Skip to Main Content (Press Enter)



In Hatchet, 13-year-old Brian Robeson learned to survive alone in the Canadian wilderness, armed only with his hatchet. He was rescued at the end of the summer. Brian’s Winter begins where Hatchet might have ended: Brian is not rescued, but must build on his survival skills to face his deadliest enemy–a northern winter.
The following books are also discussed in this guide:
The River
In The River, Brian is asked to return to the woods to teach Derek, a government psychologist, survival techniques. But when Derek is struck by lightning, Brian’s survival skills are further tested as he must find a way to get the seriously injured Derek out of the woods.
Brian’s Return
And finally, Brian, now in high school, faces one of the most difficult challenges of his life in Brian’s Return. After seeing a counselor, Brian learns what he has known in his heart for a long time: his life has changed forever, and he belongs in the woods.
Paulsen’s companion novels masterfully explore how a boy’s determination and resourcefulness help him to survive and connect with nature in a way he didn’t know was possible.


In the Classroom

Brian’s Return, the final companion novel to the Newbery Honor-winning Hatchet, takes young readers on another exciting adventure to the north woods with Brian Robeson. As in Hatchet, The River, and Brian’s Winter, Paulsen creates in Brian’s Return a story that is ideal for integrating into the curriculum as well as for classroom read-aloud.
This guide includes a variety of activities for The River, Brian’s Winter, and Brian’s Return. The themes of survival, nature, making choices, and self-discovery can be explored in the classroom. Teachers may want to divide the class into smaller groups, each reading one of the books, to allow for more complete discussion of the activities included here.

We hope you find this guide useful in introducing your class to Gary Paulsen’s award-winning adventure tales.
We hope you find this guide useful in introducing your class to Gary Paulsen’s two award-winning adventure tales.

Pre-Reading Activity

In Brian’s Winter, The River, and Hatchet, Brian Robeson must survive in the northern woods. His most important resource is his own ingenuity. Divide the class into small groups and have them list items they think are necessary to include in a survival pack. Then challenge each group to decide which five items on their list are the most important. Ask each group to share and support their decision.

Ask students to discuss how surviving in the wilderness for a long period of time might change a person’s life. Tell the class that in Brian’s Return, Brian Robeson cannot adjust to ordinary life and feels that the only way he can be happy is to return to the wilderness. Divide the class into small groups and ask them to brainstorm the many reasons why it might be difficult for Brian to live the life of a typical high-school student.

Thematic Connections

Survival — In The River, when lightning strikes Derek, Brian must find a way to get out of the woods and find medical help for the unconscious man. Ask students to discuss the difficult task of dealing with Derek after the accident. How does the accident further challenge Brian’s survival skills?

Ask students to compare and contrast the skills Brian used to survive the summer months in Hatchet with those he uses to survive in Brian’s Winter. How does his knowledge of summer survival contribute to his ability to make it through the brutal winter?

Brian takes some camping gear when he returns to the woods in Brian’s Return. Ask students to refer to the list of equipment (Ch. 9) that he chooses to take with him. Then, have them select the items that they feel are absolutely necessary for his survival. How is his return trip different from his other long adventures in the wilderness?

Appreciation of Nature — While Brian must depend on nature for food and clothing, he also develops a keen appreciation for the wilderness and has great respect for the animals that inhabit the woods. Find evidence throughout the novels that Brian is a careful hunter and understands the concept of wildlife conservation.

Though Brian suffers greatly from loneliness and works hard to survive, he has mixed feelings about leaving the northern woods when he is finally rescued. He feels that the woods have become part of him. Ask students to write a feature article for a wildlife magazine that Brian might have written, describing his relationship with nature.

How does Brian’s understanding and appreciation of nature contribute to his need to leave home and return to the wilderness in Brian’s Return?

Making Choices — In The River, one of the most difficult decisions that Brian must make is what to do with Derek after the accident. Should he leave him there and go for help? Should he put him on a raft and take him downriver?

Encourage students to discuss the pros and cons of Brian’s choices. What are the many factors that Brian considers before making his decision? Ask students to find incidents in Brian’s Winter where Brian is faced with making important decisions. How do his decisions impact his health and safety?

