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It’s reading that inspired me to write. I think it’s a whole lot like somebody who loves music so much that they start thinking, "Wow, I’d really like to play an instrument." For me, it’s the same way about reading and writing. I love reading so much–going on all these adventures in my imagination. As a kid growing up, I was always going from one book to the next, especially novels. I started to think, "Wow, I want to do this, I want to write a story." So it’s really reading, that’s where it gets started for a writer.

Usually my novels are a combination of about half life-experience and half reading, which is the research. But in the case of my Grand Canyon novels, Downriver and River Thunder, it’s almost all personal experience, so those two novels involve very little or practically no book research. My wife, Jean, and I have been fortunate enough to take our own raft down through the Grand Canyon 10 times. And each time that we go, we go with just a few friends. In fact, once we did it solo, just the two of us and our one raft. But usually, we go with a few friends, say four to seven people, and we take 18 days and go through the entire Grand Canyon. It’s a 225-mile trip and there are 160 rapids to run. You have to plan all your meals, three meals a day, for 18 days, to do this trip. We fell in love with the magic of moving water–with whitewater rafting–about 25 years ago and it’s been a big part of our lives. So all these events that you read about in Downriver and River Thunder have happened to us or people we know really well, down in the Grand Canyon.

After my wife, Jean, and I had been down the Grand Canyon five or six times with our own raft, and I had written a couple of other novels, I started thinking I could write a novel set down in the Grand Canyon. I wanted Downriver to be a novel that combines both the excitement of running the big rapids in the canyon and also the beauty of the Grand Canyon, to try to bring both of those to play in a novel. I had the setting–the Grand Canyon–but a setting doesn’t make a story. So I started thinking, "How will I get a group of kids down in the Grand Canyon?" Downriver is a story of seven kids who, essentially, ditch out on an outdoor education school. They’re supposed to be running the San Juan River, which is a pretty quiet river in southeast Utah. But they’ve made a real drastic choice to run off with equipment from the school and start down the Colorado River without even a river map. That was my premise for the story: put a group of kids down in the Grand Canyon with no adults along, and then see what happens as they deal with the river, and all the interactions that come about among those seven kids as they’re dealing with that situation.

In Downriver and River Thunder, there’s that incredible excitement of imagining a group of kids down in the Grand Canyon, rafting the Colorado River on their own. But even more than the canyon and the excitement of the whitewater, it’s the interaction among the kids that grabs readers. Most of the letters I get from kids who have read Downriver are writing about the characters. They write about which one was most like them, or about other kids they know in their own lives who are "just like" Troy, Adam, or Star in the story. Both of these stories are very character-driven.

When kids are reading Downriver and River Thunder, they’re imagining what it would be like to be these characters, and each character in the story is very different. Readers of course identify with Jessie first, because she’s the narrator, but as the story unfolds, readers will have a chance to put themselves in the shoes of the other characters as well: Star, Freddy, Troy, Rita, Adam and Pug. I think it’s the relationships that develop among the characters, and how each of these kids handle the challenges of the Grand Canyon, that make both of these stories so fascinating for readers.

The characters in Downriver are all loosely based on real people. Writers often do this, start with one strong personality trait of a real person, and then build a fictional character thinking of that real person. It helps lends a reality to the core of that character. The narrator Jessie is inspired by a former student of mine who was working through a lot of anger toward the adults in her life. Her friend Star is based on a woman on one of our Grand Canyon trips who’s quite superstitious. Freddy is based on a kid that I used to rock climb with when I was leading outdoor trips for high school kids from New Mexico. He’s a quiet kid with a real feel for the outdoors, very physically capable, and used to being on his own. Troy, the really attractive, manipulative kid, was inspired by a boy who got kicked out of a boarding school where I used to teach. Like my character, Troy was a real natural leader, very powerful. Jessie and the other kids in these two stories need to figure out how to deal with this powerful personality. I wanted to get a group of kids together with very different backgrounds, different strengths and weaknesses, and see if they could learn to work together. Both books are a lot about learning to think for yourself, especially when you’re being influenced by someone appealing and magnetic who’s making it tough to make good choices. Kids relate very strongly to this situation, especially with the stakes being so high down there in the Grand Canyon.

