Gary Paulsen (1939-)
A writer of popular and finely wrought young adult novels and nonfiction with sales totaling more than three million worldwide, Gary Paulsen joined a select group of YA writers when he received the 1997 Margaret A. Edwards Award honoring an author's lifetime achievement in writing books for teens. His work is widely praised by critics, and he has been awarded Newbery Medal Honor Book citations for three of his books, Dogsong, Hatchet, and The Winter Room.
In prose lean and echoing of Hemingway, Paulsen creates powerful young adult fiction, often set in wilderness or rural areas and featuring teenagers who arrive at self-awareness by way of experiences in nature—through challenging tests of their own survival instincts—or through the ministrations of understanding adults. He displays an "extraordinary ability to picture for the reader how man's comprehension of life can be transformed with the lessons of nature," wrote Evie Wilson in Voice of Youth Advocates. "With humor and psychological genius, Paulsen develops strong adolescent characters who lend new power to youth's plea to be allowed to apply individual skills in their risk-taking." In addition to writing young adult fiction, Paulsen has also authored numerous picture books with his illustrator wife R. W. Paulsen, penned children's nonfiction, and authored two plays and many works of adult fiction and nonfiction.
Paulsen was born in Minnesota in 1939, the son of first-generation Danish and Swedish parents. During his childhood, he saw little of his father, who served in the military in Europe during World War II, and little of his mother, who worked in a Chicago ammunitions factory. "I was reared by my grandmother and several aunts," he once told Something about the Author. "I first saw my father when I was seven in the Philippines where my parents and I lived from 1946 to 1949." Writing of that experience a half century later in Riverbank Review, Paulsen noted that he "lived essentially as a street child in Manila, because my parents were alcoholics and I was not supervised. The effect was profound and lasting."
When the family returned to the United States, Paulsen suffered from being continually uprooted. "We moved around constantly....The longest time I spent in one school was for about five months," Paulsen once told SATA. "I was an 'Army brat,' and it was a miserable life. School was a nightmare because I was unbelievably shy, and terrible at sports. . . . I wound up skipping most of the ninth grade." In addition to problems at school, he faced many ordeals at home. "My father drank a lot, and there would be terrible arguments," he noted. Eventually Paulsen was sent again to live with relatives and worked to support himself with jobs as a newspaper boy and as a pin-setter in a bowling alley.
Things began to change for the better during his teen years. He found security and support with his grandmother and aunts—"safety nets" as he described them in his interview. A turning point in his life came one sub-zero winter day when, as he was walking past the public library, he decided to stop in to warm himself. "To my absolute astonishment the librarian walked up to me and asked if I wanted a library card," he related. "When she handed me the card, she handed me the world. I can't even describe how liberating it was. She recommended westerns and science fiction but every now and then would slip in a classic. I roared through everything she gave me and in the summer read a book a day. It was as though I had been dying of thirst and the librarian had handed me a five-gallon bucket of water. I drank and drank."
After just barely graduating from high school in Thief River Falls, Minnesota, in 1959, Paulsen attended Bemidji College in Minnesota, for two years, paying for his tuition with money he'd earned as a trapper for the state of Minnesota. When he flunked out of college, he joined the U.S. Army, serving from 1959 to 1962, and working with missiles. After his tour of duty was completed, he took extension courses to become a certified field engineer, finding work in the aerospace departments of the Bendix and Lockheed corporations. There it occurred to him that he might try and become a writer. "I'd finished reading a magazine article on flight-testing . . . and thought, gad, what a way to make a living—writing about something you like and getting paid for it!" he told F. Serdahely in Writer's Digest. "I remembered writing some of my past reports, some fictionalized versions I'd included. And I thought: 'What the hell, I am an engineering writer.' But, conversely, I also realized I didn't know a thing about writing professionally. After several hours of hard thinking, a way to learn came to me. All I had to do was go to work editing a magazine."
