Survivalist literature popular again

''It's a truism that children love stories of survival, just like little children love books about trucks,'' says Matilda Welter, an editor of children's books at Houghton Mifflin.

Children are getting more opportunities to satisfy that love these days with a spate of survivalist literature - some of it extremely well written - hitting the bookstores. The 1982 Newbery Medal Winner was a survival story - Cynthia Voight's ''Dicey's Song.'' It's about a 13-year-old girl keeping her family together after her mentally ill mother abandons them in a shopping center parking lot. And in 1983 a Newbery Honor Award went to Elizabeth Speare's ''Sign of the Beaver,'' which was inspired by a paragraph she read in a Maine history book about a 13-year-old boy left on a newly established homestead in the Maine woods while his father returns to Massachusetts to gather the rest of the family.

Not so much a trend as a resurgence, survivalist literature seems to be enjoying great popularity among both children and publishers. ''I didn't want it to be a survivalist story,'' says Mrs. Speare of her historical book. ''I wanted to deal with the relationship between the (white) boy and the Indian child. But my editor thought we should emphasize the survival aspect.''

The young boy survives, first by using the techniques and methods taught by his father and then, when these fail and he loses his gun and fishhook, through the even more pragmatic methods taught to him by an Indian boy his age. But it is his father's values shining through the boy that ultimately win him the respect of his Indian friend and give the boy his reason to survive.

''In most of these books, the children survive not by turning on their parents, but by using their parents' values,'' says a children's librarian in the Washington, D.C., area. Yet in many of these books it is the adult world that has forced these children into a survival situation, a fact that sets them apart from the Robinson Crusoe-type adventures of the past.

''Perhaps it's just another part of that burst that happened in children's literaure in the late '60s and '70s, when suddenly nothing was taboo any more, and you could talk about anything at all in children's books,'' says Caroline Parr, head of the children's division in a large library system outside Washington, D.C. ''Now, they've gotten around to survival books, so they're doing children abandoned by parents instead of natural disasters.''

Some publishers and librarians think the reason that these ''adult-abandoned children'' books are popular lies with the increasing numbers of latchkey children whose parents, for whatever reason, can't be with them for most of the day.

Even children who don't fall into this category may be curious about what it would be like to be alone, says Ms. Welter. ''I think that all children's books are essentially informational,'' she says, ''and these books provide a chance for children to try out what it would feel like if their parents weren't there.''

Ms. Welter thinks these books probably ''appeal to teen-agers who want to think they can make it without their mother or father.''

Many publishers seem to think that, whatever reasons there are for writing these books, their great appeal today is because they show children's feelings about the times in which we live. ''Our times are very troubled and very tough on children,'' says Margaret McElderry, director of Margaret McElderry Books, ''and this is reflected in books.''

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