Award-winning and prolific author Gary Paulsen, best known for his novels and nonfiction for young people about self-reliance and the transformative, awesome power of the wilderness, died suddenly on October 13 in New Mexico. He was 82.
Paulsen was born May 17, 1939 in Minneapolis to Oscar and Eunice Paulsen. His father was a career military man who served as an officer under General Patton during World War II. In an interview for Something About the Author, Gary Paulsen recalled an early childhood “reared by my grandmother and several aunts” while his father was “fighting the Germans” and his mother worked in a munitions plant in Chicago during the war doing “Rosie the Riveter type stuff.” Paulsen was seven years old when he first saw his father in the Philippines, where the family was stationed from 1946–49.
Upon returning to the U.S., Paulsen was a self-described shy “Army brat” moving to a new place—and new school—every few months, finding it hugely difficult to make friends. At age 13, he told SATA, Paulsen had a chance encounter that awakened his passion for reading. He walked past the local public library “in 20-below temperatures” one evening and ventured inside to get warm. “To my absolute astonishment the librarian walked up to me and asked if I wanted a library card.... 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 though I had been dying of thirst and the librarian had handed me a five-gallon bucket of water. I drank and drank.”
Paulsen’s teenage years were tumultuous and when things were particularly rough at home, he escaped by running away to the woods where he hunted and trapped animals to survive. When he was 14, he ran away to travel with a carnival.
Though he was admittedly not a dedicated student, Paulsen managed to graduate high school in Thief River Falls, Minn., and began attending Bemidji College in 1958. His familiarity with hunting and trapping enabled him to pay his first year of tuition with money he earned from laying trap lines for the state of Minnesota. But by 1959 Paulsen had flunked out of school. That same year he joined the U.S. Army, serving from 1959–1962, attaining the rank of sergeant while working with missiles. With his military experience as a boost, Paulsen completed some additional courses and became a certified field engineer, enabling him to find employment in the aerospace industry. In a SATA interview he claimed he was good at the work, but he hated it.
Paulsen was working at a satellite tracking station in California when he had the realization that he would become a writer. He walked off that job one night and never returned. By 1965 he landed a position—using a completely fictitious resume—as an associate editor for a men’s magazine in southern California. Though he was quickly found out, Paulsen’s bosses at the publication were willing to critique his work and teach him some valuable writing and editing skills. Paulsen worked on his own writing at night and additionally worked as a film extra and began sculpting/wood carving as a hobby.
Following his year-long stint at the magazine, Paulsen left California for northern Minnesota in 1966. He rented a lakeside cabin and by the end of that winter he completed his first novel, Mr. Tucket, which was published by Funk & Wagnalls in 1968.Though he worked jobs as a ranch hand, truck driver, and sailor at various times in his life, it was his role as author that stuck.
Once he started writing in earnest, Paulsen worked at a relentless pace. He produced more than 40 books, 200 magazine articles and short stories, and two plays in a period of 12 years. In 1977, Paulsen’s furious output was derailed when his 1977 YA novel Winterkill (Thomas Nelson) was the subject of a libel lawsuit. Paulsen ultimately prevailed, but the financial burden and emotional stress of the situation caused him to quit writing for a time.
Paulsen temporarily turned to trapping for Minnesota again to make a living, and a neighbor gave him a team of four dogs to use in that work. He learned to rig up a sled and was soon enthralled with the sport of dogsled racing, a passion that would inform some of his writing when he soon embraced the craft again. According to a 2013 profile of Paulsen by Jim Trelease, it was during this down period that Paulsen received a call from Richard Jackson, then editor-in-chief at Bradbury Press. When Jackson, who had admired Paulsen but had never met him asked what he was writing, Trelease wrote, “Paulsen told him, ‘I’m not writing anything. I’m running dogs and I don’t have the money for the Iditarod!’ Jackson saw an opportunity and promised to send him the money if he could get first shot at the next thing he wrote. It was a deal.”
