If you were to ask many people who the best Young Adult (YA) novelists of the late 20th and 21st century were, many people would probably point you to the big names of the genre.
Rick Riordan, John Green, Ursula K. Le Guin, Marjane Satrapi, and many others out there.
And while obviously, all these writers deserve all the credit that they have, I often feel like lists of people’s favorite YA authors leave out one of the best and most prolific ones.
Gary Paulsen isn’t just a titan of the YA genre. You could argue that, with how prolific and early some of his work is, he is one of the first titans of it!
With a career that spans over 50 years and countless novels and other works, Gary Paulsen was writing coming-of-age stories at a time when the YA literary genre was just finding its feet.
And really, is it that much of a surprise that an author whose body of work covered many stories of a boy growing into young manhood and adults would become a cornerstone of the medium?
With an insane number of books to his name, finding just a few to start with can be a real hassle.
However, I’ve helped make this a little easier, by picking out the 12 best books to get started with when reading this amazing author.
Hatchet (Brian Saga)
Is it a little predictable to start a list of Gary Paulsen’s books with arguably his best-known work? Oh, most definitely.
Is it also a book that has earned its spot at the top of this massive body of works? That’s also a big yes!
If you have heard of no other book by this legendary author (firstly, ouch), then you will have heard of Hatchet if nothing else.
And that’s for a good reason. Written and published during the mid-80s, coming up to the halfway point of Paulsen’s writing career, it’s here that we start to see him come into his own with his writing style and themes.
Our hero of the story, Brian Robeson (commit that name to memory. He’s got a whole series named after him!) is musing on the reputation of his mother’s infidelity as he is on a single-engine plane to meet his father over the border in snowy Canada.
Unfortunately, the pilot of the plane suffers a heart attack mid-flight. And suddenly, Brian’s anxieties about his family’s reputation are the last thing on his mind!
Thanks to Brian’s quick thinking, he’s able to crash-land the plane and survive the worst of it. The bad news?
He’s now stuck in snowy Canadian wilderness alone, and with next to no way to get home.
All he has are the tattered clothes he is wearing, a nearly completely torn-up windbreaker, and the hatchet his mother gave him as a present.
Obviously, this isn’t to throw Paulsen’s older works under the bus. They are still great reads in their own right (especially the Francis Tucket series).
But if you’re looking for the moment that the Gary Paulsen that we, the audience, come into the spotlight, you can’t go wrong with Hatchet!
- A poignant tale of a young boy finding independence and maturity in the most difficult challenge imaginable.
- A seminal work from a seminal author.
- Paulsen’s love and respect for the wilderness are on full display in this book.
- The ‘incident’ as Brian keeps describing feels a little detached from the main hook of the book, as well as coming into the plot in weird and random ways.
The Voyage Of The Frog
You’ve seen what happens when Gary Paulsen puts a boy in the frozen wilds of Canada. The result is a child pushed beyond what he thought were his limits and becoming a young man out of it.
Now, what happens when Paulsen puts another young boy out on the open ocean and has to use his wits to survive against storms and the worst that the watery depths can throw at him?
Well, wet would be the obvious answer. But the second would be another rip-roaring adventure from the wilderness lover’s mind!
Young 14-year-old David has inherited his uncle Owen’s fiberglass boat, the Frog, with his uncle’s last request benign that David sails out past the horizon and scatter his ashes across the water that he once loved.
However, David didn’t calculate for the storm that was approaching past the shoreline and found himself dragged out into the Pacific Ocean, all by himself, and with next to no food or rations.
However, with his uncle’s old guidance and ship to help him through this near-impossible voyage, David will find that he has more sailing skill and independence than he could ever have realized.
It’s not quite a swashbuckling globe-trotting adventure here, as much as it is a young boy facing his insecurities and demons, and finding the strength to survive and persevere, against even impossible odds.
And that’s a gripping coming-of-age story if ever I’ve heard one!
- The struggles that David faces are great and cathartic to watch unfold. Whether it’s against the ocean, the ship, or even himself!
- Like with mainland wilderness survival, Paulsen’s respect for the open ocean is clear to see in this YA survival story.
- It’s a book that shows the terrifying side of nature. Not in a monster-of-the-week way, but in a ‘nature is tough, and you’re lucky to be alive’, kind of way.
