The Wild Books of Gary Paulsen

Author of young-adult adventure stories is dead at age 82

Gary Paulsen once explained to the New York Times why he stopped writing for adults.

“It’s artistically fruitless,” he said. “Adults are locked into car payments and divorces and work. They haven’t got time to think fresh. Name the book that made the biggest impression on you. I bet you read it before you hit puberty. In the time I’ve got left, I intend to write artistic books—for kids—because they’re still open to new ideas.”

That interview appeared in 2006. In the time he had left, Paulsen wrote dozens of novels for young adults, most of them about the wilderness. He died on Oct. 13, 2021 at his home in New Mexico at the age of 82. Cardiac arrest, according to his son.

As soon as news of his passing hit the internet Thursday, it seemed like everyone had a Paulsen story: Fathers who would read Paulsen’s books to their kids on road trips, reluctant readers who fell in love with books after reading Hatchet, kids who learned to love the outdoors because of his books, mushers who got into dog sledding because of Winterdance and Dogsong.

Paulsen lived a colorful life. He ran away and joined a carnival at 14 before forging his father’s signature to serve in the Army. He took part in the Iditarod three times. He lived off the grid in New Mexico, Alaska and in a houseboat. He’s also inadvertently responsible for Snow Dogs, which was very loosely based on Winterdance. The man did it all, and wrote about it — more than 200 times to the tune of 35 million copies and three Newbery Honors — in plain language.  His most recent book, a memoir called “Gone to the Woods,” was published this year.

There’s something to his line about the books that make the biggest impression on you, at least for me. I can’t remember the first time I read Hatchet, Paulsen’s best-known novel, but I do remember I had already read it twice before Ms. Pita assigned it in 5th grade English.

Librarians have long used Paulsen’s books as the go-to for reluctant readers — “Gary Paulsen’s writing is very authentic, and kids sense that,” one librarian said in the NYT profile mentioned above. I was always an avid reader, but something about Paulsen’s writing was different. “Hatchet” had me from the opening chapters, where 13-year-old Brian Robeson crashes in the Yukon with nothing but the titular instrument and the knowledge that his parents were getting a divorce. I had read adventure stories before, but here was a story that sounded like the author had actually experienced what he was writing about. And he had.

Paulsen often spoke about how he had to fend for himself as a kid and sometimes live off the land because his parents were “the town drunks.” In the footnotes for “Hatchet,” he makes note of the fact that he actually ate a raw turtle egg and started a fire with just a hatchet and a rock as research. He imbues all his fiction with reality, and peppers all of his autobiographical accounts with tall tales. And he trusted his YA audience to understand that. He never condescended to his audience and never thought himself beneath writing for children.

That verisimilitude is what caused me to re-read Hatchet and its sequels so many times as a kid. I devoured most of Paulsen’s catalogue before hitting middle school. My family was stationed in Alaska when I started reading his work. Reading things like Dogsong and Brian’s Winter not only made me feel like anything was possible out in the tundra, it also made me respect and appreciate nature and enhanced how I saw my surroundings.

What’s more, Paulsen wrote his survivor narratives in such a way that it felt like he was teaching the reader how to live off the land, too. You weren’t just reading about how Brian made a fire to keep himself warm near his campsite, you were learning step by step how to make sparks fly and how to best protect yourself against the elements.

In hindsight, Paulsen was also my gateway into writers like Ernest Hemingway, Jack London and Jon Krakauer. The sparse, declarative prose of Hatchet prepared me for The Old Man and the Sea; he even looked like Hemingway. Dogsong led me to search out White Fang and Call of the Wild. And Hatchet was constantly in the back of my mind while reading Into the Wild.

But this is not to suggest Paulsen was just the YA stepping stone onto other, “more adult” literature. His books are classics all their own, and deal with heavy themes, especially the “Hatchet” series. The best writing is “like carving pieces off your self,” he told the NYT.

When I heard the news of his passing last week, I dusted off my copy of Hatchet and cracked the spine on it for the first time in 15 years. It’s still a great read, especially those first 30 pages. A masterclass in terse suspense.

Paulsen’s last novel, Northwind, about a boy canoeing the Pacific Northwest coastline, comes out in January. As an adult with a car payment, locked into work, I’m looking forward to one final adventure with the author who showed me, and so many others, so much of the world.

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Jake Harris

Jake Harris is a Texas-based journalist whose writing about pop culture and entertainment has appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, the Chattanooga Times Free Press, the Nashville Scene and more. You can find more of his writings at jakeharrisbog.com or through his pop culture newsletter, Jacob's Letter.

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