I think there is something in every boy (including us grown-up boys) that longs for adventure. We want to test ourselves against a challenge, to see if we have what it takes. We need to experience some adventure firsthand, of course; but it can also be fun (and even inspiring) to live someone else’s adventure via movie or book.
Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen (lexile: 1020; AR book level: 5.7; 195 pp)
Brian Robeson, 13, is the only passenger on a small plane flying him to visit his father in Canada for the summer. Somewhere over the Canadian wilderness, the pilot has a heart attack and dies. Brian manages to land the plane in a small lake, and is barely able to swim free before it sinks. He is left alone, with nothing but the hatchet his mother had given him as a present. A city boy, he is unprepared for wilderness survival, and has to learn by trial and nearly-fatal error how to find food, build shelter, make fire, construct a bow and arrow, and hunt and fish. Just as compelling are Brian’s struggles within himself, as he moves beyond self-pity to determination and courage to emerge at the end of the story a very different young man.
This Newbery Honor book is my favorite (s0 far) adventure, and has proven very popular with kids and adults (86% of over 1250 reviews on Amazon currently rate it as a 4 or 5 out of 5.) To be fair, some kids think it’s boring because there’s almost no dialogue or change of scene, and Brian’s daily struggles center around his absolute need for food, shelter and safety — no monsters or villains to fight. But the story is nonetheless intense, and you find yourself experiencing Brian’s emotions as he tries to fly the plane, discovers how to make fire, is nearly killed by a moose, spears his first fish, and all the other setbacks and triumphs he faces.
Note that some parents find disturbing Brian’s unsuccessful attempt at suicide early in the story. I find it ultimately a positive portrayal of a difficult but appropriate subject, because he emerges from it determined to live, recognizing that “feeling sorry for yourself doesn’t work.”
Paulsen didn’t set out to write a series, but so many Hatchet fans clamored to know more of what happened to Brian that he wrote four sequels:
They’re all available on CD, and Hatchet is available for patrons from subscribing libraries as a downloadable audio book. And when he writes about wilderness survival, Gary Paulsen is the real deal — he’s lived it himself. You can read about his adventures that inspired the story in Guts : the True Stories Behind Hatchet and the Brian Books. (Hatchet is told so realistically that National Geographic, assuming it was true, contacted Paulsen soon after it was published to get Brian’s address so they could do a feature on him.)
The Transall Saga, by Gary Paulsen (lexile: 630; AR book level: 4.3; 248 pp)
I just recently discovered this lesser-known adventure by Gary Paulsen, and really like it as well. While it’s categorized as science fiction, the sci-fi really just sets the scene for a fast-paced story of survival and growth.
Mark Harrison’s solo camping trip in the desert turns into a terrifying and thrilling odyssey when a mysterious beam of light transports him to another time on what appears to be another planet. As Mark searches for a way back home, he has to make a new life in a new world. He learns to survive in the wilderness, and eventually encounters other humans, primitive tribes, some who befriend him. He is captured and carried into slavery by another tribe, and through courage and heroism rises to become a valued member. In the end, when he discovers where he really is, he has to use all the skills he has gained to thwart a warlord who has put a price on his head.
Unlike Brian, whose adventure spans just two months in Hatchet, Mark spends several years in his adopted world, during which he learns the languages and way of life of the people there, growing into young manhood. I like the fact that Mark chooses at several critical points in the story to do the right, self-sacrificing thing, and is ultimately rewarded. We don’t have this at DPL, but plenty of other libraries in the area do.
Cabin on Trouble Creek, by Jean Van Leeuwen (lexile: 660; AR book level: 4.5; 219 pp)
Daniel, 11, Will, 9, and their father travel to Ohio in 1803 to claim their new land. After building a cabin, Pa returns home to Pennsylvania to fetch Ma and the younger children, intending to come back five or six weeks later. The boys are left with an ax, two knives, and six weeks worth of food in order to finish the cabin and prepare firewood for winter. At first, they enjoy their independence, exploring the woods and fishing in the creek. However, when Pa doesn’t return as planned, they have to survive the whole winter there. They are helped by a passing Indian trapper who teaches them about snares and traps, poisonous and healing plants, and especially how to pay attention to the forest, watching for its dangers and making wise use of its gifts. They have to deal with wolves, a blizzard, and a bear attack that leaves Daniel wounded and Will responsible for both of them.
This is a well-written, believable tale which moves quickly, and is actually based on the true story of two brothers who had to survive on their own during the winter of 1803. (And you’ll have to read the book for yourself to see if Pa and the family finally make it back!)