Creating a fictitious resume, Paulsen was able to obtain an associate editor position on a men's magazine in Hollywood, California. Although it soon became apparent to his employers that he had no editorial experience, he once told SATA that "they could see I was serious about wanting to learn, and they were willing to teach me." He spent nearly a year with the magazine, finding it "the best of all possible ways to learn about writing. It probably did more to improve my craft and ability than any other single event in my life." Still living in California, Paulsen also found work as a film extra (he once played a drunken Indian in a movie called Flap), and took up sculpting as a hobby, even winning first prize in a local exhibition.
Paulsen's first book, The Special War, was published in 1966, and he soon proved himself to be one of the most prolific authors in the United States. In little over a decade, working mainly out of northern Minnesota—where he returned after becoming disillusioned with Hollywood—he published nearly forty books and close to two hundred articles and stories for magazines. Among Paulsen's diverse titles were a number of children's nonfiction books about animals, a biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., several humorous titles under the "Sports on the Light Side" series published by Raintree Press, two plays, adult fiction and nonfiction, as well as some initial ventures into juvenile fiction. On a bet with a friend, he once wrote eleven articles and short stories inside four days and sold all of them.
His prolific output was interrupted by a libel lawsuit brought against his 1977 young adult novel Winterkill, the powerful story of a semi-delinquent boy befriended by a hard-bitten cop named Duda in a small Minnesota town. Paulsen eventually won the case, but, as he noted, "the whole situation was so nasty and ugly that I stopped writing. I wanted nothing more to do with publishing and burned my bridges, so to speak." Unable to earn any other type of living, he went back to trapping for the state of Minnesota, working his sixty-mile trap line on foot or skis.
To help Paulsen in his hunting job, a friend gave him a team of sled dogs, a gift that ultimately had a profound influence on Paulsen. "One day, about midnight, we were crossing Clear Water Lake, which is about three miles long," Paulsen recounted. "There was a full moon shining so brightly on the snow you could read by it. There was no one around, and all I could hear was the rhythm of the dogs' breathing as they pulled the sled." The intensity of the moment prompted an impulsive seven-day trip by Paulsen through northern Minnesota. "I didn't go home—my wife was frantic—I didn't check lines, I just ran the dogs....For food, we had a few beaver carcasses. . . . I was initiated into this incredibly ancient and very beautiful bond, and it was as if everything that had happened to me before ceased to exist." Paulsen afterwards made a resolution to permanently give up hunting and trapping, and proceeded to pursue dogsled racing as a hobby. He went so far as to enter the grueling twelve-hundred-mile Iditarod race in Alaska, an experience that later provided the basis for his award-winning novel Dogsong.
Paulsen's acclaimed young adult fiction—all written since the 1980s—often centers around teenage characters who arrive at an understanding of themselves and their world through pivotal experiences with nature. His writing has been praised for its almost poetic effect, and he is also credited with creating vivid descriptions of his characters' emotional states. His 1984 novel, Tracker, tells about a thirteen-year-old boy who faces his first season of deer hunting alone while his grandfather is bedridden, dying of cancer. Ronald A. Jobe praised the novel in Language Arts as "powerfully written," adding that Paulsen "explores with the reader the innermost frustrations, hurts, and fears of the young boy."Tracker was the first book to receive wide critical and popular recognition.
Dogsong, a Newbery Medal honor book, is a rite-of-passage novel about a young Inuit boy named Russel who wishes to abandon the increasingly modern ways of his people. Through the guidance of a tribal elder, Russel learns to bow-hunt and dogsled, and eventually leads his own pack of dogs on a trip across Alaska and back. "While the language of [Dogsong] is lyrical, Paulsen recognizes the reality of Russel's world—the dirty smoke and the stinking yellow fur of the bear," wrote Nel Ward in the Voice of Youth Advocates. "He also recognizes the reality of killing to save lives, and of dreaming to save sanity, in the communion between present and past, life and death, reality and imagination, in this majestic exploration into the Alaskan wilderness by a master author who knows his subject well."