That first book Jackson published was Dancing Carl (Bradbury, 1983). But in the meantime, Paulsen trained up a full dog team and completed his first Iditarod race across Alaska in 1983. He would make two more attempts in 1985 and 2006 but had to withdraw both times due to injury. Those Iditarod adventures were the root of his novel Dogsong (Bradbury, 1985), about an Inuit boy who leads his own pack of dogs across Alaska. The book was the first of three Paulsen titles to win Newbery Honor citations.
In 1987, Bradbury published Paulsen’s novel Hatchet, the story of 13-year-old Brian, who must survive in the Canadian wilderness alone when the small plane he was traveling in crashes. Hatchet earned Paulsen a second Newbery Honor and warm critical praise, and has been a perennial bestseller, spawning a number of sequels and selling more than 13 million copies in the U.S. to date. Paulsen’s third Newbery Honor was given to The Winter Room (Orchard, 1989), his novel following the daily routines on a Minnesota family farm through the four seasons as narrated by 11-year-old Eldon.
Paulsen’s life experiences certainly sparked much of his fiction, though the author wrote several memoirs and numerous volumes of nonfiction as well, most recently Gone to the Woods: Surviving a Lost Childhood (FSG). In a starred review, PW called it “a riveting, hopeful survival story.” He also collaborated on projects with his wife, artist and author Ruth Wright Paulsen, including My Life in Dog Years (Delacorte, 1997) and did a book with his son as well, Road Trip (Random/Lamb, 2012).
In all, Paulsen wrote more than 200 books for children and adults and his titles have sold more than 35 million copies. Among his many accolades, he received the 1997 Margaret A. Edwards Award for his contribution to young adult literature. His final novel, Northwind, will be published in January 2022 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux Books for Young Readers.
Wesley Adams, executive editor at Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers, who edited both of the author’s most recent titles, shared this tribute: “Gary Paulsen is a national treasure, a landmark author whose many books don’t just transfix and entertain, they change the course of readers’ lives. Hatchet and his other edge-of-your-seat stories—many of them inspired directly by his own experiences—have shown reluctant readers the world over that reading is itself an adventure. His books have helped readers overcome fears in their own lives and instilled in his millions of fans through the decades a passion for undertaking their own personal feats of daring and courage—often outdoors, but not always. Working with Gary has been a high-water mark of my career.”
Jon Anderson, president and publisher of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing said, “It was Simon & Schuster’s privilege to publish several of Gary’s spare, powerful novels, including two of his Newbery Honor-winning titles, Dogsong and of course Hatchet, a book that has sold over 13 million copies in the U.S. alone and has influenced generations of young readers with its gripping tale of survival in the wilderness. Gary was a writer who never wrote down to his audience and knew how to show children the untapped strength hidden within themselves. He will be sorely missed.”
David Levithan, publisher and editorial director at Scholastic, provided a favorite anecdote: “The very first time in my Scholastic career I was interviewed by the New York Times, I spent most of my time raving about Gary Paulsen’s Soldier’s Heart, which is not a Scholastic book. I just loved it so much that I had to talk about it. When we repackaged his backlist here, I happily stepped in and found that when I had a question for him, I often got a response from his agent like, ‘I’m afraid he’s away on a boat for a few weeks. There’s no way to get in touch with him.’ Which felt right. Finally, at one loud, crowded convention dinner, he came up to me out of the blue, said, ‘My agent told me I should meet you,’ then led me out to a balcony where we could talk. It’s something I’ll always remember. I feel generations of readers learned from Gary’s books how their lives intersect and interact both with the natural world and the tides of history. Many were not published by Scholastic, but our company got them into the hands of millions of kids through our book clubs and book fairs, where he’s been a favorite author for decades, and will be for many decades to come.”
Wendy Lamb, former v-p and publishing director of her eponymous imprint at Random House Children’s Books and Paulsen’s longtime editor there, offered this remembrance: “The indestructible, one-of-a-kind Gary Paulsen has left us. His storytelling power was astonishing, and so was his impact on his readers, whom he dearly loved. He taught us so much, most of all, how to survive anything, whether it be a brutal childhood, a blizzard in Alaska, a moose attack, or the humiliating comedy of middle school. Gary is now at peace, but not at rest—he’s driving a dogsled through the stars, with a team made up of his favorite dogs.”