I’ve always believed that outdoor adventure is every bit as appealing to girls today as it is to boys. Just look around at who’s out there skiing, mountain biking, backpacking, climbing–girls are active in every kind of sport. Outdoor adventure novels just need to catch up to real life! Of course, I’m not the only writer casting girls in outdoor adventures, but I know from having been a reading teacher–and now from being a writer who visits kids around the country–that girls are not only doing these things in real life, they’re every bit as interested as the boys are in reading about amazing, wild places. And of course, River Thunder is a lot about all the characters, boys and girls. I tend to think it’s what a story is about that leads kids to pick up a book, not whether the main character is a boy or a girl. When I picture my readers, I’m definitely picturing both boys and girls.

I hope that my books will inspire kids to get out and explore, first in their imaginations and then in real life. There are truly incredible, wild places out there that belong to all the people of the United States, vast tracts of public land and wilderness like the Grand Canyon, the mountains of Colorado and the West, places up in Alaska and Canada. No matter where you live, there are natural wonders to discover. I think today’s kids can draw strength from our connections to the natural world–can get a sense of where we all fit into the much bigger picture. As they experience the world through the characters in my stories, I hope my readers will discover how much it does for your spirit to be closely connected to nature and to wild places. I’d like my stories to open doors for them, to introduce them to different people and places, to expand the range of choices and possibilities they see for themselves and for their futures.


In River Thunder, a year has passed and the group has been called back to the site of their first ill-advised journey. Quickly, it becomes apparent that things are not quite as advertised, and Troy admits he has once again tricked the others. Will Troy convince them that he’s changed and work together with the team to conquer the rapids?


Will Hobbs’ novel Downriver was chosen as an ALA Best Book for Young Adults and as one of the ALA’s 100 Best of the Best Books of the past 25 years. Winner of the California Young Reader Medal, it was an American Bookseller Pick of the Lists. Downriver has been nominated for state awards in Texas, Utah, California, Colorado, Nebraska, Maryland, Virginia, and Washington. Hobbs lived in many places during his youth, including Alaska, Texas and California. He and his wife, Jean, now live in the mountains outside of Durango, Colorado. Downriver and River Thunder draw heavily on Hobbs’ own experience rafting down the Colorado and also demonstrate his tremendous love of and respect for nature.


The elements of adventure, danger, and mystery make both Downriver and its companion River Thunder books that will appeal to a wide cross section of readers. Both are ideal for integrating into the curriculum as well as for classroom read aloud and/or Reader’s Theater presentations.

The novels explore several important themes including trust, friendship, and survival. This guide suggests various thematic connections and provides links to other content areas through suggestions for interdisciplinary activities.

Pre-Reading Activities

The setting of these novels is essential. Locate the Grand Canyon on a map, specifically the areas in which Jessie and the others climb and raft. Students can learn more about the canyon through the mile-by-mile waterproof map* referred to in the story and later can chart the group’s progress as they read the book.

Ask students to locate stories of survival from local papers, newscasts, and Web sites. Display these examples and ask students to note what is common to each and what qualities are needed to survive.

Students might also be asked to recall other books which they have read dealing with the theme of survival against the elements. How did the main characters in these other works manage to survive? What qualities were necessary for their success?

Additionally, students might wish to read an interview with the author, Will Hobbs. They can read one in The Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, Volume 41:3, November, 1997. Ask students which questions they would ask Hobbs if they had the chance to conduct their own interview. Teachers might wish to arrange a teleconference with the author as well.

*The mile-by-mile waterproof map is The Colorado River in the Grand Canyon by Larry Stevens (ISBN 0-9611678-6-6 / Red Lake Books, P.O. Box 1315, Flagstaff, AZ 86002.)

Thematic Connections

As Jessie is learning how to mountain climb in Downriver, she discovers facing up to one’s fears requires a great deal of courage. Though her fall from Storm King Peak is harrowing, this early experience toughens her for what is to follow. Heather allows her rough experience running the Skull Rapids to discourage her from further rafting. Have students compare and contrast the characters of Heather and Jessie, or any pair of characters.

Heroes are those who can demonstrate courage in the face of adversity. What are the characteristics, both physical and emotional, of a hero? Ask students to locate stories of heroism from local papers and news stories and create a "Hero Bulletin Board." Each example should be labeled with the characteristic(s) exhibited by the person deemed a hero. As students read the novel, have them match those heroic characteristics to the characters in the novel. Who is really the hero of the story?