Paulsen's 1987 novel Hatchet, also a Newbery honor book, tells the story of Brian, a thirteen-year-old thoroughly modern boy who is forced to survive alone in the Canadian woods after a plane crash. Like Russel in Dogsong, Hatchet's hero is also transformed by the wilderness. "By the time he is rescued, Brian is permanently changed," noted Suzanne Rahn in Twentieth-Century Children's Writers; "he is far more observant and thoughtful, and knows what is really important in his life." As noted in Children's Books and Their Creators, Hatchet became "one of the most popular adventure stories of all time," combining "elementary language with a riveting plot to produce a book both comprehensible and enjoyable for those children who frequently equate reading with frustration."
Hatchet proved so popular with readers that they demanded, and won, a number of sequels: The River, Brian's Winter, Brian's Return, and Brian's Hunt. In Brian's Hunt, Paulsen "delivers a gripping, gory tale about survival in the north woods, based on a real bear attack," noted Paula Rohrlick in Kliatt.
In My Life in Dog's Years, The Beet Fields: Memories of a Sixteenth Summer, Eastern Sun, Winter Moon, and Guts: The True Stories behind Hatchet and the Brian Books, Paulsen recounts stories from his own life, many of which he has fictionalized in his young adult books. While most of the remembrances are intended for an adult audience, one of his most powerful memoirs for young readers is Woodsong, an autobiographical account of his life in Minnesota and Alaska while preparing his sled dogs to run the Iditarod. A reviewer noted in Horn Book that the "lure of the wilderness is always a potent draw, and Paulsen evokes its mysteries as well as anyone since Jack London." In another memoir intended for a young adult audience, How Angel Peterson Got His Name and Other Outrageous Tales about Extreme Sports, Paulsen recalls a number of daredevil stunts he and his friends performed during their early teen years. "Paulsen laces his tales with appealing '50s details and broad asides about the boys' personalities, ingenuity, and idiocy," noted a reviewer in Publishers Weekly.
Paulsen tells of a different kind of growing up in Harris and Me: A Summer Remembered. Instead of the main character reaching maturity while struggling in the wilderness, in Harris the unnamed protagonist discovers a sense of belonging while spending a summer on his relatives' farm. A child of abusive and alcoholic parents, the young narrator is sent to live with another set of relations—his uncle's family—and there he meets the reckless Harris, who leads him in escapades involving playing Tarzan in the loft of the barn and using pig pens as the stage for G.I. Joe games. "Through it all," explained a reviewer for Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, "the lonely hero imperceptibly learns about belonging." In Voice of Youth Advocates, Penny Blubaugh pointed out that "for the first time in his life [the narrator] finds himself surrounded by love."
In books like Nightjohn and Mr. Tucket Paulsen draws on history for literary inspiration. Nightjohn is set in the nineteenth-century South and revolves around Sarny, a young slave girl who risks severe punishment when she is persuaded to learn to read by Nightjohn, a runaway slave who has just been recaptured. A commentator for Kirkus Reviews called Nightjohn "a searing picture of slavery" and an "unbearably vivid book."
Sarny is reprised as a character in Sarny: A Life Remembered, in which the former slave narrates her life in 1930, at the ripe old age of ninety-four. A focal point of the woman's story is the fact that she learned to read: this saves her on more than one occasion. Sarny' "story makes absorbing reading," concluded Bruce Anne Shook in a School Library Journal review.
In Mr. Tucket fourteen-year-old Francis Tucket has a number of hair-raising adventures when he is captured by the Pawnee after wandering away from his family's Oregon-bound wagon train. After Francis escapes from the tribe, a one-armed fur trader named Jason Grimes continues the young teen's frontier education. Tucket's adventures are continued in several more works, including Call Me Francis Tucket, Tucket's Ride, and Tucket's Home.
The White Fox Chronicles is a departure for Paulsen in its futuristic setting and a plot that a Publishers Weekly reviewer likened to that of a "shoot-'em-up computer game." The novel's hero is fourteen-year-old Cody, who has been captured by the nefarious Confederation of Consolidated Republics, a group that has overrun the United States and is hatching Nazi-like purges of its enemies. A Publishers Weekly reviewer noted that the work will cause readers to "cheer on the good guys without ever fearing that they might not triumph in the end." Paulsen's 2005 work The Time Hackers also employs elements of science fiction, as a seventh-grader discovers that he is able to travel through time using his laptop computer. "Paulsen writes with his usual skill, creating believable characters and moving the action along at a fairly fast pace," noted Booklist contributor Cindy Welch.