- A very quick read.
- That hard, gritty survival tone does sometimes take some leaps of logic at one or two points in the story.
Winterdance: The Fine Madness Of Running The Iditarod
Time for a little shakeup in this list’s formula.
Gary Paulsen’s life was so full of trials, obstacles, and adventure, that any one section of it could easily make its own story.
So, Paulsen, the keen-eyed writer that he was, did exactly that! Quite a few of his best works are autobiographical, and Winterdance: The Fine Madness covers one of the most exciting, and toughest, moments in his long and storied life.
As the books that we’ve covered have hopefully shown so far, Paulsen has a great love and respect for nature.
He, at various points in his life, also bred and trained running dogs. His love for this passion was so great, that he entered the Iditarod, one of the most dangerous sled races in Alaska. A 930-mile stretch of frozen wilderness to be trekked through.
Was it out of ignorance of the sheer difficulty that the sled race would put him through? Was it the drive to prove himself and his team against the harsh, cold battleground he was up against?
The answer, Paulsen shows us, is a resounding yes to both.
The book details the seventeen-day trek that the sled race took to complete, and the many perils that Paulsen had to fight and humble himself against.
From dogfights to cold-induced hallucinations, to just straight-up moose attacks (it is a lot scarier than it sounds, trust me), the things that Paulsen details in this book are both awe-inspiring and terrifying.
If this book doesn’t give you a better appreciation for what arctic sledders have to put up with for their day job, I don’t know what will!
- A great autobiographical piece on one of this author’s toughest challenges.
- Like with Paulsen’s other works, there is a deep respect for the wilderness here. Even when it is trying to get him killed!
- Presents a visceral example of the trials and tribulations that dog sledders need to contend with in the frozen north, even for just a race.
- Some of the details are pretty harrowing to read through. Not for the faint of heart.
The Transall Saga
Gary Paulsen is probably best known for a few book series. The first, as we outlined at the beginning, is probably the Brian Saga.
The second is this next book, The Transall Saga, which is probably the next best-known and also regarded as one of his best.
Our protagonist this time is Mark, a (say it with me now) young adolescent boy who has to survive out in the desert all on his own.
In this case, however, it is almost entirely of his own volition, as young Mark hopes to prove himself by surviving out in the Midwest desert all on his own.
However, he gets more than he bargained for, as a light from up above picks him up from his camping spot a strange white light, and sends him to a completely different time and planet, it seems.
Mark wants nothing more than to return to his own time and place, especially with the dangerous wilderness and animals that he has to contend with.
However, as he adapts to this new landscape over the years, and eventually finds the native peoples and tribes of this world, Mark finds more than just the greatest challenge of his life.
He also finds arguably the most important thing along the way. He finds himself.
In case it hasn’t already become clear at this point, Gary Paulsen has a love for putting his younger, adolescent main characters through the worst that mother nature has to offer, as well as learning from those encounters, and finding a sense of independence and self-reliance through the ordeal.
It’s arguably his MO, in my opinion!
However, the other elements of this book, like the science fiction, and far-flung setting, help add an element of freshness to this work and help it stand apart from other boy-vs-nature stories.
Gary Paulsen doesn’t dabble in magic or science fiction often, but when he does, there’s a refreshing realness to it, weirdly enough.
Plus, the themes of finding community and comradery in others add another dimension to Mark’s character, especially from where he starts.
Overall, once you’ve finished Hatchet, this is the book that you should probably hop over too!
- A young teenage boy stranded on an alien planet. What could go wrong?
- The science fiction elements help keep this tried-and-tested formula for Paulsen fresh.
- The interaction with a wider cast later in the story also helps this book stand out from Paulsen’s bibliography.
- Mark is a relatively simple protagonist, which might bore some readers.
Brian’s Winter (Brian Saga)
On the subject of Hatchet and the Brian Saga, we take another hop over to this series of novels for this third book in the set.
Although, calling this book a sequel might be a little misleading, given that it doesn’t take place after the first or second book.
See, in the first book, Brian Robeson, our main character for this series, had to contend with surviving out in the wilds of Canada on his own for 45 days, just at the end of summer.
A tough ordeal for full-grown and prepared adults, much less a 13-year-old with next-to-no equipment.
