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Gary James Paulsen (born May 17, 1939) is an American writer of young adult literature, best known for coming of age stories about the wilderness. He is the author of more than 200 books and has written more than 200 magazine articles and short stories, and several plays, all primarily for teenagers. He won the Margaret Edwards Award from the American Library Association in 1997 for his lifetime contribution in writing for teens.
Gary Paulsen was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA, where his extended family resided, to Oscar and Eunice H. (née Moen), Paulsen has two siblings: a full sister, Paulette, and a half-brother Bill, who was born to his father from a previous marriage. His father was a career army officer, on General George Patton's staff, who spent most of World War II overseas. Gary did not meet his father until he was seven years old. He spent time throughout his childhood with his grandmother, aunts and various other relatives. When he was seven he and his mother joined his father in the Philippines, where he lived for two years. He then returned to Minnesota. At the age of 14, Gary ran away and joined a carnival.
Paulsen has written some fragmented autobiographical works, such as Eastern Sun, Winter Moon: An Autobiographical Odyssey. The book, which is written in first person, begins when Paulsen was seven, living in Chicago with his mother. Paulsen described several traumatic occurrences that transpired during the three years that are chronicled by the book. For example, one day while his mother was napping, Gary sneaked outside to play. There a vagrant snatched him and apparently attempted to molest him, but his mother suddenly appeared on the scene and beat the man to death. Paulsen reported his mother's many adulterous affairs in Eastern Sun, suggesting that the man he called "father" was not really his biological father. He also discussed his mother's alcoholism. He told how she would bring him to a bar and had him sing for his supper, even though she had an income from her work in an ammunition factory, and he felt there was no need for this. When World War II ended, Gary's father sent for him and his mother to come join him in the Philippines, where he was stationed. A great part of the book is dedicated to the voyage by naval vessel to the Philippines. During the trip, Gary witnessed a plane crash. He, his mother, and the people who were also being transported on this ship, looked on as many of the airplane’s passengers were killed or maimed by the sharks who would follow the ship consuming waste. His mother, the only woman aboard, helped the corpsman care for the surviving victims. After arriving in Hawaii, according to Paulsen, his mother began an affair with the ship's corpsman.
Gary and his mother arrived in Manila, where he met his father for the first time. He quickly realized that he would not have a close relationship with the man whom he felt he did not resemble nor relate to, who never referred to him as anything except "the boy" and who, like Gary's mother, was an alcoholic. Gary's family had two servants while they lived on the army base in Manila, a man named Rom, and a woman named Maria. Gary shared a room with Maria and before long, the woman, who had endured multiple rapes at the hands of the formally occupying Japanese, began to molest Gary. He claimed in the book that this happened quite often, nearly every night, until he left Manila. While living in Manila, Gary's parents continued to drink heavily. His mother also continued to have affairs.
The accounts in Eastern Sun ended when Gary and his mother left Manila. Bits and pieces of Gary's adolescence can be pieced together in Guts: The True Stories Behind Hatchet and the Brian Books. In that book, Paulsen discussed the ways in which he survived between the ages of twelve and fourteen back in Minnesota. He barely mentioned his parents except to say that they were too busy being drunk to stock the refrigerator. He worked several jobs during this time, including setting pins at the bowling alley, delivering newspapers and working as a farm hand. He bought his own school supplies and a rifle, which he used to hunt for sustenance. Eventually, he gave up the rifle and manufactured his own bow and arrows which he used to hunt deer.
Much of what is known about Gary Paulsen's life is revealed in prologues and epilogues of his own books. In Gary Paulsen's book The Quilt, one of a series of three books based on summers spent with his grandmother, Paulsen told about what a tremendous influence his grandmother had on him. It is difficult to say how factual an autobiography The Quilt is intended to be, as Paulsen is supposed to have been six years old in this story and yet he made references to events found in Eastern Sun, which is supposed to have been set later. He also refers to himself, in this book, in third person and only as "the boy".
Paulsen has been married twice and has three adult children, Lance, Lynn and James Paulsen. Early in his adult life he had issues with alcoholism. He also lived in poverty through most of his early adult life. He had several jobs including that of magazine editor. He also did a tour in the Army. He struggled as a writer for decades. One of his earliest published books was titled Some Birds Don't Fly, a comic rendition of his time working at the government missile range, White Sands, New Mexico. In 1966, a book was published under the title The Special War. Paulsen worked at construction while writing to support himself. It was not until the publication of his first award-winning book, Dogsong, in 1985 that Paulsen began to experience success.
Even though Paulsen is now a successful author, he says he chooses to live in relative poverty. He reportedly lives with his wife, Ruth, who illustrates children's literature, in La Luz, New Mexico. (ALA reported Tularosa, New Mexico in 1997.) He also spends some time living on a house boat on the Pacific Ocean.
In 1983, Paulsen entered the 1,150-mile (1,850 km) Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, and placed 41st out of 54 finishers, with an official time of 17 days, 12 hours, 38 minutes, and 38 seconds. In 1990, suffering from heart disease, Paulsen made the decision to give up dog sledding, which he described as the most difficult decision he has ever made. Paulsen would spend more than a decade sailing the Pacific before getting back into dog sledding in 2003. According to his keynote speech on October 13, 2007, at the Sinclair Lewis writing conference in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, he still intended to compete in the Iditarod. He is listed in the "Withdrawn/Scratched" section of the 1985 and 2006 Iditarod. Paulsen is an outdoorsman (a hunter and trapper), who maintains a 40-acre (160,000 m2) spread north of Willow, Alaska, where he breeds and trains sled dogs for the Iditarod.
Much of Paulsen's work features the outdoors and highlights the importance of nature. He often uses "coming of age" themes in his novels, where a character masters the art of survival in isolation as a rite of passage to manhood and maturity. He is critical of technology and has been called a Luddite.
The Hatchet series, or Brian's Saga, five novels published from 1987 to 2003, comprises some of Paulsen's best known work. Dogsong (1985), The Winter Room (1989), and Harris and Me (1993) are three others of his many popular novels. Woodsong (1990) and Winterdance (1994) are among the most popular books about the Iditarod.
The ALA Margaret Edwards Award recognizes one writer and a particular body of work for "significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature". Paulsen won the annual award in 1997, when the panel cited six books published from 1983 to 1990: Dancing Carl, Hatchet (first in the series), The Crossing, The Winter Room, Canyons, and Woodsong. The citation noted that "[t]he theme of survival is woven throughout, whether it is living through a plane crash or living in an abusive, alcoholic household" and emphasized Hatchet in particular for "encompassing a survival theme in all it's aspects, physical as well as psychological"
Three of Paulsen's books were runners-up for the Newbery Medal, the premier ALA annual book award for children's literature: Dogsong, Hatchet, and The Winter Room. (The American Library Association distinguishes children's and young-adult literature in its awards for lifetime contribution from 1988; in its annual book awards only since inauguration of the Printz Award in 2000.)