English Language Arts

Gary Paulsen

A Beloved Children’s Author

Gary Paulsen, a beloved children’s author, died at the age of 82 this week. Teachers, students, and many readers who have enjoyed Gary Paulsen’s works were saddened by the loss of a great writer. 

I was explaining to my students about his death, and how I always feel sad when an author dies. The reason for this sadness is because that means they can’t write anymore books for us. Yet, I reminded them that they leave behind this awesome legacy. They will always live on through their works, for generation after generation. How amazing is that? We all strive to leave a legacy in some way and authors leave behind a grand one.

I told them that what we write leaves a legacy, even as students. Others can read our stories long after we’re gone. I hope it inspires them to continue to pursue writing in their lives, just like Paulsen inspired many students to learn to love reading.

Hatchet is one of my favorite books of Gary Paulsen’s that I have taught for numerous years now to seventh graders. I save it for the last novel of the year. It is such a fun book that both boys and girls enjoy immensely. It is about a thirteen-year-old boy named Brian. While visiting his father, Brian’s small airplane crashes in the Canadian wilderness. He is forced to survive on his own, encountering bears, a dangerous moose, and porcupines all while trying to feed himself and remain emotionally stable. We have a blog post all about Hatchet and how to teach this popular novel.

About Gary Paulsen

Newberry Award Winning novelist Gary Paulsen was an avid outdoorsman and nature enthusiast. He even competed in the Iditarod twice. He had homes in New Mexico and Alaska. Plus, he utilized much of his enthusiasm for the outdoors in his many adventurous, coming-of-age books.

Paulsen always wanted to write. However, since he was a D-average student as a result of having a tough home life, he was very discouraged. His parents had a rocky marriage and a history of alcoholism that led him to live in many different homes. 

(Please view video before showing this to students. Gary describes in detail how rough his life growing up actually was. I could see him reliving some of the painful events as he pauses before he continues to speak. Please stay to the end when he thanks the librarian who gave him his first library card and changed his world, definitely a tear-jerker.)

After his rough childhood and completing a short career in the military as a young adult, Paulsen decided to be an author. When he made up his mind to finally write a book, he secluded himself to a cabin in Minnesota. He developed intense self-discipline and was known to write for hours upon hours straight. This self-discipline produced over 200 books for children and adults in his lifetime.

Paulsen is widely known for getting reluctant readers excited about books, mainly boys. With many of his books revolving around the outdoors and with male main characters, boys fell in love with his novels. My college literacy professor once told my class that many girls will easily read a book about a male main character, but a lot of boys find it difficult to read a story with a female main character. Paulsen made it possible for elementary to middle school boys to start seeing themselves in books and in books that shared similar interests as to them.

Let’s take a look at some of his works that are perfect for upper elementary to middle school classes.

Brian’s Saga

Paulsen first published Hatchet in 1987 and quickly followed it up with The River (1991), Brian’s Winter (1991), Brian’s Return (1999), and Brian’s Hunt (2003).

The River

Readers sent Paulsen letters begging him to continue Brian’s story from Hatchet. Brian was rescued at the end of the first book. However, readers were driven crazy wondering what happened next. Paulsen listened to them by producing The River

Publisher’s Synopsis: 

In The River, Brian is asked to return to the woods to teach Derek, a government psychologist, survival techniques. But when Derek is struck by lightning, Brian’s survival skills are further tested as he must find a way to get the seriously injured Derek out of the woods.

After the release of The River, readers flooded Paulsen with more letters wanting to know how Brian would have survived the wintertime. They thought he had been rescued too early before he had a chance to test his survival skills in a treacherous season. 

Brian’s Winter 

My students always pondered this themselves which led to many hypothetical discussions, and I would then point them to Brian’s Winter

Brian’s Winter is just that: about how the main character survives the winter time if he had never been rescued from the original Hatchet novel.

Reading Hatchet and then Brian’s Winter in succession makes for an epic tale of Brian’s perilous survival story. Brian’s Winter picks up right where Hatchet left off and continues the novel beautifully. Brian builds a winter shelter, encounters more dangerous wildlife, makes friends with a skunk, and even creates snow shoes. We can see Brian’s determination and grit grow even more in the novel.

I hope to have time this year to squeeze in Brian’s Winter as a read aloud after teaching Hatchet. It could elicit so many what-if discussions as well as examine further into how setting affects plot. 

Lawn Boy and Lawn Boy Returns by Gary Paulsen

Lawn Boy and its sequela novel about an average 12-year-old boy with average grades, resonates with many middle schoolers. Here is an excerpt that perfectly sums it up: 

One day I was 12 years old and broke. Then Grandma gave me Grandpa’s old riding lawnmower. I set out to mow some lawns. More people wanted me to mow their lawns. And more and more. . . . One client was Arnold the stockbroker, who offered to teach me about “the beauty of capitalism. Supply and Demand. Diversify labor. Distribute the wealth.” “Wealth?” I said. “It’s groovy, man,” said Arnold.

If I’d known what was coming, I might have climbed on my mower and putted all the way home to hide in my room. But the lawn business grew and grew. So did my profits, which Arnold invested in many things. And one of them was Joey Pow the prizefighter. That’s when my 12th summer got really interesting.

Students especially enjoy the quick wit and humor present throughout the book as well as the concept of a twelve-year-old becoming rich so quickly. It inspires kids and entertains them at once. The Lawn Boy series is light-hearted, comical, and full of average middle school issues.

My Life in Dog Years by Gary Paulsen

Paulsen, although widely known for his fictional novels, also was a prolific nonfiction writer as well. He wrote stories about his Iditarod experience as well as My Life in Dog Years

I first came across this book in college as I read it for one of my literacy classes. I am not a huge non-fiction fan, but thoroughly enjoyed this one. 

Paulsen reminisces about the various dogs he owned throughout his life, their charming stories, his loving connections to them, and his fondness for each of their lovely personalities. From Snowball who saved his life, to his enigma-like hunting dog, Ike, that he could never quite figure out…Paulsen details his life with these dogs and how much of an impact they made on him. 

Kids and adults who love dogs would thoroughly enjoy My Life in Dog Years. This book just shows how versatile Paulsen is as a writer and details his personality and love for animals which appears quite often in his fictional works. 

Northwind by Gary Paulsen

Lastly, Paulsen left us a tremendous gift before he died: one more book. He wrote the novel, Northwind. It’s release date is January 2022. Northwind is about a 12-year-old boy protagonist who attempts to survive along the coastlines and on the seas. 

Publisher’s Synopsis:

When a deadly plague decimates his fishing village, an orphan named Leif is forced to take to the water in a cedar canoe. He flees northward, following a wild, fjord-riven shore, navigating from one danger to the next. The deeper into his journey he paddles, the closer he comes to his truest self as he connects to the heartbeat of the ocean, the pulse of the landscape. 

I cannot wait to read this particularly interesting and unique novel. His newest work sounds so different from what Paulsen has done before. Yet, it is still so reminiscent of his core writing themes.

Conclusion

1939-2021

Gary Paulsen will definitely be missed. Yet, we are so thankful for his gifts of literature. As teachers, we love that we can pass on his legacy in our classrooms. If you haven’t yet studied Paulsen or read his novels, take a dive into his works. You won’t just survive through his books; you’ll take great pleasure and thrive in reading and teaching them.

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