(The following essay has been excerpted
and updated from Jim Trelease's anthology Read
All About It!, one of the nearly 50 profiles contained there with
each of the collected stories. See INDEX for
a listing of all stories in the anthology.)
by Jim Trelease
award-winning survival stories and he does it as good as
anyone in the business. But the best of his survival tales
is his own, the one you find spread through his books.
All the abandonments, the runaways, the drunks, the bitter
days and nights, the lonely split-lip searchings and gropings,
and, yes, the weary fist-in-the-air gasp of "I made
all Gary Paulsen's story.
Paulsen, you must understand, is not
one of those make-it-up-as-you-go-along kind of writers.
Not that there is anything wrong with that. Lord knows,
the world could do with more Ray Bradburys or J.R.R. Tolkiens.
I am simply declaring there are those who invent it and
those who live it—Paulsen lived it. He never had
was a professional soldier who spent most of World War
II away from home and his mother did likewise working
in a munitions factory. They could also be abusive drunks.
war was over, the family marched from one base to the
next and Paulsen never spent more than five months in
any one school.
"I was an 'Army brat,'" he
recalls, "and it was a miserable life. School was
a nightmare because I was unbelievably shy, and terrible
at sports. I had no friends, and teachers ridiculed me." His
Thief River Falls, Minnesota, high school grades were mostly
C's and D's, and his schoolyard fighting wasn't rated much
There was never enough money for clothes,
so Paulsen began working at an early age—setting
pins in a bowling alley, or selling newspapers in hospitals
and bars. When family life became intolerable (like the
one he describes in The Foxman (Puffin), he either ran
away or was shipped off to live with his grandmother and
aunts, whose warm support were his "safety nets" (as
in The Cookcamp.)
A light in the darkness
then, in the midst of his pain and tumult, he discovered
a beacon in the darkness—the
same one that had rescued writers like Robert W. Service,
Ray Bradbury, and Cynthia Rylant (to name but a few). "One
night, in a small Minnesota town (Thief River Falls) where
I was selling newspapers, as I was walking past the public
library in twenty below temperatures (image right), I
could see the reading room bathed in beautiful golden light.
I went in to get warm and, to my absolute astonishment,
the librarian walked up to me and said, 'Would you like
"I said, 'Sure.' And she said,
'Bring it back when you're done and you can get another
one.' This went on for a long time. The librarian kept
giving me things to take home and read— westerns,
science fiction, and every once in a while a classic. She
didn't care if I wore the right clothes, dated the right
girls; none of those prejudices existed in the library.
When she handed me a library card, she handed me the world.
roared through everything she gave me. It was as though
I had been dying of thirst and the librarian had handed
me a five-gallon bucket of water," Paulsen
recalls today. (See recent excerpt at page
from his parents' arguments, Paulsen would retreat to
their apartment basement, snuggle beside the furnace
with a book, a quart of milk, and some peanut butter
sandwiches, and read into the winter nights.
books gave him an anchor in the storm, the tempest was
a long way from over. He used trap lines to pay his way
through one year of college, then quit to join the Army.
There he worked with missiles, thought his future lay
in electronics, and took enough correspondence courses
to land a job in the aerospace industry when he finished
with the service.
the long hours behind a computer console in a darkened
tracking station in California convinced him there must
be better ways to spend a life. In fact, he thought writing
would be an ideal way to live. So, faking an impressive
resume, he landed an associate editor's job with a men's
magazine. His bosses soon discovered he didn't know much
about writing or editing, but he was certainly a willing
and hungry student. For the next year, every night after
work, he wrote something and brought it to them for criticism
the next morning. After 11 months, he sold his first
A drinking, writing
there he returned to Minnesota to write full time, which left
little money for food and necessities but he struggled through—producing
a handful of articles and two forgettable books. Thinking he
was now an "author," he
moved to an artists' colony in New Mexico to write the
great American novel. What he did instead was to become
an alcoholic. He spent the next six years drinking, fighting,
ruining his marriage, and rusting his talents.
in 1973, he quit drinking, came back to earth and Minnesota
with a new wife, and began writing again, this time not
looking for greatness as much as money for food and clothing.
When his readers meet characters who live off the land,
they should know Paulsen has been there. Living in a
converted chicken coop with makeshift electricity and
no indoor plumbing, surrounded by chickens and goats,
he and his family planted three gardens and lived off them—making
their own ketchup, butter, and cheese.
so far into the woods, his son spent nearly five hours
a day on a bus going back and forth to school. Paulsen
averaged $3,000 a year writing books whose titles would
make impossible author-trivia questions: Dribbling,
Shooting, and Scoring Sometimes; The Building a New,
Buying an Old, Remodeling a Used Comprehensive Home and
Shelter Book; and Careers
in an Airport.
he turned to fiction, however, he opened not only a vein
to his heart and ultimately success, he also opened a
Pandora's box. In 1977 he published what is still one
of his most important and powerful books, an antiwar
novel called The Foxman (Puffin paperback, above
right). That year he also published Winterkill,
about an alcoholic family. Unfortunately, some people
back in Thief River Falls, Minnesota, thought they recognized
themselves in the book and sued him for libel.
on the edge of poverty, he looked up and saw a team of
high-powered lawyers bearing down on him from one direction,
and, in the other direction, he saw the retreating back
of his publisher (Thomas Nelson Publishers) who wanted
no part of a problem. Taking the case to the state supreme
court, Paulsen eventually won but it left him nearly
bankrupt and bitter beyond reason. If this is what writing
did to people, he wanted out, and quit.
