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Top 100 Children’s Novels #23: Hatchet by Gary Paulsen

#23 Hatchet by Gary Paulsen (1989)
68 points

Does anyone not like Hatchet? I mean, seriously. I had to read this book for school in Grade 5 and had no interest in survival or plane crashes or anything and this book blew me away. And who doesn’t like that old school cover with the hatchet super-imposed over Brian’s face!? It’s killer. – Sharon Ozimy

This was the first middle grade book I read after becoming a MS teacher. I was blown away by the quality of the writing. It and the 4 ‘Brian’ books that followed are perennial favorites among my students. – Jerry Jarrell

I like to call Gary Paulsen the Ernest Hemingway of children’s literature. Without the bullfighting, of course.

The plot from the publisher reads, “Brian Robertson, sole passenger on a Cessna 406, is on his way to visit his father when the tiny bush plane crashes in the Canadian wilderness. With nothing but his clothing, a tattered windbreaker, and the hatchet his mother had given him as a present, Brian finds himself completely alone. Challenged by his fear and despair — and plagued with the weight of a dreadful secret he’s been keeping since his parent’s divorce — Brian must tame his inner demons in order to survive. It will take all his know-how and determination, and more courage than he knew he possessed.”

In 100 Best Books for Children Anita Silvey says that, “the book was actually inspired by a visit to the Hershey, Pennsylvania, Middle School in April 1986.  While talking to students about their passions, Paulsen realized that he should write the survival tale that had been brewing in his mind, and he dedicated the book to those children.”  A lot of the trials Brian endures in the course of the novel actually happened to Mr. Paulsen as well.  Everything from the mosquitoes to the fire to the turtle’s eggs (Silvey writes, “Although he was not successful at getting them down, he decided that Brian, being much hungrier, would be able to do so.”)

In an interview with School Library Journal in June of 1997 Paulsen said that when writing this book, “I didn’t think of boys at first. At one point, I actually toyed with the idea of writing Hatchet with a girl protagonist.” Later, when asked which of his books are his favorites he says, “Hatchet is in the sense that it struck some nerve that I still don’t understand, and that has made it one of my favorite books. It was not when I wrote it.”

And talk about sequels. Let’s see here. There was Brian’s Winter, The River, Brian’s Return, and Brian’s Hunt (not necessarily in that order). There was even a nonfiction title called, Guts: The True Stories Behind Hatchet and the Brian Books.  Roger Sutton, when he reviewed that book, said of it, “Although he is absolutely candid about the dangers of the wild (such as his eyewitness account of a little boy killed by a young deer) and the consequences of hunger (‘I have eaten grub worms wrapped in fresh dandelion greens’), the writing is never sensationalized, and the tone is always modest.”

Hatchet made the news in a very different way in 2007 when a 12-year-old boy lost in the North Carolina mountains used his knowledge from Hatchet to help him survive for four days on his own. “…the boy’s father had talked about one of Michael’s favorite books when he was younger, a story titled ‘Hatchet’ about a boy whose plane crashes in the Alaskan wilderness, and how the boy survives on his own. ‘I think he’s got some of that book in his mind,’ said Kent Auberry, whose son had camped overnight several times.”

It won a Newbery Honor, losing out that year to Russell Freedman’s Lincoln: A Photobiography.

Zena Sutherland in The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books said, “It is weakened by stylistic flaws (speaking of a coil of wire, ‘it sprung into a three foot long antenna’) and by the melodramatic treatment of ‘The Secret,’ the fact that Brian had seen his mother, prior to the divorce, kiss a man whom she later ‘continued to see,’ as explained in an epilogue after Brian’s rescue; but as a story of boy-against-nature, it’s deftly conceived and developed.”

VOYA said of it, ” Paulsen ’s knowledge of our national wilderness is obvious and beautifully shared. Beyond that Paulsen grips Brian (and the reader) by the throat, shaking him into enlightenment and self-confidence after having endured several life-threatening events.”

The review from The Junior Bookshelf read, “Gary Paulsen ’s young hero is no Crusoe, no Family Robinson moving facilely from one project to the next. He has no kind climate or fertile land to assist his self-sufficiency. He must outwit the fish and the birds—and the elements—be patient and—brave. There is talk nowadays of ‘grace under pressure’ as a cardinal virtue. Perhaps this is where Brian scores.”

Said The School Librarian, “The passionate, repetitive rhythms of the writing, though sometimes a little overdone, powerfully communicate his terrors and triumphs, and could well make this Crusoe-story accessible to slow or reluctant readers, without disturbing others.”

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. Mark Flowers says

    In answer to Sharon’s question (Does anyone not like Hatchet?): for the first–I dunno–20 years of my life or so, Hatchet was the only book I had ever started and not finished – on the grounds that I simply could not stand it. I have a feeling that if I went back and reread it I would like it very much, but there was at least one 10 year old who didn’t like it.

  2. I didn’t like it either. It’s not a terrible book, but there were three main flaws. One: the whole business about his mother’s supposed infidelity is overwrought and gratuitious -maybe an effort towards making it a “weightier” problem book. Two: in terms of sheer plausibility, it doesn’t hold a candle to My Side of the Mountain, Lord of the Flies, or most other survival stories I’ve read. Third: As a Kentuckian, who was in a tornado at age four, thank you very much, I am aggrieved that Brian is confronted by a tornado in the sub-taiga wilds of Canda. There are no tornadoes in that area of Canada. It just seems like Paulsen was throwing random challenges at Brian.

  3. Yeah, I didn’t like Hatchet, either. It was read aloud sometime in middle school and I loathed it (but then I’ve never been one for survival stories, except for Swiss Family Robinson).

  4. This book, I remember reading in elementary. I absolutely loved it. It doesn’t need to be correct about every single little detail, it’s a children’s book, which is meant to broaden a child’s imagination. I imagined every bit of it as if it were a movie playing in my mind as I read. Now that I’m in my mid 20’s, if I go back to read it, I’ll think differently since I don’t have the same mindset. But for that age, it was absolutely perfect and had me unblinking for the longest.

  5. its a great book

  6. Its the only book I read as a kid that I liked so much I went to see the author speak on a school night at some other school when I heard he was coming.