Archives For Hatchet

“What’s the last ‘best’ book you read on your own?” I would ask students when I taught middle and high school.

When I asked them this question, the boys almost always answered “Hatchet“.

“That’s the last book I read, too,” many would admit.

The number of Hatchet fans was 100% among the vocational agriculture students I taught for seven years in a rural school in Northwest Connecticut. Their love of this novel resonated with their desire for independence, adventure, and the outdoors.

The author Gary Paulsen shares many of these interests according to his biography:

Running away from home at the age of 14 and traveling with a carnival, Paulsen acquired a taste for adventure. A youthful summer of rigorous chores on a farm; jobs as an engineer, construction worker, ranch hand, truck driver, and sailor; and two rounds of the 1,180-mile Alaskan dog sled race, the Iditarod; have provided ample material from which he creates his powerful stories.

In Hatchet, Paulsen’s protagonist, Brian Robeson, is a thirteen-year-old boy from New York City. From the onset, Brian is ill-prepared to meet the hardships of the wilderness when the single engine plane he is riding in from New York to Canada crashes because the pilot had a heart attack. Thus begins a compelling survival story, and my students loved survival stories; many of them were experienced hunters or fishermen.

The opening chapters of Hatchet also cover Brian’s personal background, his knowledge of his mother’s affair and his parent’s subsequent divorce, and the events leading up to the plane crash. Since the pilot had offered Brian a few minutes of flight lessons, he is able to control the descent of the plane until it crashes into a lake. He swims to safety with his only asset, a small hatchet he has taken from the crash.

Brian’s wilderness education alternates between emotions of loneliness and his physical needs. He learns to respect the natural world through a series of unexpected encounters with a bear, a porcupine, and a wolf. A turtle’s eggs give him a food source until he learns how to fish.  He learns how to build a fire and how to store food properly after a serious spraying by a skunk. Initially devastated about his inability to signal a passing plane for help, Brian works to improve his skills by constructing a studier lean-to.  These incidents mark a change in the “new” Brian, one who is far more self-reliant than the “city boy” who left on the plane to Canada. My students enjoyed the notion that “city boy” values must change to include skills they valued as well.

In recounting Brian’s emotional turmoil caused by his parent’s recent divorce, Paulsen uses simple and effective word choice and syntax; Brian is monosyllabic with memories, “The words. Always the words. Divorce. The Secret. Fights. Split. The big split.” Many of my male students spoke monosyllabically as well. These simple statements capture Brian’s stream of consciousness effectively without sentimentality.

There is just the right amount of the “yuck” factor in the novel to satisfy a young male reader. When the plane resurfaces, Brian decides to retrieve the plane’s flight location transmitter. While diving in the plane, he comes upon the decomposing body of the pilot:

“The fish. He’d never really thought of it, but the fish—the fish he had been eating all this time had to eat, too. They had been at the pilot all this time, almost two months, nibbling and chewing and all that remained was the not quite cleaned skull and when he looked up it wobbled loosely.”

Paulsen illustrates Brian’s growth as he learns how to adapt to increasingly dangerous situations; he survives a tornado and a terrifying moose attack. The reader is increasing aware of the self-confidence that Brian develops towards the end of the novel:

“Come on, he thought, baring his teeth in the darkness—come on. Is that the best you can do—is that all you can hit me with—a moose and a tornado? Well, he thought, holding his ribs and smiling, then spitting mosquitoes out of his mouth. Well, that won’t get the job done. That was the difference now. He had changed, and he was tough. I’m tough where it counts—tough in the head.”

54 days after the plane accident, Brian is rescued. Like all characters in a coming-of-age novel, he is not the same; he is more introspective and thoughtful. Paulsen’s narrative convinces students that Brian’s transformation is real, and that maybe such transformations are possible for themselves.

The novel’s grade level equivalent is 6.3; the Lexile® measure is 1020, but labeling the interest level as grades 6-8 is a mistake. My students’ interest in Hatchet was the standard for all other reading choices as in, “This book is not like Hatchet” (*sigh*) or “This book is almost as good as Hatchet.”

Hatchet was the 1988 Newbery Honor book and, fortunately for teachers wishing to offer books like Hatchet, it is the first in a trilogy + one. After Hatchet came The River,(1991); Brian’s Winter, (1996); and then Brian’s Return, (1999).

