Cindy: In 1984 I graduated with my MLS and Gary Paulsen published Tracker, a story about a boy deer hunting with his grandfather. Two years later, he added Hatchet to his growing list and picked up the first of his Newbery Honor Awards. For nearly four decades I watched my middle school students forage the shelves for his stories, eager for his descriptions of survival in the wild, life on the farm, or dalliances with an even wilder side of life. Most of those stories contained elements of truth, bits of Paulsen’s life, woven into fiction or told as memoir. His latest book, Gone to the Woods: Surviving a Lost Childhood (Farrar, 2021) provides an even more intimate look into his early years.
Told in third person, describing himself as “the boy,” Pauslen tells his story in five parts: The Farm, The River, The Ship, Thirteen, and, The Soldier. Here we see and feel the neglect and abuse from his parents, the love and lessons from his grandparents, and his eye-opening experiences in the Philippines that informed his time later as as soldier. In “Thirteen” he shares the story of the librarian who saved him. I’d heard it told at some of his speaking engagements, but the fuller version here can’t help but make you tear up a little, especially if you are a librarian. That she not only gave him books, and a warm place to hang out, and acceptance, but a notebook and pencil with encouragement to write his own stories…I wish every kid had such support. For the kid reading this, who may not have the support they need, the book should provide some hope, and an example that hard, lost childhoods can be survived, if not as easily as a thick swarm of mosquitos on a hot summer night. We all mourned in October when we heard the news of Gary Paulsen’s death, but his stories will always be with us. And, there’s one more on the way, Northwind (Farrar, Jan. 11, 2022), an ocean adventure with “hints of Nordic mythology.” Thank you, Mr. Paulsen, for all you shared with us.