Gary Paulsen, acclaimed author and Scout favorite, dies at 82

Gary Paulsen, author of popular wilderness adventure novels such as Hatchet, The River and Brian’s Winter, and a longtime contributor to Boys’ Life (now Scout Life) magazine, has died. He was 82.

Paulsen was a three-time winner of Newbery Honors, presented to the best books of the year as determined by the Association for Library Service to Children. Dogsong (1986), Hatchet (1988) and The Winter Room (1990) all earned the recognition.

Hatchet was also named to Scout Life magazine’s list of 100 Books That Every Kid Should Read.

“The world is far smaller with Gary Paulsen’s passing,” says William E. Butterworth IV, former editor of Boys’ Life who worked with Paulsen many times over the years. “Beyond being the consummate storyteller, he was larger than life. It was a thrill to hear his weathered voice over the telephone and know that the conversation would produce yet another terrific short story adventure for Scouts of all ages.”

It wasn’t a coincidence that so many of Paulsen’s stories dealt with young men battling the scarier aspects of the wild. Paulsen himself ran away from home at the age of 14. He traveled with a carnival for a while, and later took jobs as an engineer, construction worker, ranch hand, truck driver and sailor.

He even participated in two rounds of the Iditarod, the roughly 1,000-mile dogsled race through the wilds of Alaska known for its long, brutal hours of tough work.

Illustration by Rob Rey, from “Wolfdreams,” Paulsen’s final contribution to Boys’ Life.

A love of reading

The place where he found the most peace as a child, however, was his local library. When a good-hearted librarian gave him a library card with his name on it, he immediately became an avid reader.

“The most important thing is to read,” Paulsen said, according to a release from Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group. “Read all the time; read when they tell you not to read, what they tell you not to read, read with a flashlight under the covers, read on the bus, standing on a corner, waiting for a friend, in the dentist’s waiting room. Read every minute you can. Read like a wolf eats. Read.”

In a profile in the December 1995 issue of Boys’ Life, Paulsen said much of what happens in his stories has happened to him in real life.

The time he spent alone in the wilderness inspired him to write Hatchet, the story of a 13-year-old boy forced to survive on his own after a plane crash with only his hatchet to rely on. The main character, Brian Robeson, would return in The River, Brian’s Winter, Brian’s Return and Brian’s Hunt.

The Voyage of the Frog is the story of a 14-year-old boy risking his life to sail by himself across the sea. It was inspired by Paulsen’s own sailing trip to Hawaii.

Dogsong is about a boy who goes on a solo dogsledding adventure, based on Paulsen’s experiences in the Iditarod.

Paulsen, as featured in the December 1995 issue of Boys’ Life. Photograph by Todd Bigelow.

Writing for Boys’ Life

In addition to being featured in the magazine, Paulsen contributed several fantastic stories to Boys’ Life over the years. Some of them were excerpts from his novels; others were original fiction written specifically for the magazine.

Ironically, his first contribution was not fiction, but instead an article about an activity known as “skate-chuting.”

“Take a handy, frozen lake or pond, throw in a pair of ice skates and an old sheet, add a few bits of rope, a short stick and wind — the more the better — and you have the needed ingredients for the newest, sheer-joy sport to hit the ice,” Paulsen wrote in a December 1969 article.

In the January 1986 issue, Paulsen contributed the short story “Stop the Sun,” about a boy helping his father deal with trauma suffered from fighting in the Vietnam War. November 1988 saw the publication of “Lost at Sea,” part one of a two-parter that would conclude the next month about a young man adrift on a sailboat.

Paulsen’s final contribution to BL was “Wolfdreams,” a brilliant short story about a boy’s encounter with wolves during a cold Minnesota winter.

In all, Paulsen wrote more than 200 books and another 200 articles for children and adults.

“I started to focus on writing with the same energies and efforts that I was using with dogs,” Paulsen said in the Macmillan release. “So, we’re talking 18-, 19-, 20-hour days completely committed to work. Totally, viciously, obsessively committed to work, the way I’d run dogs. … The end result is there are a lot of books out there.”

Paulsen’s final novel, Northwind, will be published in January 2022.

Image courtesy of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group
About Aaron Derr 48 Articles
Aaron Derr is the senior editor of Boys' Life and Scouting magazines, a former Cubmaster and current Scouts BSA volunteer.