To support his family, be ran a beaver
trapline. He worked a 20-mile line on skis until someone
gave him some dogs and a sled, allowing him to expand the
line to 60 miles. His book Woodsong, excerpted in Read
All About It!, is based upon those days and nights running
his dogs—first for trapping and then, when he quit
hunting for good, running the most grueling race in the
world—the Iditarod, a 1,200-mile sled dog race into
the Arctic Circle.
Iditarod is both intensive and expensive with
an entry fee and expenses running into thousands of dollars.
Paulsen didn't know how he was going to afford it
until he received a phone call one day from Richard Jackson,
then editor in chief at Bradbury Press. Jackson, who had
read Paulsen but never met him, wanted to know what he
was writing. Paulsen told him, "I'm
not writing anything. I'm running dogs and I don't have
the money for the Iditarod!" Jackson saw an opportunity
and promised to send him the money if he could get first
shot at the next thing he wrote. It was a deal.
Eventually, age and the 18-hour days
of running dogs would catch up with Paulsen. But by then
he had resumed writing and, under Jackson's guidance, was
writing from the heart and years of experience. He wrote
three young adult novels before the Zen-like Dogsong (Bradbury/Puffin)
won a 1986 Newbery Honor Medal. All of a sudden, librarians
and teachers were "discovering" a guy who had
already published 50 books.
the heels of this, came his most popular book to date, Hatchet (Bradbury/
Puffin), winning another Newbery Honor Medal. This story
of a 14-year-old from a broken home surviving 54 days in
the northern wilderness was so believable that National
Geographic called Paulsen looking for the
boy's name and address for a feature. It's just a story,
Paulsen explained. Except for the lonely heartache and
pain, that is. (As Paulsen later told Book
Links in 2003,
it was turned down by three publishers.)
Want to share this
whole page with a friend?
2003, Paulsen edited a collection of short stories
by authors for young adults, each story dealing with
the power of books. His Introduction to the volume
gives us one of the most intimate glimpses of the
young Paulsen. Here is a small piece of those pages.
Excerpt from SHELF
LIFE: Stories by the Book, edited
by Gary Paulsen
(Simon & Schuster, 2003)
. . . A few years later, when I
was thirteen, another woman, a librarian, gave me
another book and I consider every good thing that
has ever happened to me since then a result of that
woman handing me that book.
I’d been wandering
the streets of the small Minnesota town we lived
in one bitter winter evening, waiting for the drunks
in the bars to get juiced. I sold newspapers, trying
to scrape together a little money so that I could
buy better clothes, believing, as kids do, that
the right clothes might somehow lift me from my
wretchedly unpopular social life. And if I waited
for the men who hung around in the bars to get
a few drinks in them, I could hustle them for extra
I stopped in the library to warm up. The librarian
noticed me, called me over, and asked if I wanted
a library card. Then she handed me a card with my
name on it and gave me a book.
Later that night back at
home, or what passed for home—a crummy apartment in the bad part of
town—I took the book, a box of crackers, and
a jar of grape jelly down to the basement, to a hideaway
I’d created behind the furnace where someone
had abandoned a creaky old armchair under a bare
I sat in the corner, eating
jelly-smeared crackers, plodding through the book.
It took me forever to read. I was such a poor reader
that, by the time I’d finished a page, I’d have forgotten
what I’d read on the page before and I’d
have to go
back. That first book must have taken me over a month
to finish, hunched over the pages late at night.
I wish I could remember the
name of that first book—I
can’t even remember what it was about. What
I do remember about that evening at the library was
that it marked the first of many nights the librarian
would give me a book. “Here,” she’d
say, handing me a few battered volumes. “I
think you’ll like these.” She would hand
select books that she thought would interest me—Westerns,
mysteries, survival tales, science fiction, Edgar
Rice Burroughs. I would take them home to hide in
the basement and read; I’d bring them back
and we’d talk about them, and she’d give
me more books.
But she wasn’t just giving
me books, she was giving me ... everything. She gave
me the first hint I’d ever had in my entire
life that there was something other than my drunken
parents screaming at each other in the kitchen. She
handed me a world where I wasn’t going to get
beaten up by the school bullies. She showed me places
where it didn’t
hurt all the time.
I read terribly at first but as I did more of it,
the books became more a part of me and within a short
time they gave me a life, a look at life outside
myself that made me look forward instead of backward.
Years later, after I’d
graduated from high school, joined the army, gotten
married, had children, and made a career as an
electronics engineer working in satellite tracking,
books once again changed the course of my life.
This time, though, I wrote them.
I was sitting in a satellite
tracking station at about nine o’clock at
night when suddenly I knew that I had to be a writer
. . .
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