Accepting Responsibility
Leaders must make quick yet considered decisions and then abide by the consequences of their actions. Jessie and the others face these kinds of decisions, from which route to take through each of the runs to which raft should take the lead. Ask students to write in their journals about a time when they had to make a crucial decision with long-term consequences.

Gender Issues
Troy, though willing to allow Jessie to be a leader during their return trip in River Thunder, remains convinced that girls are inherently the "weaker" sex. Although Jessie’s strength may not be as great as Troy’s, she knows that brute strength is not what is required for their success. How is Jessie just as capable as Troy?

Trust and Friendship
Functioning as an effective team depends upon each member of the group being willing to trust the others. The rafters begin as virtual strangers, but as they progress, bonds of trust and friendship are established. Divide the class into groups with each group responsible to chart a main character’s development of trust and friendship for others on the team.

Adventure and Survival
In many ways, the opening chapters of each novel serve as foreshadowing for the group’s river journey. Students can note the various indications in the first five chapters that more danger and adventure is to come. What do they know about the characters that might indicate how each will face the challenge?

Interdisciplinary Connections

English/Language Arts

Ask students to select one of the characters from the novels and write 3-5 diary entries which might have been made by this character. What would this person’s handwriting look like? How frequently would this person make an entry in a journal? The entries should strive to mimic the "voice" of the student’s particular character.

Characters may be developed by an author in several ways: through speech patterns, through actions, by the way characters think and feel about each other. Divide students into groups and assign each a different character from the novels. Have them identify the techniques Hobbs uses to reveal information about their assigned character, citing specific passages to support their findings.

An alternative suggestion would be to have students create Reader’s Theater scripts using scenes from the story. Ideally, the best scenes are those right before and after the climax of the novel. Students may set up the scene by assuming the identity of one of the characters and providing the audience a brief narrative which gives some background of their character.

Social Studies
Have students identify other rivers that can accommodate whitewater rafts. In what other areas of the country would a similar trip be possible? Students might write the Chamber of Commerce in the other localities and request travel and tourist information.

The Grand Canyon offers an excellent opportunity for students to explore the geological formations that comprise this wonder of nature. What types of rocks and rock formations are found in this area? What caused the giant gorge to form? How long has the canyon existed?

Weather conditions and their effect on rivers are essential to the plot. Have students locate weather information for the Grand Canyon and chart the average temperature, rainfall, humidity, and barometric pressure. Students might also compare the weather conditions in that part of the country to their own area.

Physical Education
Canoeing, stroking, handling of oars, first aid, and water safety are just a few topics that might be covered in physical education classes. Invite a guest speaker to demonstrate the use of the various elements of rafting gear. Students might create water safety awareness posters for the local elementary schools or even local camping outlet stores.

Bringing along adequate food supplies is crucial to the success of the trip. Have students plan menus for a 10-day rafting trip for six people, calculating the amount of food needed and the total cost of each menu. Teams of students might conduct cost comparisons and compute savings from purchasing at different stores. Students can also locate recipes for various items on the menu, adjusting them to accommodate larger or smaller groups of rafters.

Prepared by Teri S. Lesesne, Department of Library Science, Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, Texas, with special assistance by Jean Hobbs.


Hobbs uses both simile and metaphor in the novels. For example, the raft folds like a sandwich made from one piece of bread; Heather felt like she was in a cross between a washing machine and a garbage disposal. Have students locate other examples and then write their own.

Rafting terms may be unfamiliar to the students. Hobbs provides context clues to help readers understand the terminology. Run, rapid, downstream, chicken line, and others should be noted as they appear in the text. Have students offer definitions based upon the context, then verify those definitions with a dictionary or other resource.


"The characters are interesting individuals who have changed in mostly positive ways since their first trip together….From the raft-eating big drop on the cover to the author’s informative note at the end, the vivid descriptions deliver high-volume excitement sure to entice many readers into booking a ride on any subsequent sequels."– School Library Journal

"…the story of these disparate youths coming together for an adventure that risks their lives and strengthens their hearts is ultimately uplifting."– Kirkus Reviews


Brian’s Winter by Gary Paulsen[0-440-22719-4]
The Island Keeper by Harry Mazer[0-440-94774-X]
The River by Gary Paulsen[0-440-22750-X]


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