Ten teens are left alone in the wilderness during a three-day survival test in this multi-authored novel led by award-winning author Shaun David Hutchinson.
At Zeppelin Bend, an outdoor-education program designed to teach troubled youth the value of hard work, cooperation, and compassion, ten teens are left alone in the wild. The teens are a diverse group who come from all walks of life, and were all sent to Zeppelin Bend as a last chance to get them to turn their lives around. They’ve just spent nearly two weeks hiking, working, learning to survive in the wilderness, and now their instructors have dropped them off eighteen miles from camp with no food, no water, and only their packs, and they’ll have to struggle to overcome their vast differences if they hope to survive.
Inspired by The Canterbury Tales, the characters in Feral Youth, each complex and damaged in their own ways, are enticed to tell a story (or two) with the promise of a cash prize. The stories range from noir-inspired revenge tales to mythological stories of fierce heroines and angry gods. And while few of the stories are claimed to be based in truth, they ultimately reveal more about the teller than the truth ever could.
And then David goes, “Well, thank God someone here knows how to start a fire.”
“Rude,” Jackie said, and then everyone started going off on David while Jenna retreated into the background.
The water we found wasn’t more than a slow stream, but we each filled our canteens and swished a couple of drops of bleach around in them so that we didn’t wind up drinking the piss of whatever animals had used it as their toilet upstream. Already, little alliances were forming. We hadn’t had much opportunity for that at the Bend. Dipshit Doug and his minions had worked us each day until the only thing we could think about at night was sleep. For a camp that had emphasized the value of teamwork, they hadn’t actually let us become anything resembling a team. But now that we were out on our own, Cody and Georgia were starting to pair up, which made sense, and David had sort of inserted himself into their group. Jenna, Lucinda, and Tino hung around each other, though I wouldn’t call them friends, while Jackie, Jaila, and Sunday seemed to have formed an uneasy alliance.
I danced from group to group with ease. That’s always been one of my gifts. The ability to move around like a social chameleon. I fit in wherever the fuck I felt like being. And it’s not that difficult, either. All you have to do is listen a hell of a lot more than you speak.
Before we’d even had a chance to rest, Tino started in on how we needed to move, figuring we could make the hike in two days instead of three and blow Doug’s idiot mind. That kid was all bluster if you ask me.
“What’s the point?” Cody asked. Even he looked surprised that he’d spoken up. He lowered his head sheepishly, like he was waiting for someone to tell him to shut his word hole.
“What do you mean?” Sunday asked.
Cody mumbled, “Forget it,” and fell behind Georgia.
Jaila stepped up to finish Cody’s thought, telling Tino that it was stupid to try to rush back to camp because we had nothing to gain by returning early, and if we weren’t careful in the woods, someone might get hurt. It was clear to me, and probably to everyone else, that Jaila had the most experience and that we should listen to her, but Tino couldn’t stand the idea that he wasn’t in charge.
“I only have one inhaler,” David said, holding the thing up into the air like he thought some of us didn’t know what one was. “I don’t think I can do much running.”
“As much as I wouldn’t mind abandoning the perv in the woods,” Lucinda said, “Dipshit Doug would probably frown on it.”
“Great,” Tino said. “So we’re stuck out here an extra day because David can’t breathe. Just fucking great.”
Lucinda clenched her fists. “That’s not his fault. He can’t breathe because he’s got asthma, whereas you’re just an asshole for no reason.”
Jackie threw up her hands, grabbed her pack from where she’d dropped it, and started marching northeast, which I know because I asked. It was the direction Jaila had said camp was, and she was the only one even willing to make a guess, so it’s what we went with.
The rest of us picked up and followed her—even Tino, though he grumbled about it for at least an hour.
“I’m hungry,” Cody was saying to Georgia while we walked. “What’re we going to do about food?”
“I’m not killing anything,” Cody kept going.
