The Young Man and the Sea Discussion Guide
- Grades: 6–8
About this book
About the Book
Samuel (Skiffy) Beaman is having a tough time. His sensitive and sensible mother has died after a long illness, and his fisherman father deals with his grief by drinking beer and watching television. It’s up to Skiff to raise his father’s sunken fishing boat and then to try to raise the money needed to repair the motor. When his lobster traps are vandalized by a local bully, Skiff is desperate to find another source of money. Armed only with a "borrowed" harpoon, a compass, peanut butter sandwiches, and a stubborn determination, Skiff takes off in his own small boat to pursue the valuable bluefin tuna found in the ocean 30 miles offshore. After battling with the fog and hooking a fish, Skiff's fuel runs out, and he has no choice but to row many miles back to shore — a feat that finally shocks his father out of lethargy. Skiff’s story is one of youthful courage and fierce determination in the face of nearly impossible odds.
- What are the similarities between Skiff and his father? In what ways are they different?
- What kind of person was Skiff’s mother? Why does she seem so real to the reader, even though she has died before the story begins? Why did she tell Skiff before she died that he would have to take care of his father?Why does Tyler Croft treat Skiff the way he does? What does he hope to gain by
- stealing Skiff’s lobster traps? Why can’t Skiff get help to stop what Tyler is doing?
- What is the connection between Skiff’s father and Tyler’s father? Why does Skiff's father turn to Mr. Croft for help in rescuing Skiff?
- What does Skiff learn from Mr. Woodwell? Why does Mr. Woodwell want to help Skiff? What does Skiff's father mean when he says about Mr. Woodwell, “He taught me a few things. Not just boats.”
- Skiff asks for the help he needs to raise the Mary Rose, and to retrieve the lost lobster traps. Why doesn’t he ask for help when he sets out to fish for the tuna?
- What does Skiff mean when he talks about the difference between the “swampers” and the other people in the town? How does the setting of the town affect the people who live there?
Discuss the statement Skiff's father once made to him, “Fish and you fish alone. Get in trouble and everyone helps out.” What does this tell you about the community in which they live?
- Why is it so important to Skiff to raise the Mary Rose after she sinks? What does the boat represent to Skiff?
Discuss Skiff’s feelings when he is out on the ocean, far from land. How would you feel in that situation? What effect does the fog have on Skiff?
- What mistakes does Skiff make when he sets out to sea? Why didn’t he think through what he would need on the journey?
Why is the act of fishing for the bluefin tuna so different than the fishing Skiff has done before? What emotions does he feel for the huge fish and why?
- Discuss “Mom’s three rules” as Skiff tries to apply them to his life: 1) Think smart; 2) Speak true; 3) Never give up. How can you apply these rules to your life? What would you do, as Skiff asks, if rule 3 cancels out rules 1 and 2?
- What did Skiff's mom mean when she told him “Being brave isn’t the same as being stupid”? Is it courage or stupidity that makes Skiff head for the open ocean in his small boat?
- There are many ways that people deal with grief. Discuss the different ways that Skiff and his father have reacted to Skiff's mother’s illness and death. What are some of the ways that Skiff has worked through his grief to help him with life situations?
- How does Skiff justify stealing the harpoon from Mr. Woodwell’s shack? Is it acceptable to take something that you need so badly? Why didn’t he just ask Mr. Woodwell if he could borrow the harpoon?
- Skiff relates that his father “found two things in the fog, me and his old pal Jack.” What does Skiff's father mean? How many examples can you find in the story of true friendship?
- There are several ways the theme of family is explored in this story. Discuss what Skiff means near the end of the book when he says: “Blood is blood, and you got to keep together with your family, even if they mess up.”
A Conversation with Rodman Philbrick
What was your inspiration for writing the story of The Young Man and the Sea?
My debt to Hemingway’s story The Old Man and the Sea is obvious and I wanted to make that clear by using a title that evokes his title. My younger brother Jonathan was a commercial fisherman for years and crewed on a boat that harpooned giant tuna when he was a teenager. Some of the stuff about the big fish comes from him, the rest of it from research. I'm aware of at least one or two anecdotes about young men going after giant tuna in small boats, but have no idea if the stories are true or just 'fish stories.' The fact is, I doubt I would have thought of this particular story were it not for Hemingway's classic, and the book in some sense is, therefore, a 'homage.' I'm assuming most of my readers will not have read Hemingway first, and will not necessarily be aware of his story. Hopefully when they get around to Hemingway, they'll recognize where I got my original inspiration for a tale about a boy and a big fish — just as those who read The Old Man and the Sea may wonder whether Melville and London had any influence on Hemingway.
