When We Were Lost by Kevin Wignall

This tense survival tale illustrates contrasting forms of leadership as teens struggle to find their way out of the Brazilian jungle.

When We Were Lost by Kevin Wignall. Jimmy Patterson (Little, Brown), 2019, 306 pages

Reading Level: Teen, ages 12-15

Recommended for: ages 14-18

Tom, a high-school junior, is on a plane to Costa Rico for an ecology field trip with 39 classmates and three teachers. They haven’t been in the air very long before the plane goes down somewhere in the South American jungle. All the adults and half the kids are instantly dead. Nineteen have miraculously survived, but have no clue where they are and what to do next. In such a situation the natural leaders emerge, and Joel (team captain, class president, etc.) immediately takes charge, sorting out kids and supplies. But Tom’s instincts are telling him they need to scope out the terrain and build a fire as a defense against predators. When three of their party quickly fall prey to injury, heat, and animal attack, his instincts are vindicated.

Tom, orphaned since the age of nine, has never felt close to anyone, but the situation forces a sense of responsibility on him. He tries to shake it off, but others are gravitating to him, like Barney the inventor and Shen the fledgling medic and Kate the outdoor girl. Somehow, in spite of all the odds, and complicated by Joel’s interference, he comes to realize it’s up to him get all of them out alive. “Our decisions matter,” says Kate, “and that’s why it matters who’s making those decision.”

Survival stories are about finding the inner person-what’s noble, venal, weak, or strong. Though the action is always intense, the best survival stories include character development, and watching Tom emerge from his fatalistic, observational alienation sets this story apart from many others. No one is a true villain, but what brings out Tom’s leadership also exposes Joel’s brand of leadership to be a sham (he’s the son of a politician, after all). Except for an encounter with cocaine dealers in the jungle (with a very high body count), the action is realistic and often very tense. One of the kids is gay, but aside from rote acceptance not much is made of it. In spite of some profanity (see “considerations”), the language is remarkably clean with no sexual references beyond a casual statement in the opening chapter about a young teacher having the “hots” for Tom. There, I presume, to establish the main character’s hunkiness, but could have done without that.


  • Writers who are careful about vulgar language (such as the f- word) often have no compunction about profanity, so there are several instances of “my God,” and one misuse of Jesus’s name.
  • Scenes of violence and danger are intense but not overly graphic.

Overall rating: 3.75 (out of 5)

  • Worldview/moral value: 3.5
  • Artistic/literary value: 4

For another great survival story, see Andrew Klavan’s If We Survive. Also, here’s our review of Gary Paulsen’s classic for middle-graders, Hatchet.

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Janie is the VERY senior staff writer for Redeemed Reader, as well as a long-time contributor to WORLD Magazine and an author of nine books for children. The rest of the time she's long-distance smooching on her four grandchildren (not an easy task). She lives with her equally senior husband of almost-fifty years in the Ozarks of Missouri.

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