Now that we had water, food was the next thing on all our minds. Some of them, like Cody and Georgia and Sunday, probably never worried about where their next meal was going to come from. They probably thought the food fairy delivered that shit to their fridges while they slept. But I figured even the rest of us had never hunted our own food. We couldn’t have had at least one delinquent in our group who’d gone hunting or fishing?
As the day wore on, we started shedding layers. The ground was uneven, and our meandering route through the forest took us up some steep inclines that David struggled with. But he didn’t complain. Much. Yeah, okay, he did some complaining, but he was only voicing the shit we were all thinking. About how this was fucking ridiculous. About how none of this was teaching us anything about being the “good citizens” Doug kept telling us we needed to be if we were going to stay out of juvie. All it had taught any of us so far was that we weren’t cut out for living in the wilderness and that adults were a bunch of assholes who got off on torturing kids.
Jaila fell back to the middle, letting Tino take the lead for a while. It was a smart move on her part. He was walking in the direction she’d laid out, but he thought he was the one making the decisions, which kept him quiet. A good leader knows how to get people to do what she wants without them knowing they’re doing it.
After we’d walked for about an hour, Cody jogged up to hike beside me. He asked if I really had a hundred dollars, keeping his voice low so that the others wouldn’t hear.
“I do.” I patted my pocket.
“Where’d you get it from?”
“Would you believe me if I said I stole it from Doug?”
Cody shook his head.
“Well, I did. I lifted it from his cabin the second night.”
“That’s a story I’d like to hear.”
“I’m the judge of the competition,” I said. “You all are the ones supposed to tell stories, not me.”
Cody chewed on that for a moment. “I stole some money once. A lot more than a hundred bucks.”
He’d said it loud enough that Lucinda had overheard. “I call bullshit,” she said.
“It’s not bullshit,” he said. “Here, I’ll prove it.”
Reading Group Guide
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By Shaun David Hutchinson and nine other powerhouse authors
About the Book
In the Wyoming wilderness, a diverse group of ten deeply troubled teens navigate their way back to their base camp at Zeppelin Bend, a three-day journey that tests much more than their survival skills. As power struggles develop, alliances form and relationships loosely take hold. To pass the time, they are invited to a storytelling competition, taking turns sharing stories that blur the lines between reality and fiction.
Shaun David Hutchinson and nine other notable authors weave together the lives of these emotionally complex characters who have become isolated from the world, vulnerable to both the elements and to the wilderness inside themselves. The tales they tell give a range of insights and interpretations of rules we must follow to survive in society, but it is really a survival of the spirit that drives them to continue. Each storyteller gives voice to issues and themes that are relatable to contemporary youth, heartbreaking struggles marked by attitudes and behaviors that cause far-reaching suffering and destruction. Can an entire society be witnessed in a cross section of troubled teens?
1. Gio’s first person narrative as an observer affects how we experience other characters and events. Did you find his voice reliable? Which narrative features were used by the authors to make Feral Youth relatable to young adults?
2. How did Feral Youth affect you? Which character did you feel most strongly about? Which aspects of their stories were most relatable? Which aspects were most engaging? Most disturbing? Most morally corrupt? Most heartbreaking? Discuss.
3. With which of the storytellers did you most identify? For what reasons, and in what ways? What effect did the character(s) have on others in the group? What effect did the character(s) have on you?
4. Does the title Feral Youth aptly describe the main characters? Is it appropriate to their circumstances? What alternate title might you choose?
5. When Cody wonders why Gio was sent to the Bend, Gio responds, “‘Aren’t we all here for the same reason?’” What do you think Gio means by this?
6. Overarching themes thread through each of the stories, including injustice, vengeance, retribution, and social confusion. What are some of the other themes, issues, and concerns addressed in the novel?
7. Gio believes, “The courts and our parents or guardians had sent us to the Bend hoping it would change us, but I didn’t think that was possible. The things that made us strong individually were also the qualities that kept us from functioning as a unified whole.” What are some of the qualities Gio is referring to? Discuss.