The prolific author, having published over five decades, shows no signs of slowing down by the early 2000s. Paulsen follows a rigorous writing schedule, which he related to Sharon Miller Cindrich in the Writer: "Eighteen hours a day, seven days a week for about ten years. Writers like me are extinct. People don't do that anymore. They don't study. The dedication, obsession, the compulsion-driven need to be like me is just not done anymore. I just work." Asked to describe his motivation, Paulsen replied in typically blunt fashion, "There is no motivation; it's just what I do. It's my nature. The stories are like a river that's going by all the time, and I just 'bucket in' and up comes a story. It's a cliche, but it's like that."
Paulsen's concern with literacy is personal: he still believes, as he told David Gale in a School Library Journal interview celebrating his Margaret A. Edwards Award, that "there's nothing that has happened to me that would have happened if a librarian hadn't got me to read....All of our knowledge, everything we are—is locked up in books, and if you can't read, it's lost." Waging a one-writer campaign against illiteracy, Paulsen has consciously crafted his books with clean, spare language in order to attract reluctant readers. It is exactly this empathic power that has made him such a popular and respected author. As Gary M. Salvner commented in Writers for Young Adults: "Whether angry or happy, whether writing about survival or growing up, Gary Paulsen is always a hopeful writer, for he believes that young people must be respected as they are guided into adulthood. And he continues to write enthusiastically, commenting that he has 'fallen in love with writing, with the dance of it.' Taken together, Gary Paulsen's sense of purpose and love of writing ensure that he will continue to write enjoyable and effective books for young adults for years to come."
In awarding the writer the 1997 Margaret A. Edwards Award, the award committee, as noted in School Library Journal, commented on this empathetic trait: "With his intense love of the outdoors and crazy courage born of adversity, Paulsen reached young adults everywhere. His writing conveys respect for their intelligence and ability to overcome life's worst realities. As Paulsen himself has said, 'I know if there is any hope at all for the human race, it has to come from young people.'"
Biographical and Critical Sources
Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Beacham (Osprey, FL), Volume 6, 1994, Volume 7, 1994, Volume 8, 1994, Volume 10, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2000, Volume 11, 2001.
Children's Books and Their Creators, edited by Anita Silvey, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1995.
Children's Literature Review, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 19, 1990, Volume 54, 1999.
Drew, Bernard A., The 100 Most Popular Young Adult Authors: Biographical Sketches and Bibliographies, Libraries Unlimited, Inc., 1996.
Peters, Stephanie True, Gary Paulsen, Learning Works, 1999.
St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Salvner, Gary M., Presenting Gary Paulsen, Twayne (New York, NY), 1996.
Twentieth-Century Children's Writers, 4th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1995.
Writers for Young Adults, Scribner (New York, NY), 1997.
ALAN Review, spring, 1994.
