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Gary Paulsen: 175 books and still going strong

Gary Paulsen is one of America’s most popular writers for young people. After running away from home at the age of fourteen and traveling with a carnival, Paulsen acquired a taste for adventure. A youthful summer of rigorous chores on a farm; jobs as an engineer, construction worker, ranch hand, truck driver and sailor; and two rounds of the 1,180-mile Alaskan dog sled race, the Iditarod; have provided ample material from which he creates his powerful stories.
After working as a satellite technician and magazine proofreader, he moved to northern Minnesota where he rented a cabin on a lake and completed his first novel.
Paulsen says it is his overwhelming belief in young people that drives him to write. His intense desire to tap deeply into the human spirit and to encourage readers to observe and care about the world around them has brought him both enormous popularity with young people and critical acclaim from the children’s book community. Paulsen is a master storyteller who has written more than 175 books and some 200 articles and short stories for children and adults. He is one of the most important writers of young adult literature today and three of his novels — Hatchet, Dogsong and The Winter Room — were Newbery Honor Books. His books frequently appear on the best books lists of the American Library Association.
Paulsen and his wife, Ruth Wright Paulsen, an artist who has illustrated several of his books, divide their time between a home in New Mexico and a boat in the Pacific.
To see Paulsen on video, click here.

Q: What are your childhood memories concerning your family and reading? It wasn’t encouraged at all?
A: I can’t remember ever seeing my parents or family members pick up a book. I didn’t come from a family of readers. I didn’t become a reader until I was in my early teens and that’s because a librarian gave me a book, and reading turned in to a great escape from my crummy home life.

Q: You’ve said you flunked school classes and were a poor reader. Tell us about how that got turned around, and what reading meant to you when you finally latched onto it.
A: The librarian gave me a book and I really struggled to finish it. Somehow, though, I hung in there long enough to get to the last page. I went back to the library to return the book and she handed me another one. I’d like to say I chose to read, but it was kind of thrust upon me. I kept reading and returning the books and she kept handing me more–I’m not sure I loved it so much as I felt duty-bound to read what she kept choosing for me. Until, finally, inevitably, I guess, knowing what I do know about books and readers, I fell in love with reading. I loved the sense of escape. I hid away from my screaming drinking parents, tucked in a corner of the basement with a book and the words took me far away from my hiding spot behind the furnace. And made me start to hope there was something other than this in the world.

Q: Why do you think kids crave adventure stories, and has that craving changed at all during the course of your career (for instance, a desire for a fantasy/adventure mix, fewer adventure books out there, male versus female interest)?
A: I think readers crave new experiences and a sense of the familiar. From what I’ve seen as a reader and a writer, people seem to read to learn about situations they’ll never face and to find common links with people they don’t know. I’m not sure that the basic desire for good stories has ever changed in readers; I think there are trends and new or blended genres, but I believe, at the end of the day, if you write a good story, it’s just a flat out good story, no matter how you label it and it will find an audience and, I hope stand the test of time.

Q: Why do you think boys read less than girls?
A: I think that’s the conventional wisdom. Certainly, when I started writing for young people, I was told not to write for boys. When I asked why, I was told because boys don’t read. When I asked why they don’t read, I was told, there aren’t any books for them. I don’t think that’s true anymore, even though I’m no reading expert and I haven’t done any research past my own observation and experience.

Q: Is that something that needs to be addressed, and if so, how?
A: I think we need more people reading books, period. I believe that we benefit as a species from more people reading more books.

Q: What’s your best advice to parents of reluctant readers?
A: I’m no expert, but if I were to guess, I’d say having books available—taking your kids to the bookstore and library to pick out books on a regular basis—and being seen reading yourself might be the best things. Oh, and let them find what they want to read. I think it’s important to help develop a love of books in general and then worry about the kind of books later. If your kids reading and enjoying comic books or books below grade level or books you don’t personally enjoy, they’re still reading and that can’t be anything but good.

Q: What are you working on these day?
A: I am just finishing up another Kevin book (after Liar Liar, Flat Broke, Crush, and next summer’s Vote); it’s called Family Ties. And my son Jim and I have a book coming out in January called Road Trip, we’re working on the companion book called Field Trip because we had so much fun working together. I’ve got some other projects in mind, too, more experimental and nontraditional. We’ll see how that goes. I’m having a great time writing, whatever happens to my books later. I’ve been working on a number of projects off and on for years and now I’m not sure what comes next because I’m working on a few things at once, we’ll just have to see which ones get done in which order.

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