Gary Paulsen was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 17th, 1939 to parents Oscar Paulsen and Eunice Paulsen and is known for his coming-of-age stories.
His childhood and adolescence were marred by conflict and chaos. When he was young, a man attempted to molest Paulsen, but luckily was prevented by his mother, who came upon the situation and beat the man. He faced frequent moves–he lived with his aunt and uncle for a year in Northern Minnesota, where he was introduced to the wilderness and his love for it originated.
Later, his mother took him to stay with her and his father in the Philippines, where his father, a career Army officer, was stationed at the time. On the journey there, Gary witnessed a plane crash in the ocean, and many passengers were killed or maimed by sharks. Afterward, his mother struck up an affair with the corpsman that she assisted in caring for the wounded from the plane crash. When his family eventually came back to Minnesota, his teen years were marked by his parents' alcoholism and marital conflicts. He ran away frequently and worked odd jobs to support himself.
However, despite all the challenges Paulsen faced, he found two refuges. The first was the wilderness. When his parents were drunk out of their minds and couldn’t put food on the table, Paulsen would escape to the woods and hunt for his food. The wilderness became a haven for him. The second refuge he found was the library. For the warmth, he would spend time there in the winter, where a librarian took a special interest in him. She provided him with a library card, a notebook, and a pencil, and asked him to write down his thoughts for her. He credits his career as an author to her influence, and stated in an NPR interview that “none of this would have happened except for that [her].”
His time in the library absorbing books and laying bare his thoughts on paper set the foundation for his extremely prolific career; over his life, he wrote more than 200 novels, autobiographies, and nonfiction books, as well as over 200 short stories and magazine articles. A credit to his first refuge, the wild, many of his novels focus on the outdoors and their impact. His “coming-of-age” novels demonstrate that learning how to survive in the wilderness can be a rite of passage to growing up.
His skill in adolescent fiction and ability to portray the world through the eyes of a child and adolescent has won him numerous awards. He has won three Newbery Honors, which are awarded annually to the book that has made the best contribution to children’s literature published that year. The books which received this award include Dogsong (1985), The Winter Room (1989), and Hatchet (1986), which is arguably one of his most popular novels. Gary Paulsen also received the ALA Margaret Edwards Award in 1997, which recognizes an author and their works for a long and distinguished contribution to young adult literature, for his books Hatchet (1986), Dancing Carl (1983), The Crossing (1987), The Winter Room (1989), Canyons (1990), and Woodsong (1990).
His love for the outdoors prevalent in his writing was also present in his personal life–he frequently hunted, went dog-sledding, and sailed in the Pacific. His death by cardiac arrest on October 13, 2021, marked the end of a life filled with survival and adventure, and a career of writing books that spoke to the hearts of millions. His lived experiences granted him a willingness to discuss the truly difficult parts of life, and his candor earned him the role of a distinguished American author of adolescent fiction.