8. Each protagonist solved his or her dilemma in a different way with significant consequences and effects. What do you think of their coping strategies? What is your opinion of the solutions they chose? Which character made the most understandable choice? Who was most comprised by their decisions and actions? Do you think their revenge was justified? Can revenge ever restore justice? Choose one or two stories and discuss how you would have solved the dilemmas.
9. What roles do adults play in the lives of these characters? Are the adults portrayed realistically? Have you had similar experiences with the adults in your life? Choose one or two characters and discuss how they might improve their situation with the adults in their lives.
10. How does an awareness of social class impact the decisions and actions of the teens in the wilderness? To what extent does social status play a role in the stories they tell? How do their stories reshape or challenge other characters’ perceptions of class and status?
11. What makes you feel respected and valued? How could you work to cultivate at least one trusted relationship with a responsible friend and/or family member?
12. Several stories feature or refer to the supernatural. Do you believe in paranormal activity? Why or why not? Have you ever sensed or seen a presence you couldn’t explain? Do you believe in ghosts? Human monsters? Demons? Aliens? Do you think the storytellers themselves believe in them? Which of the tellers do you think believed their stories to be true, and which do you think were simply providing entertainment?
13. Gio tells us, “That’s why I like stories. They usually wind up revealing more about a person than what they’d tell you about themselves. It’s not that they lie intentionally . . . if you listen hard enough, there’s more truth in fiction.” Do you agree or disagree with Gio? What do we reveal about ourselves in the stories we tell? In what ways?
14. What effect does the setting have on the campers? In what circumstances does the setting reflect the mood? Which specific circumstances within the natural environment become a metaphor for their struggles?
15. Some aspect of religious belief is apparent in each story. Discuss the influence of faith upon each of the storytellers. Which of the characters have faith in themselves?
16. How important is the idea of mutual trust? Were the teens in the wilderness responsible for one another? Were the characters in their stories responsible for one another? How responsible do you think we should be for one another? What rules do you live by? What is an individual’s responsibility to society?
17. The protagonists and many of the characters in their stories made regrettable judgments and assumptions. How did these choices affect them? What effect did they have on others? On circumstances?
18. Do aspects of this novel remind you of any other books, stories, poems, songs, or films? In what ways? Explain the connection.
19. After hearing these stories, what patterns and cause-and-effect relationships did you notice? Specifically, which personal characteristics, actions, and reactions allowed for or prevented personal redemption?
20. Were you satisfied with the ending? Yes, or no? Would you have chosen a different ending for the book?
21. How do you think the ten major characters will manage after they leave the Bend? Gio didn’t believe any of the alliances formed during their three days together would continue, that they would “slip the knot as soon as we were able, and fall to loose ends.” Do you agree with Gio? What will it take for them to find their own paths to emotional and psychological well-being?
22. What might the teens have learned from the circumstances that led them to Zeppelin Bend? What might they have learned from their experiences together at the Bend? What might they have learned from one another’s stories? Discuss.
23. Has your reading of Feral Youth affected your ability or desire to observe the people and the world around you in different ways?Discuss.
Beyond the Book: Extension Activities
1. Perception and perspective play important roles in the development of our personal and social identities. What types of things do you often notice that others do not? Are they tangible or intangible? Visible or invisible? Are they clear-cut or indistinct? Describe what you notice in the form of a paragraph, a short story, a poem, a song, a drawing, or whatever you feel most inspired to create.
2. Write a letter to one of the storytellers or one of the characters in their stories. What would you say to him or her? What encouragement would you give? What would you reveal about yourself? What would you tell the adults in his or her life?
3. Describe or imagine a place where you feel comfortable, safe, respected, empowered, inspired, and loved, a place where you can be your authentic self. Carefully observe your surroundings and make note of what you see, hear, touch, and smell. When and why do you visit this place? Are you there alone, or is someone with you? If so, who? Be as specific as you can with sensory details. Spend at least twenty minutes in this healing place without talking, writing, or texting, experiencing how it feels. Note how your thoughts, perceptions, reflections, and memories change when you are surrounded by well-being.
4. Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales have provided inspiration for the framework of Shaun David Hutchinson’s novel. Explore the fascinating world of late medieval fourteenth-century England through one of the many lively translations of the tales, such as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, retold and illustrated by Marcia Williams. Compare the two works of literature. Though very different in tone, FeralYouth and The Canterbury Tales both suggest storytelling competitions based on human behavior, social class, and moral dilemmas that are still relevant today.
5. Some believe life experience is determined by things that are impossible to predict or control, speaking in terms of chaos and fractals. Investigate this theory and what it might mean for the choices we make in our lives. There are many websites showcasing the most basic to the most currently advanced research of Chaos Theory. A helpful place to begin your research is: fractalfoundation.org/resources/what-is-chaos-theory/
This guide was prepared in 2017 by Judith Clifton, M.Ed, MS, Educational Consultant, Chatham, MA.
This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.
Shaun David Hutchinson is the author of numerous books for young adults, including The Past and Other Things That Should Stay Buried, The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza, At the Edge of the Universe, and We Are the Ants. He also edited the anthologies Violent Ends and Feral Youth and wrote the memoir Brave Face, which chronicles his struggles with depression and coming out during his teenage years. He lives in Seattle, where he enjoys drinking coffee, yelling at the TV, and eating cake. Visit him at ShaunDavidHutchinson.com or on Twitter @ShaunieDarko.
Suzanne Young is the New York Times bestselling author of The Program series. Originally from Utica, New York, Suzanne moved to Arizona to pursue her dream of not freezing to death. She is a novelist and an English teacher, but not always in that order. Suzanne is also the author of Girls with Sharp Sticks, All in Pieces, Hotel for the Lost, and several other novels for teens. Visit her online at AuthorSuzanneYoung.com or follow her on Instagram at @AuthorSuzanneYoung.
Tim Floreen majored in English at Yale and earned a Master’s degree in creative writing at Boston University. He now lives in San Francisco with his partner and their two cats. Willful Machines is his first novel. You can find him online at TimFloreen.com or on Twitter at @TimFloreen.
Alaya Dawn Johnson is the author of six novels for adults and young adults. Her novel The Summer Prince was longlisted for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Her most recent, Love Is the Drug, won the Andre Norton Award. Her short stories have appeared in many magazines and anthologies, including Asimov's, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Interzone, Subterranean, Zombies vs. Unicorns, and Welcome to Bordertown. In addition to the Norton, she has won the Cybils and Nebula Awards and been nominated for the Indies Choice Award and Locus Award. She lives in Mexico City.
Justina Irelandenjoys dark chocolate, dark humor, and is not too proud to admit that she’s still afraid of the dark. She lives with her husband, kid, and dog in Pennsylvania. She is the author of Vengeance Bound and Promise of Shadows.Visit her at JustinaIreland.com.
"From the first sentence ("I'm not a liar"), collection editor Hutchinson grabs readers with a raw, spot-on monologue that invites readers into heavy issues teens are struggling to navigate, many with distant or absent parents. Due to the mature, often raw content, this is a book that would also be valuable for adult readers who have the courage to face the darker things teens don't tell them. A compelling, uncomfortable narrative that lets readers know that the tragedy the world can bring to teens transcends socio-economics, gender, and race."
– Kirkus Reviews
"Many of the stories delve into intense darkness, and there are no easy resolutions, even as the focus rests on a group of diverse people learning to trust each other. A compelling examination of the teen psyche."
– Booklist, STARRED REVIEW
"The kids are considered “human garbage,” as Hutchinson’s character puts it, but their choices and situations are born of sharp, complicated moments and realities. Though the voices are distinct, it’s the overall experience of disparate people finding common understanding that lingers."
– Publishers Weekly
Awards and Honors
Bank Street Best Children's Book of the Year Selection Title