little too disjointed. It did have an afterward that I always think are interesting..... DNF @30 of 275
The Reading Countess
I remember hearing about the Donner Party when I was my students' age. The thought of what those pioneers endured sent shivers down my spine. However, I, like most children, had many facts wrong. To Stay Alive seeks to not only correct some misconceptions, but also to flesh out (no pun intended) what MIGHT have happened in between the gaps of diary entries and letters. I found this book both riveting and hard to read simultaneously; often I had to put the book down and do something else in order ...more
Nov 30, 2017 rated it really liked it
4.5 stars-Haunting and with truth. A sad story told with tons of emotion that at times made me feel right there with them, trenching through the snow and not looking back.
Oct 08, 2016 rated it really liked it
First sentence: It is finished.

Premise/plot: I've got two sets of 'two words' that will either compel you to pick this one up or to avoid it. For better or worse. First: DONNER PARTY. Second: VERSE NOVEL.

Mary Ann Graves is the narrator of this historical verse novel. She was nineteen at the start of the journey in the spring of 1846. This one is divided into seasons: spring, summer, fall, winter. Almost all of the poems involve the traveling west and surviving aspect of the pioneer spirit. The
A compelling historical novel in verse about the famed (and tragic) Donner party. The focus, though, is on Mary Ann Graves, one of the younger women in the group traveling from Lacon, IL, to California. This is the kind of book that will have big appeal to those who like stories of the west, of historical travel, and fans of books like Little House on the Prairie (with quite a bit less racism, though in the context of this book specifically, it's a historically accurate portrayal of settlers mee ...more
Nov 19, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction-ya, 2016
4 Stars

Gritty, real, horrifying, hopeful. These are the words that can be used to describe To Stay Alive , which tells in short poems the fictionalized yet true story of Mary Ann Graves, a member of the tragic Donner Party.

Brown tells the story as it is. While she manages to keep it engaging, she never sensationalizes, which really draws out the bleakness and monotony that these pioneers faced. It doesn't make the story dull. In fact, it manages to maintain the integrity of the nonfiction asp
Jennifer Y.
Oct 10, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2016-reads
4 1/2 stars....

Told in verse and from the point of view of a young survivor, To Stay Alive provides readers with the story of the ill-fated Donner party who met a gruesome and terrible fate as their wagon train made its journey west in the 1800s. The unique and beautiful way Skila Brown chose to tell this familiar and heartbreaking story was an interesting choice and one I enjoyed as each verse gave us snippets of what our main character was experiencing. I cannot even imagine how horrible it mu
Oct 24, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Very well excecuted and incredibly compelling (thanks to the writing and the format of the book). The author did a marvelous job conveying the despair of Mary Ann and her traveling companions. Good for reluctant readers, but only ones who can handle the cannibalism towards the end (a very small portion of the book, though there is foreshadowing and prior knowledge to elude to where the story is going). The author's handling of cannibalism was so well done--readers will understand it was a heart- ...more
Abby Johnson
Oct 31, 2016 rated it really liked it
A brutal survival story portraying the danger and desperation of the pioneers. Narrated in verse by Mary Ann Graves, a teen traveling with the Donner Party, this novel puts readers in her place. Traveling through the desert and the frozen mountains, resorting to desperate measures to survive.

Hand this to fans of pioneer stories who have grown up and are looking for something a little edgier.
Mary Lee
Mar 19, 2016 rated it really liked it
This will make an interesting pairing with Nathan Hale's Donner Dinner Party. It's chillingly evocative (literally -- I got cold reading it)!! It's hard to imagine the survivors going on to lead normal lives after all they went through.
Dec 24, 2016 rated it really liked it
Smart, clever, interesting, well done, poignant and deep while fast! What an awesome book!
Jane Night
Jul 05, 2019 rated it liked it

Mary Graves and her family are heading to California to start a new life. Unfortunately, they become stuck in the Sierra Nevada during a blizzard and are forced to resort to cannibalism to survive. They are remembered as part of the ill fated Donner party.

My rating:


I loved how well researched this book was. I did quite a bit of reading on the Donner party after enjoying this book and the facts as I researched matched up to what I'd read in the book. I also loved that so much of this
Elise Trommer
Jul 09, 2017 rated it really liked it
4 1/2 stars.

This review does contain spoilers!

I’ve only just recently gotten into reading more books that are written in verse, after I read Ellen Hopkin’s masterpiece Crank years ago, and I’ve always found that though they are easier to read in one or two sittings, they are able to hold and describe such heavy material with such grace and ease. To Stay Alive is another key example of this, as Skila Brown uses poetry to describe Mary Ann Graves’s journey with the Donner Party to the California i
Sandy Benitez
Jan 06, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I've always had this weird fascination with the story of the Donner Party but also an interest in stories of survival. I was so excited to rediscover this book again (forgetting that I had it shelved) until I happened to come across it on Amazon while looking for books. This book was also priced quite reasonably and I got free shipping as well which is always a plus.

The cover for this book is absolutely beautiful (to me). I love the starkness of it, the white snow against the green pine trees an
Apr 02, 2019 rated it it was ok
To Stay Alive was not my favorite book for a couple of reasons. First, this topic is not really something that I enjoy. The whole “westward expansion” storyline is just not interesting to me, and I wonder if it’s because I read a lot of it when I was younger? (Too much Oregon Trail? :) ) Secondly, this is kind of similar to nonfiction for me, in the sense that poetry by itself isn’t necessarily a genre, but a form. We just came off of historical fiction week, and this book seemed to fit in that ...more
Dundee Library
Using a free verse style, the author tells the story of nineteen-year-old Mary Ann Graves, her parents, and eight siblings who joined a wagon train headed west from Illinois in 1846 hoping for new opportunities.

Unfortunately, they became part of the infamous Donner Party. Mary Ann, an actual survivor of the doomed group, describes how her family and others became victims of freezing temperatures and starvation. The events leading to the tragedy were compelling - I didn't realize how easily this
Katie Hutchison Irion
Jun 26, 2017 rated it really liked it
When I was in 7th grade I had to take Utah history. Mr. Whitlock. Riverview Junior High. I don't remember anything else from that class but this one video he had us watch that was all about the Donner Party. I was equal parts mesmerized and horrified. I guess you could say that I had a similar reaction to this book, also about the Donner Party. I don't think I ever would have picked it up if it had not been recommended by a good friend.
It is a hauntingly, beautiful book about one of the women o
May 03, 2017 rated it really liked it
I kind of really liked this story -- done well, a novel-in-verse delivers a powerful message.

I could almost identify with Mary Ann, getting ready for a long journey, excited about her new traveling dress. It's like planning for a road trip, all kinds of excitement mixed with anticipation and a little nervousness. And then you get on the road and it's finally real! And THEN you're a couple hours in and the shininess starts rubbing off. Kids start crabbing, things start smelling, the car starts fe
Nov 26, 2016 rated it really liked it
I will admit, I am not a huge fan of poetry but as I like history I wanted to read this book. The first thing I noticed was the layout which was very creative and kept each page interesting. I flipped to the back of the book which gave a small history of the ordeal and fates of the individuals. I then skimmed a few pages within the body of the book and landed on one near the end that was quite sad (and a little shocking). I decided at that point to start at the beginning and read the progression ...more
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Skila Brown is the author of verse novels Caminar and To Stay Alive, as well as the picture book Slickety Quick: Poems About Sharks, all with Candlewick Press. She received an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She grew up in Kentucky and Tennessee and now lives in Indiana where she writes books for readers of all ages.