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MELISSA BLOCK, host: Rosa Parks has inspired generations with her determination to fight an unjust system. In that spirit, author Susan Choi recommends three books that feature characters whose wills are tested. And they not only survive, but come out stronger.

SUSAN CHOI: All the survival challenges I've been faced with so far in my life were about on the level of the time I locked myself in my basement without a cell phone. I'm not a danger-seeker, and I've always been a little suspicious of people who are.

But those forced to struggle for their very survival - due to the cruelty of others, or freaks of the weather, or strange twists of fate - earn my unqualified awe. Here are three electrifying stories of very young people surviving very bad things.

Peter Rock's "My Abandonment" takes its inspiration from the true story of a young girl discovered living with her father in a makeshift, hidden shelter in Portland, Oregon's Forest Park.

In Rock's novel, 13-year-old Caroline fully accepts her father's dictum that they live in isolation and hiding, trusting no one but each other. Yet the crystalline ingenuousness of Caroline's voice increasingly reveals Father as a charismatic but paranoid megalomaniac.

Rock enters so fully into the lonely and impoverished existence of Caroline and Father that we have to remind ourselves that "My Abandonment" isn't a lost girl's journal but a work of fiction, an astonishing imagining of unimaginable lives.

Like "My Abandonment," Francisco Goldman's "The Ordinary Seaman" also makes riveting fiction of miserable fact - in this case, the abuse of a group of Central American sailors held captive in Brooklyn.

The title character is Esteban, a 19-year-old veteran of the war in Nicaragua. Devastated by combat and the death of a girl soldier he'd loved, Esteban thinks he has nothing to lose. But when he travels to Brooklyn to take a job as a sailor aboard a ship called the Urus, he finds he was wrong.

The Urus is a wreck. And its crew - all fellow penniless Central Americans - are now virtual prisoners, charged with the impossible task of repairing the ship. Nearly as marooned as they'd be on a desert island, the would-be sailors feast their eyes on the lights of Manhattan while freezing and starving until at last, Esteban strikes out to seek help. His eventual triumph, so hard-won, is a triumph for us all.

One can only hope that Marianne Wiggins' "John Dollar" isn't based on a true story. John Dollar follows a group of little girls, some barely older than toddlers, who after being shipwrecked on a wild, remote island are driven to commit shocking acts to survive.

That Marianne Wiggins herself described the book as a kind of female "Lord of the Flies" should give the reader fair warning of what lies ahead. But rest assured, despite the fact that Wiggins cites her own antecedents, "John Dollar" is an absolute original, a book you'll find impossible to put down - even if on some pages, you want to.

All three of these books are in part, and very much by design, harrowing. But all three are that much more transforming of us as readers, especially if the worst thing that we have ever encountered was getting locked in the basement.

BLOCK: Three-book recommendations from Susan Choi. She's the author of "A Person of Interest."


MICHELE NORRIS, host: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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