Are you a fisherman yourself? Did you draw on personal experience in writing the book?
I am indeed an avid fisherman. I grew up in a small town on the coast of New Hampshire, within walking distance of the harbor. A number of my ancestors were mariners and fishermen, and all of that history seeped into my life. As a boy I rowed and sailed small boats as far as the Isles of Shoals, seven miles offshore. My mother never knew this until I was an adult!
My routine is to write in the morning and go fishing in the afternoon or evening. I've never harpooned a giant tuna, but I have caught giant tarpon from a small boat, as well as many game fish from larger boats, further offshore.
The theme of relationship between fathers and sons is a strong one in many of your books. Do you make a conscious plan to explore that parent-child connection when you write?
I think that all parent-child relationships are marvelously complex. My own father was an alcoholic when I was Skiff's age. He later quit drinking (an act of courage akin to rowing a small boat in a very large sea) and was sober for the last 20 years of his life. He also loved books and would have liked to be a writer himself, if circumstances had been different. Complex father-son relationships come naturally to me, and to the characters I create. All children struggle to comprehend that their fathers and mothers are real people, not just parents, and have lives and problems apart from their children. You can't be a real adult without understanding this! Unfortunately it sometimes takes a parent's death to bring it home.
The relationships that Skiff develops with the older men in the community are very special. Are those characters based on mentors in your own life?
As a young man I was a boat builder and once owned a small, rundown boat yard where I built and repaired wooden boats. Mr. Woodwell's boat shed is based on my memory of a legendary boat builder located a mile or so 'up the creek' from where I lived at the time. He was quite elderly, but the personality I used to conjure up Mr. Woodwell was inspired by a real Mr. Woodwell, a retired schoolteacher who at 80 years of age was sailing an old Friendship sloop to Friendship, Maine and asked me to crew for him.
Skiff's feeling of respect for the bluefin toward the end of its struggle is very strong. What is his connection to the fish he needs to kill?
This regard for the animal that a hunter or fisherman is about to kill is, I think, almost universal, and has been remarked on by many writers and tellers of tales through the years, including Hemingway in The Old Man and the Sea. If you don't love and respect the animal you have no business taking its life. Hemingway knew this, as do most of the other anglers I know. You certainly don't do it for pleasure! Most of the fish I catch these days are 'catch and release'.
Do you set out to write a book that will explore certain themes?
It is my hope that teachers will encourage their students to read my novel for the pleasure of reading first and foremost, before they start breaking down ideas about themes, although that will obviously become part of the discussion. I don't actually think much about themes when I write — I'm too busy trying to make the story exciting enough to hold a reader's interest.
About the Author — In his Own Words
“I started writing stories in sixth grade. But writing wasn't cool, like being good at sports, or being part of the in crowd, or winning fights on the playground. It wasn't a "normal" activity, and like most kids that age, I desperately wanted to be "normal." So writing became my secret life.
At the age of sixteen I completed a novel — a book-length series of stories about two characters. The narrator is a boy who admires his best friend, who is a kind of genius, and the gifted friend eventually dies a tragic death. The two buddies hang out in the basement and share a series of adventures. It was rejected. No surprise, actually, because I wasn't like the genius kid I was writing about. The book simply wasn't good enough to be published.
Eleven years after I finished that first novel, I was still unpublished. But I was determined to make my living as an author. So I kept writing. In the meantime, I worked a variety of laboring jobs — longshoreman, carpenter, boat builder — and started a couple of businesses that went nowhere. Finally, I found a publisher for my genre novels, which were mostly mysteries and thrillers for grownups.
After I had written more than a dozen adult genre novels, an editor I knew in New York asked me to write a mystery for young adults. I said I wasn't interested; but on my way home to Maine, I heard a voice in my head. It was the voice of Maxwell Kane, and he wanted to tell me the story of his little genius buddy. The voice in my head became Freak the Mighty, and much of it came directly out of the novel I had written as a sixteen year old.
