Critical Context

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

Gary Paulsen had written more than twenty-five books for both adult and young adult audiences beginning in the mid-1960’s, before publishing Dogsong in 1985. The novel became his first Newbery Honor Book and started a succession of popular young adult novels that moved him into the forefront of young adult authors.

An avid outdoorsman and dog sledder, Paulsen drew upon his personal experiences in the Iditarod—a 1,049-mile Alaskan dogsled race from Anchorage to Nome—to add authenticity to his account of Russel’s journey. In addition, Russel’s respect and love for his dogs echoes Paulsen’s own relationship with the dogs that he has owned. After Dogsong, Paulsen wrote two fascinating nonfiction accounts, Woodsong (1991) and Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod (1994), about his personal relationship with sled dogs.

Russel is the first of Paulsen’s many teenage characters who “come of age” confronting the forces of nature, sometimes alone and sometimes with mentors such as Oogruk. For example, Hatchet (1987), Paulsen’s second Newbery Honor Book and unquestionably his most popular novel, uses the same testing-by-nature theme, although the primary character in Hatchet is a middle-class, white teenager. Paulsen used a similar theme in The Voyage of the Frog (1989); in this story, his teenage protagonist is tested by the ocean in a solitary voyage in a small sailboat.

Paulsen’s sympathetic treatment of Inuit culture is not unique. Since the publication of Dogsong, Paulsen has earned a reputation for sympathetic portrayals of a wide range of ethnic groups, including American Indians in Canyons (1990) and Mexicans in The Crossing (1987).