Paulsen also has two non-fiction offerings: the book Guts, a set of true short stories of survival, and Winterdance, a story of running the Iditarod. Both titles were also popular with my students.

Paulsen’s wilderness experiences set a high standard for adventure stories for my students, and the experience of reading this book was often so powerful that I had to (figuratively) drag them “out of the woods” in the book to notice other compelling stories on our classroom’s bookshelves.

Hatchet was my “go to” for the reluctant reader, and I always had several copies on hand to lend out. There were copies for the first time reader and for the re-reader, but I did have to draw the line on occasion. While Hatchet can still be the best book some of my students have ever read, it cannot be their last.

Many literacy experts recommend that the first step in designing a reading program is seek information on the reading habits of students or to survey the students. So, on Day 2 of school, 76 freshmen at Wamogo High School in Connecticut took a survey, 16 questions (taken from Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide) prepared on Google Docs, titled, “How I Feel about Reading”. Their responses to the survey were candid and may, in fact, represent the reading habits of high school  students in the class of 2016 in general.

The first question was encouraging. 2/3 of the students responded positively to the question “I think reading is fun” by checking off “usually” or “sometimes”. However, this statistic means that 33% said they “rarely” thought reading is fun. Hopefully, providing choice and support with Silent Sustained Reading (SSR) will improve attitudes towards reading.

64% do understand the importance of reading when asked if  “being a good reader is important for success in school”; 34% indicated “sometimes” while only 2% were in the negative. In responding to this question, the students included the following interesting observations.

  • “I think reading is worthwhile because there are so many types of books in the world. Whether they are feeding you information or keeping you entertained books are definitely worthwhile!”
  • “It’s fun to read a good book. you totally get sucked into the book and you don’t even realize your reading. Reading is important because usually, jobs require you know how to read. and some jobs require that you read a lot. reading also strengthens grammar, spelling, writing, reading, and even the way you talk.”

The best response was to this question was, “It’s [reading] like a movie in your head, and I think that it is great to be able to imagine what the setting looks like, along with other things like the characters. It’s like the perfect world that you wish you where in. Sometimes I even think of myself as the main character, and it’s just amazing what you feel when you get into a book.” Such enthusiasm, however, was countered with the practical statement, “It [reading]  makes you sleep.”

While  71% felt strongly that “being a good reader is important for success in life,” and 24% chose  “sometimes”,  the number of those in the negative unexpectedly rose to 5%.

Students were also asked in the survey as to how they choose a book. Their advice centered on the length of books, covers, and topics:

  • “When I want to find a good book, I always check the back of the book where there is a short summary of it to see if it interests me. I also look to see who the author is and if I have read anything by them yet. Sometimes I ask my friends if they had read it and if they have a recommendation about it. And last but not least I check the pages on the middle and see if I am ok with the work type, and if I understand everything.”
  • “I like books about people who have gone through tragedies and are just moving on from it. I also like the books that have a little romance in it, and if they take place during the summer.”
  • “When is time for me to read a good book, I know that I don’t want to stop reading because it’s very good book.Sometimes when its not good book it takes me more time then anything. But I love books that are very interesting.”
  • “When I want to find a good book, I look at the length or the cover… sometimes I will go to a page and turn to it and see if it makes sense… and if the cover looks good.”
  • “Find a small book, (like 200 pages) and it has to be the right topic.”
  • “Go to the library and look for what I like in a good book. I usually look at the cover, the title, and the paraphrase on the back.”

Students also recommended books. Titles that received multiple votes (4 or more recommendations) included:

The Hunger Games
S0 Be It
Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie
The Maze Runner
The Rangers Apprentice series
Percy Jackson and the Olympians series (any title)

Copies of all of the above titles have been added to the 9th grade classroom library through used book sales, especially copies of books in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. These books, and several hundred others, are on (2) portable carts in the classroom ready for SSR periods.

Sadly, the most depressing statistic came from the results of the question, “I read every day and look forward to my reading time”. Here, only 9% of 9th grade students replied “usually” in contrast to the 91% of student who responded “sometimes” or “rarely”.

The goal is to change that particular statistic this year!