Booklist, November 1, 1992, p. 514; December 15, 1992, pp. 727-728; January 15, 1993, p. 850; February 15, 1994, p. 1051; March 15, 1995, p. 1323; July, 1995, p. 1880; December 15, 1995, Hazel Rochman, review of Brian's Winter, p. 700; December 15, 1996, p. 727; June 1 & 15, 1997, p. 1705; January 1, 1998, Stephanie Zvirin, review of My Life in Dog Years, p. 799; May 15, 1998, Roger Leslie, review of The Transall Saga, p. 1623; June 1, 1998, Carolyn Phelan, review of Soldier's Heart: A Novel of the Civil War, p. 1750; January 1, 1999, review of My Life in Dog Years and Soldier's Heart, p. 782, and Stephanie Zvirin, interview with Paulsen, p. 864; February 1, 1999, review of Brian's Return, p. 975, and Kay Weisman, review of Canoe Days, p. 982; February 15, 1999, Karen Harris, review of Sarney: A Life Remembered, p. 1084; April 1, 1999, Stephanie Zvirin, review of My Life in Dog Years, p. 1382; June 1, 1999, Roger Leslie, review of Alida's Song, p. 1816; December 1, 1999, Kay Weisman, review of Tucket's Gold, p. 707; February 15, 2000, Pat Austin, review of Soldier's Heart, p. 1129; July, 2000, review of The Beet Fields: Memories of a Sixteenth Summer, p. 2033; August, 2000, Gillian Engberg, review of The White Fox Chronicles, p. 2131; September 1, 2000, Kay Weisman, review of Tucket's Home, p. 119; December 1, 2000, Stephanie Zvirin, review of The Beet Fields, p. 693; February 15, 2001, Kelly Milner Halls, review of Guts: The True Story behind Hatchet and the Brian Books, p. 1128; August, 2001, Elaine Hanson, review of Tucket's Home, p. 2142; September 15, 2001, review of Caught by the Sea: My Life in Boats, p. 222; December 15, 2002, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of How Angel Peterson Got His Name: And Other Outrageous Tales about Extreme Sports, p. 754; August, 2003, Kathleen Odean, review of Shelf Life: Stories by the Book, p. 1983; September 1, 2003, Ilene Cooper, review of The Glass Café; or, The Stripper and the State: How My Mother Started a War with the System That Made Us Kind of Rich and a Little Bit Famous, p. 115; January 1, 2004, Michael Cart, review of Brian's Hunt, p. 848; May 15, 2004, Hazel Rochman, review of The Quilt, p. 1632; January 1, 2005, Cindy Welch, review of The Time Hackers, p. 860.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, February, 1993, pp. 187-188; January, 1994, review of Harris and Me: A Summer Remembered, pp. 164-165; June, 1995, pp. 356-357; October, 1995, pp. 64-65; July-August, 1997, pp. 406-407; March, 1998, pp. 254-255; September, 1998, p. 26; September, 1999, pp. 26-27.
Horn Book, July-August, 1983, Dorcas Hand, review of Dancing Carl, pp. 446-447; November-December, 1990, review of Woodsong, p. 762; November, 1998, Nancy Vasilakis, review of Soldier's Heart, p. 737, and Kristi Beavin, review of Sarny, p. 768; January, 1999, review of Brian's Return, p. 69.
Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, October, 2004, Jo Ann Yazzie, review of The Glass Café, p. 175.
Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 1987, review of The Crossing, p. 1074; June 15, 1991, review of The River, p. 792; January 1, 1993, review of Eastern Sun, Winter Moon, p. 48; January 1, 1993, review of Nightjohn, p. 67; June 1, 1999, p. 887; August 15, 1999, p. 1314; June 1, 2003, review of The Glass Café, p. 809; November 15, 2003, review of Brian's Hunt, p. 1362; April 1, 2004, review of The Quilt, p. 335; September 1, 2004, review of Molly McGinty Has a Really Good Day, p. 872.
Kliatt, May, 1995, p. 39; March, 1997, p. 12; May, 1998, p. 7; July, 1998, p. 8; September, 1999, p. 12; March, 2003, Jennifer Banas, review of Guts, p. 44; July, 2003, Paula Rohrlick, review of The Glass Café, p. 16; January, 2004, Paula Rohrlick, review of Brian's Hunt, pp. 10-11; May, 2004, Tom Adamich, review of Caught by the Sea, p. 34.
Language Arts, September, 1984, Ronald A. Jobe, review of Tracker, p. 527.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 21, 1993, Tim Winton, "His Own World War," pp. 1, 11.