That insistent kid voice in my head has helped me reinvent myself as a writer. That voice is still talking, demanding that I write down his story. It was that voice that made me realize that I do, indeed, have stories to tell for sixth, seventh, and eighth graders — stories about spirited kids who find a way to triumph over adversity.
How do you keep the voice coming? A good memory helps. I vividly remember my sixth-grade classroom. I remember what it smelled like, where I sat, what I could see out the window, and how I felt about things. Peel away my decrepit middle-aged exterior, and an important part of me is still twelve years old. It helps me when I sit down to write stories for kids.
And here's where the YA author gets the big payoff. If a kid enjoys a book, she or he really enjoys it. Kids read uncritically, in the best sense of the word. They care about how the story makes them feel. If a story makes any impression at all, they write to the author. Let me tell you, those letters are just wonderful. The vast majority of young readers speak to you straight from the heart. I liked this part, it made me laugh. I liked that part, it made me cry. That was the wonderful surprise, the something extra I never expected in my secret life as a writer. Letters from kids I've never met, but who speak to me with a clarity and personality that makes them leap from the page.
I love getting these fresh, wonder-filled messages from kids, and I'm profoundly grateful to the teachers who read my books to their classes, or recommend them. As a writer I'm convinced that encouraging children to write fiction, to hook into that marvelous machine called the imagination, has to be good for everyone. It's good for the teachers who see students bloom into writers under their tutelage. It's good for the kids, who learn that they can work the same kind of magic they find in books. It's good for all of us, because soon these kids are going to emerge as the next generation of authors — and there won't have to be any 'secret' about it.”
Rod and his wife, author Lynn Harnett, divide their time between Maine and the Florida Keys.
Books to Compare and Contrast
DeFelice, Cynthia. Devil’s Bridge.
When Ben enters a local fishing contest in the waters off Martha’s Vineyard, he overhears two local fisherman plotting to win the prize money by cheating.
George, Jean Craighead. The Shark Beneath the Reef.
Tom¡s faces a difficult choice — whether to continue with school or join his family’s fishing business; a confrontation with the fisherman’s worst enemy and greatest challenge helps him decide.
Hemingway, Ernest. The Old Man and the Sea.
Santiago is an aging and unlucky fisherman who seeks one last chance to bring in a truly remarkable fish.
Myers, Walter Dean. Somewhere in the Darkness.
During a harrowing cross-country journey 14-year-old Jimmy discovers the truths about himself and Crab, his convict father who hopes to convince Jimmy that he is innocent.
Orr, Wendy. Nim’s Island.
When Nim’s father is lost at sea she uses the resources available to her — from wildlife to e-mail — to get help.
Salisbury, Graham. Lord of the Deep.
Mikey learns more about life than he bargained for as a deckhand on his stepfather’s charter fishing boat in the Hawaiian Islands.
Taylor, Theodore. A Sailor Returns.
Evan’s long-lost grandfather, presumed dead for thirty years, returns to the family from his sea voyages, and painful past events have to be confronted and forgiven.
Travis, George. Let’s Go Fishing in the Ocean.
Factual information on successful fishing expeditions.
Other Books by Rodman Philbrick
Freak the Mighty
Two “misfits” forge a friendship that overcomes the handicaps each of them faces; with Max’s brawn and Kevin’s brain, they are a match for the bullies they used to face alone.
My Name is America: The Journal of Douglas Allen Deeds
The harrowing journey of the Donner Party in 1846 is recounted by a 15-year-old orphan who joins the ill-fated expedition and survives.
The Last Book in the Universe.
In a frightening futuristic world, 14-year-old Spaz struggles against enormous odds to save his dying sister, and perhaps Earth itself.
Max the Mighty
In this sequel to Freak the Mighty, Max takes off for Montana with Worm, a girl he is helping to find her real father.
Arthur, using a device to lose weight, finds himself transported to an alternate universe where he may have unleashed a force that will destroy the universe.
- Rodman Philbrick’s website
- Information on fishing for bluefin tuna
- Information on Alateen, a program to help teenagers whose lives have been affected by family members who abuse alcohol
Discussion guide written by Connie Rockman, children’s literature consultant and adjunct professor of literature for children and young adults at the University of Bridgeport and Sacred Heart University, and editor of The Eighth book of Junior Authors and Illustrators (H. W. Wilson, 2000).