Gary Paulsen: Author of survival fiction and our childhood adventures

Reading. Writing. Literature.

For bookies, there are a lot of fine and terrific novels you read as an adult (the books that only make sense now that you are no longer a child). Yet, there is a sweet spot in childhood where some of the most important pieces of fiction take precedence over everything else you read. It’s a graduation into a new class of books that speak to you on some clear level. The blinders are off and the meaning is finally legible after a childhood of Dr. Seuss and Spot running but never really getting anywhere.

Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet is the middle school equivalent of this phenomena, as it was required reading for so many Americans and is also an endearing story of family, survival, and a sense of self. Where else do you get a hard-survival novel that feels painful physically and mentally? My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George comes close, but its appeal is a difference of ages (also, Paulsen’s book teaches us how to keep flies from landing on our face in the hot summer sun). It is without a doubt one of the most grueling survival stories in publication.

But, who is author Gary Paulsen? And how did he write that story so well?

In today’s post, we are going to take a brief look at his background and how he came to be a writer.

Early life

Gary Paulsen was born on May 17th, 1939, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He grew up in a dysfunctional household and ran away at 14 years old. He spent that year on a sugar beet farm and then as a carnival worker. An unexceptional student, he maintained a low average in his classes, which belied his intelligence, as a chance visit to a library turned him into a reading machine.

“I’d gotten somehow to the age 12; my parents were drunks,” Paulsen said in an interview with Teaching Books. “I flunked everything and barely got out of school … A public librarian offered me a library card and encouraged me to read.”

Paulsen eventually joined the army where he served for 3 years. Afterward, he maintained a variety of unfulfilling jobs until he was bit by the writing bug.

Writing career

While working in the “aerospace departments” of Bendix and Lockheed, Paulsen suddenly realized that he could have a career in writing. His writing journey took off later after working as an associate editor and learning the ropes of writing and editing. Paulsen’s own experiences would play a major role in his writing.

Kids Britannica writes, “Dogsong (1985), the story of an Inuit boy reconnecting with his heritage through a dogsled excursion, was chosen as a 1986 Newbery Honor Book. The book was based on Paulsen’s experiences running the Iditarod dogsled race in Alaska” (Britannica).

Paulsen’s life experiences propelled his fiction, from “several memoirs and numerous volumes of nonfiction,” with prose in his book informing the reader of realism and attention to detail.

Paulsen won the Newbery Honor for Dogsong in 1986. Additionally, Hatchet (1987) earned him a second Newbery Honor and he would later win a third for The Winter Room (1989).

Later life and death

Paulsen spent a life outdoors, whether from working on his aunt and uncle’s farm, or serving in the military. He eventually ran the Iditarod dogsled twice, and sailed “up to Alaska and back to the Sea of Cortez” (Balaban).

Naturalist and realist writers have a lot in common as well, and the comparisons Paulsen has drawn from fans and critics leaned closer to his appearance than his actual writing style.

“He was often compared with Ernest Hemingway,” writes Christopher Borrelli for the Chicago Tribune, “who was also fond of the wilderness, wrote brisk sentences full of violence, and wore a white beard and weathered face…”

The rugged individualistic characterization clearly found its way into his writing, as did the introspection and detail of his characters.

Paulsen’s books have sold more than 35 million copies.

He died from cardiac arrest in October, 2021.

Works Cited

Balaban, Samantha. “Beloeved children’s author and wilderness enthusiast Gary Paulsen has died at 82.” NPR. Oct. 14th, 2021.

Borrelli, Christopher. “Hard-knock life: Gary Paulsen, writer of survival stories for kids, is an author worth remembering.” Chicago Tribune. Jan. 21st, 2022. Web.

Maughan, Shannon. “Obituary: Gary Paulsen.” Publishers Weekly. Oct. 14th, 2021.

Risen, Clay. “Gary Paulsen, Author of Young-Adult Adventures, Dies at 82.” The New York Times. Oct. 14, 2021. Web:

“In-Depth Written Interview with Gary Paulsen.” Teaching Books. Feb. 12th, 2010. Web: