Gary Paulsen: Biography, Books & Facts

Instructor: Sharon Linde

Sharon has a Masters of Science in Mathematics

It's hard to believe the quantity of books written by award-winning novelist, Gary Paulsen. This lesson will give you a close look at Gary Paulsen, his books, and what makes him a power-house author.

You know those kids who read all the time, closing one book while reaching for another? Author Gary Paulsen was that kind of child. Born in 1939, he lived with extended family in Minneapolis, Minnesota; his father was an Army officer and Gary didn't meet him for many years. He ran away when he was 14 and joined the carnival. Seriously - Paulsen is that kind of guy.

Paulsen had several jobs, including time in the Army and with electronics, before he realized, at 26, that writing was his passion. Dedicated and prolific, Paulsen has since written over 200 books for children and adults. He has won the Newbery Honor Award for three of his novels--Dogsong, Hatchet, and The Winter Room. Though he's mostly known for his fiction books for young readers, Paulsen also writes books for many audiences, and in many genres including nonfiction, western, and humor.

Paulsen didn't become successful right away. He was a poor writer until he got into training and running sled dogs for the Iditarod. His first book on the subject, Dogsong, launched him to the best-seller list in 1985.

He prefers nature to cities, and has spent much of his life avoiding the company of humans, and surrounding himself with the vast wilderness that he takes so much comfort in. Many of his books reflect this attitude.

Author Gary Paulsen
gary paulsen

Paulsen uses his past experiences as a source of inspiration and to connect with his young audience. Let's take a peek at how this works.

Paulsen's Inspiration

Like many authors, Paulsen gets his ideas from personal experience. Not only does he write about the activities he's done, like farming, construction, sailing, and dogsled racing, but Paulsen also uses his emotional history from his personal life to make his characters and storyline relatable.

Paulsen lived with his grandmother when he was very young, a time he remembers fondly. When his mother took him to live with his father, his life took a turn for the worse.

Paulsen's life lacked stability and safety. His parents were alcoholic and often times abusive, and he lived in poverty much of his childhood and early adult life. He moved around a lot, struggled in school, and had difficulty making friends. He found refuge in books, remembering his time spent hiding in the basement with library books as a refuge from his personal pain.

After many random jobs including testing missiles for the Army, he used a fake resume to get a proofreading job in California. He wrote at night and eventually moved to a cabin in northern Minnesota, and began writing. After years of struggling, Paulsen began writing what he knew best, stories reflecting his own experiences.

Paulsen often has his protagonists come from a hard family life much like his own. In The Foxman (1977), a 15-year-old boy is sent to live with his cousins due to his alcoholic parents and struggles with the idea of war. The Hatchet follows a boy whose parents are divorcing. The Alida series is about a boy who lives with his grandmother; Paulsen considers his own time with his grandmother to be the closest thing he ever felt to having a normal family.

Newbery Honor award winner
hatchet cover

Paulsen ran the 1200-mile Iditarod sled dog race multiple times, and his training inspired many of his books, including his first commercial success Dogsong, which is considered one of his most loved. The nonfiction books Woodsong, My Life in Dog Years, and the children's book Dogteam also revolve around dog sledding and reflect Paulsen's own life.

Themes of Paulsen Books

Many of Paulsen's books are wilderness adventure stories with similar themes, such as:

  • Coming of Age

Paulsen's books often feature a young protagonist who must endure some type of trial, and in doing so, grows up a great deal. Voyage of the Sea, The Winter Room, the Tucket series, Alida series, and the Brian Saga (which includes Hatchet) all follow young boys just beginning to learn about the world and coming to terms with their emotional toils.

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