In Brian’s Return, Brian tells his mother that he wants to return to the woods to visit the Smallhorns. At what point does Brian realize that he isn’t going to the Smallhorns? Ask students to discuss what Brian means by "he would find them when it was time to find them" (p. 110). Encourage students to discuss whether Brian ever goes to them.

Self-Discovery — After Brian’s 54 days in the wilderness in Hatchet, his parents insist that he see a counselor. The counselor thinks that Brian is "mentally injured." Brian, however, feels that his time in the woods changed him in a more positive way. Ask students to discuss what Brian discovers about himself.

In The River, Brian says that he was "reborn in the woods" (p. 9). What does Brian mean?

How does his "rebirth" affect his relationships with his peers in Brian’s Return? Why does Caleb, Brian’s counselor, feel that Brian must return to the woods?

Interdisciplinary Connections

Science — Brian learns a lot about animals and how they communicate. Encourage students to select one animal that Brian encounters in Brian’s Return, The River, or Brian’s Winter and research that animal’s method of communication, how it marks its territory, and how it protects itself from predators.

Math — During his time in the wilderness, Brian draws on various math skills to help himself survive. He has to calculate how many days his food will last, and he must estimate distances when he is hunting. Ask students to create a math problem based on a specific incident or situation in either The River or Brian’s Winter.

Art — In Brian’s Winter, Brian takes charcoal from the fire to make sketches of the events of the day on his shelter wall. Invite students to select a favorite scene from either novel and sketch it on poster board. Display the drawings around the room and ask the students to place the scenes in sequential order. Then ask them to brainstorm an appropriate title for each sketch.

Social Studies — Brian hunts with tools similar to those used by early hunters. How does Brian know which tools to use in specific hunting situations? Ask students to use the library to research ancient hunting methods. Have them construct a pictorial time line that traces the development of various hunting tools.

Language Arts — Gary Paulsen uses imagery to appeal to all of the senses–sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Allow students to browse the books and find examples of such imagery. Ask them to use Paulsen’s images to create similes.

Bring an assortment of hunting and fishing magazines to class for students to peruse. Ask them to write a short article for one of the magazines that Brian might write discussing his dislike of "professional fishermen" and "professional hunters."

Ask students to read The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare. Divide the class into groups and ask each to list the survival skills that Matt learns from the Native American boy who befriends him. Then, have them discuss the survival skills that Brian has learned alone. Which boy has the toughest time surviving in the wilderness? Brian writes his thoughts and feelings to Caleb, his counselor. Ask students to write a letter that Matt might write to his parents about his experiences in the wilderness. Encourage the students to share their letters.

Music — In the Author’s Note at the end of Brian’s Return, Gary Paulsen writes that he is waiting out winter storms before he can set sail on his boat Felicity. During the rain, he listens to the music of Mozart. Ask students to find recordings that they think reflect Brian’s connection with nature.

Exploring Beyond Brian’s World

Conservation — Numerous organizations in America are involved in game management. Have students find out the purpose of each of the following organizations: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, National Audubon Society, National Wildlife Federation, and Ducks Unlimited. Ask them to create a poster advertising one of these organizations.

Each state in the United States has game laws. Many states require a hunting and fishing license. Ask students to find out the laws regarding hunting and fishing in their state. Why is it important to have such laws?

Survival — There are wilderness camps located throughout the nation to teach people survival skills. Encourage students to use the Internet to locate a wilderness camp in their state or region. What is the age range of the campers? What type of activities does the camp offer? How long is the camp in session? How much does it cost?

Students may also enjoy locating a camp in another part of the country. How does the locale of the camp affect the type of survival skills taught?

Vocabulary/Use of Language

The vocabulary in Brian’s Winter is simple, but Paulsen does extraordinary things with language. Encourage students to notice his use of strong verbs to convey difficult tasks–"hefted the lance" (page 62). Ask them to locate other examples of strong verbs in the book and to use a thesaurus to identify appropriate word substitutions.

Words in Brian’s Return may include portages (p. 108), feinted (p. 104), and castigating (p. 81).


The Haymeadow by Gary Paulsen[0-440-40923-3]
The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford[0-440-41324-9]
The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare[0-440-47900-2]
The Voyage of the Frog by Gary Paulsen[0-440-40364-2]

Back to Top