Gary Paulsen Biography

Gary Paulsen, a highly prolific writer, has one hobby that not many other authors enjoy: he loves to participate in dog sledding competitions. Perhaps it’s not so strange, then, that most of Paulsen’s stories and novels focus on themes of nature and man’s struggle to find himself through outdoor pursuits. His books are especially popular with young men who are in the process of discovering themselves. Paulsen has won many prestigious awards, including the Newbery Medal for his novel The Winter Room, and his books Woodsong and Winterdance are perhaps the most famous books ever written about the Iditarod, a 1,150-mile dog sledding race. Paulsen resides in New Mexico, but he also owns a ranch in Alaska where he breeds and trains—can you guess?—sled dogs.

Facts and Trivia

  • Paulsen ran away from home and joined a carnival when he was just fourteen. After that, he had many different jobs—engineer, truck driver, sailor, and satellite technician.
  • Gary Paulsen’s earliest writing job was as a magazine proofreader in Hollywood, California. He left that job for a cabin in Minnesota where he completed his first novel within a few months.
  • Paulsen is extremely critical of modern technology and tries to live a simple life.
  • Paulsen’s body of work includes over two hundred books, two hundred articles and stories, and many plays.
  • Paulsen and his wife, Ruth Wright Paulsen, currently own a boat in the Pacific, and he is in the process of writing about their many adventures. His wife is an artist and has done the illustrations for many of his novels.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 625

Gary Paulsen has been one of the most prolific writers of books for young adult readers in the genre’s history. Raised by his mother for the first seven years of his life, he did not meet his father until the family was reunited in the Philippines, where his father was serving in the U.S. Army. Moving from base to base after World War II, sometimes in the care of his grandmother, Paulsen was uninterested in school and frequently in trouble. He began to read when he was offered a library card after he entered a library building to get warm while working a newspaper route. He left home at fourteen to join a carnival and later worked as a ranch hand and a construction worker. At seventeen, he enlisted in the Army, where he learned enough about missiles to became a technician for the Lockheed Martin Corporation upon his discharge. Convinced that his experiences were worth further examination, he left that job to work as a magazine proofreader and began writing at night.

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He completed his first novel while living in a cabin in the Minnesota woods, where his experiences with animals and his developing skills for survival in a harsh environment gave him the central subjects of his ensuing work. A fascination with dogs had led him to make two successful runs in the Iditarod sled race; when a heart condition restricted his physical activities, he put “the same energy and effort that I was using with dogs” into writing, sometimes twenty hours a day.

Paulsen was immediately successful, with a number of books that captured the close relationship between a young man and a wild animal, as well as with stories about teenage boys who did not fit easily into any of the roles considered acceptable in society. With Dogsong, however, he moved into the first rank of young-adult authors. This story of an Inuit learning about a hidden heritage while on a trek through forbidding but enchanting terrain brought together Paulsen’s feeling for animals, his thorough knowledge of survival skills, and his ability to write with insight and sensitivity about a unique individual. Paulsen was temporarily sidetracked by a lawsuit brought by a man who wrongly assumed that Winterkill was based on the claimant’s life, but after prevailing in court, Paulsen returned to the same schedule of prolific production. His wife, artist Ruth Wright, began illustrating some of his children’s books.

In addition to his continuing interest in survival situations and his fascination with the dimensions of the natural world—areas that he has also addressed effectively in essays and memoirs—Paulsen has returned to several other themes in evolving narratives that he has developed in multibook sequences. The Monument, about the Vietnam War, and Soldier’s Heart, about the Civil War, are candid, forceful examinations of combat, while The Rifle directly confronts the destructive appeal of weapons in American life. Nightjohn and Sarny powerfully evoke the plague of slavery. In a much lighter mode, he has also written a number of comic novels, such as The Boy Who Owned the School and The Schernoff Discoveries, whose protagonists are still young people living outside the sphere of popularity. Throughout his career, Paulsen has moved from one subject and setting to another, producing books directed to, if not exclusively limited to, a particular cohort. His greatest success has been with younger readers, as indicated by the distinguished Newbery Medals for Hatchet, Dogsong, and The Winter Room and numerous designations from the American Library Association, including Best Book for Young Readers for Soldier’s Heart. The distinction, however, between children’s books and those which also interest a mature reader does not strictly apply to Paulsen’s best work.

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