How to Teach Hatchet

Gary Paulsen's Hatchet is an interesting adventure story of a boy, Brian, who tries to live in the wilderness after a plane crash. A background lesson on the northern Canadian forests and wildlife will help students better visualize this remote setting. As a fun pre-reading activity, your class can take a quiz on wilderness survival and learn basic survival skills. With this knowledge, they can assess how successfully Brian lives in the forest and note any mistakes he makes.

Brian struggles in an environment associated with primitive man as he discovers how to make fire, tools, and shelter with little more than a hatchet. Students can discuss Brian's transformation into a primitive survivalist and his relationship with nature. During this discussion you can also analyze the symbolic significance of the wolf and the rifle.

While Brian's experiences in the forest will seem unfamiliar to most students, his isolation and conflicting feelings toward his parents, especially his mother, during their divorce will likely be emotionally relatable. Students can talk or write about feeling alone or their own emotionally trying experiences and how they learned to cope just as Brian does.


Brian Robeson, the thirteen-year-old son of recently divorced parents, is traveling from New York to visit his father in the oil fields in northern Canada. Before he leaves in the small plane, his mother gives him a hatchet. When the pilot suffers a heart attack, Brian crash lands the plane into a lake in a remote forest. He must then learn to survive in the wilderness and faces various natural threats including wild animals and a tornado. As he develops survival skills, he also copes with his loneliness, his parents' divorce, and the knowledge that his mother had had an affair.




Thirteen-year-old Brian Robeson finds himself stranded and alone in the Canadian wilderness after his airplane crashes. With nothing but the clothes on his back and a hatchet, Brian must summon the strength and determination to survive, while facing and overcoming his own personal demons as well. Your students will love this exciting and moving book.

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Content Warning

Hatchet contains death, a suicide attempt, and mentions of adultery.

Objectives for Teaching Hatchet

  • Compare and contrast the main character's relationship to nature at the beginning of the novel and his relationship to it at the end.
  • Write an essay identifying those qualities one needs to survive alone in the wilderness.
  • Comment on the author's style of writing and how his style is similar to or different from the style of other authors you've read.
  • Discuss why this novel may appropriately be called a coming-of-age novel.
  • Trace how Brian comes to terms with his parents' divorce.

Key Elements and Techniques

  • Flashback
  • Foreshadowing
  • Repetition
  • Sensory Images
  • Simile
  • Symbolism

Themes and Motifs

  • Survival — After his plane crashes, Brian must survive in the Canadian wilderness with nothing more than the clothes he is wearing and a hatchet. He deals with the hazards of nature and learns how to find food and create fire and shelter.
  • Isolation — Before leaving to visit his father, Brian seems emotionally isolated; he barely speaks to his mother because he is upset about his parents' divorce. After the pilot has a heart attack and the plane crashes, Brian is the sole survivor. He lives in physical isolation for weeks.
  • Coming of Age —  As Brian relies on himself to survive and overcomes physical and psychological challenges, he matures from a boy into a capable young man.

Key Facts

  • Length: 189 pages
  • Publication Date: 1987
  • Lexile Measure: 1020
  • Recommended Grade Band: 6 – 8


  • Newbery Honor (1988)
  • Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children's Book Award (1989)


A film version of the novel titled A Cry in the Wild was released in 1990. The movie has been released on DVD and has a run time of 82 minutes.

Your students will love:

  • The wilderness adventure story.
  • Brian's perseverance and determination.

Students may have problems with:

  • The repetition and slow pacing of the novel.

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