Publishers Weekly, September 29, 1989, review of The Winter Room, p. 69; December 14, 1992, p. 58; January 25, 1993, p. 73; August 30, 1993, p. 94; September 30, 1993, p. 63; March 28, 1994, pp. 70-71; July 3, 1995, review of Call Me Francis Tucket, p. 62; September 2, 1996, p. 132; August 11, 1997, p. 403; May 25, 1998, p. 91; July 20, 1998, review of Soldier's Heart, p. 221; January 11, 1999, review of Brian's Return, p. 26; May 31, 1999, review of Alida's Song, pp. 94-95; September 6, 1999, review of Sarny, p. 106; February 14, 2000, Leonard S. Marcus, interview with Paulsen, p. 98; June 26, 2000, review of The White Fox Chronicles, p. 75; September 4, 2000, review of The Beet Fields, p. 109; June 25, 2001, review of Canoe Days, p. 75; November 18, 2002, review of Guts, p. 63; January 20, 2003, review of How Angel Peterson Got His Name, p. 83; March 17, 2003, "The Perfect Book Tour," p. 34; June 30, 2003, reviews of Shelf Life, p. 79, and The Glass Café, p. 81; August 30, 2004, review of Molly McGinty Has a Really Good Day, p. 56; January 24, 2005, review of The Time Hackers, p. 245.
Reading Time, May, 1999, p. 29.
Riverbank Review, spring, 1999, Gary Paulsen, "The True Face of War," pp. 25-26.
School Library Journal, October, 1992, p. 43; November, 1992, pp. 97-98; July, 1993, p. 82; August, 1993, pp. 208-209; October, 1993, p. 120; January, 1994, p. 132; May, 1995, p. 122; June, 1995, pp. 112-113; August, 1995, p. 38; February, 1996, p. 102; November, 1996, p. 130; March, 1997, p. 190; June, 1997, David Gale, "The Maximum Expression of Being Human," pp. 24-29; September, 1997, Bruce Anne Shook, review of Sarny, p. 224; March, 1998, p. 238; May, 1998, John Peters, review of The Transall Saga, p. 147; September, 1998, Steve Engelfried, review of Soldier's Heart, p. 206; June-July, 1999, p. 99; August, 1999, Suzette Kragenbrink, review of The Transall Saga, p. 70; October, 1999, Coop Renner, review of Tucket's Gold, p. 156; January, 2000, Barbara S. Wysocki, review of Soldier's Heart, p. 74; August, 2000, Trish Anderson, review of The White Fox Chronicles, p. 188; September, 2000, Vicki Reutter, review of The Beet Fields, and Victoria Kidd, review of Tucket's Home, p. 235; October, 2001, Vicki Reutter, review of Caught by the Sea, p. 190; February, 2003, Vicki Reutter, review of How Angel Peterson Got His Name, p. 168; August, 2003, Edward Sullivan, review of Shelf Life, p. 164; November, 2003, Carol Fazioli, review of The Beet Fields: Memories of a Sixteenth Summer, p. 84; December, 2003, Sean George, review of Brian's Hunt, p. 158; May, 2004, Vicki Reutter, review of Guts, p. 65, and review of Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod, p. 66, and Edith Ching, review of The Quilt, p. 156; September, 2004, Jean Gaffney, review of Molly McGinty Has a Really Good Day, p. 215; January, 2005, Diana Pierce, review of The Time Hackers, pp. 134-135.
Voice of Youth Advocates, December, 1985, Nel Ward, review of Dogsong, pp. 321-22; June, 1988, Evie Wilson, review of The Island, pp. 89-90; February, 1994, Penny Blubaugh, review of Harris and Me: A Summer Remembered, p. 371; April, 1994, p. 29; October, 1994, p. 234; February, 1996, p. 375; February, 1997, p. 352; February, 1997, Helen Turner, review of Brian's Winter, p. 332.
Washington Post Book World, December 6, 1992, p. 20; December 20, 1992.
Wilson Library Bulletin, January, 1993, Frances Bradburn, "Middle Books," pp. 87-88.
Writer, June, 2004, Sharon Miller Cindrich, "Gary Paulsen's Love Affair with Writing," p. 22.
Writers' Digest, January, 1980, F. Serdahely, "Prolific Paulsen," July, 1994, pp. 42-44, 65.
Gary Paulsen Web site, http://www.randomhouse.com/features/garypaulsen (March 25, 2005).*
Brief BiographiesBiographies: Grace Napolitano: 1936—: Politician to Richard (Wayne) Peck (1934-) Biography - CareerGary Paulsen (1939-) Biography - Personal, Awards, Honors, Writings, Sidelights - Addresses, Career, Adaptations, Work in Progress