This book ponders the pretty harrowing question: What if Brian Robeson had to survive not just the Canadian wilderness, but also a full-blown Canadian winter too?
The answer is: Not well.
This book takes the original premise of the first book and dials the danger factor for Brian up to 11.
Here, his biggest problem isn’t just finding food, or avoiding being eaten by bears or wolves, but the simple biting cold of winter.
Which, if you’ve spent any time up there in Canada during December, is not just difficult. It’s a death sentence.
(Also hello to any Canadian readers out there. You have my everlasting respect for this and this alone!)
If you’re a fan of authors revisiting older ideas with a fresh pair of eyes, this is the perfect book for you!
- An imaginative retelling and what-if scenario that expands on ideas from the first book.
- Paulsen takes plenty of time to show us just how terrifying the cold is, with excruciating detail. You can tell that he wrote this after he ran the Iditarod!
- Plenty of details about winter survival in this novel too!
- The ending does feel a little abrupt. The reader might be a little confused and assume that something is missing.
The Legend Of Bass Reeves
Pretty much every book I’ve shown demonstrates Gary Paulsen’s love (and maybe a little fear) of the wilderness, with maybe a touch of science fiction.
However, Gary Paulsen has also demonstrated a great love for American historical periods. And perhaps no period gets his love (and scrutiny) like the American Wild West, that time of lawless gangs and heroic marshals and sheriffs.
Except, as Paulsen shows us, that wasn’t always the case. Not for the bandits and criminals, of course. There were plenty of them. But it was the lawmen and heroes of the west that were perhaps not all they were cracked up to be.
Let’s not beat around the bush: The Wild West as we know it today didn’t exist. At least, not in the way that the big screen and our imaginations are.
Many of the classic ‘heroes’ that we have idolized from the period were often monstrous, cruel, and lawless themselves.
Well, maybe not all of them. Paulsen shows us that there was at least one honest lawman that tried to uphold it: Bass Reeves.
Born into slavery, Bass Reeves would become a true legend of the west, becoming one of, if not the most successful Marshall of the old west. And Gary Paulsen is here to show us that tale in plenty of detail
Reading through some of Reeves’ exploits and stories feels almost larger than life at some points. And that’s not unintentional: Paulsen is using the history of this man to help tell a great story.
However, Paulsen never tries to mislead you while reading this one, and also uses it to teach us crucial snack-sized information about the old west that you or I might otherwise not know, or have even learned were wrong!
- A great examination and story about one of the greatest marshals of the 19th century.
- The author also teaches the reader tons about other characters from the old west, and what they may have been like.
- How much you like your real-life historical figures embellished will vary from reader to reader.
- Paulsen’s attempt at 19th-century African-American slang is… a choice that was certainly made.
Staying in the past for a little while longer, we go even further back in American history, right to one of the most iconic moments of its founding.
And, in true Gary-Paulsen fashion, we see it through the eyes of a young 13-year-old boy in a classic coming-of-age story!
Young Samuel lives out on the frontier of this new English colony.
But as he hears rumblings of rebellion and war breaking out in Boston, he finds his parents have been taken hostage by the British forces, he will have to come to terms with the horrors and tragedy of war, as he sneaks into the heart of the enemy territory: New York City.
The historical setting adds more than enough to make this take on Paulsen’s classic formula feel fresh, as well as the musings on the high cost of war.
Easily a standout if you’re looking for something different from this classic author.
- Paulsen’s classic survival narrative, with a historical twist.
- Both loves of nature and meditations of conflict and youth are seen throughout this book.
- Some sections might feel overly long.
Harris & Me
Finally, we have a relatively lighthearted story about a young boy who spends his 10th birthday and summer on his aunt and uncle’s farm, and the crazy adventures he gets up to with his cousin, the titular Harris.
Honestly, that synopsis speaks for itself. With less of the ride-or-die survival elements of his other notable books, Paulsen is allowed to just write about the interactions between a boy and his extended family, and it is a very heartwarming tale.
It feels like a classic summer from years gone by, and easy for anyone to feel nostalgic about!
- A fun cast of characters that have some great interactions and chemistry.
- Feels like a slice of a simpler life, a lifetime ago.
- Fans may be split on this departure from Paulsen’s classic plots and stories
So, there you have it!
Gary Paulsen’s YA body of fiction might not have the same amount of high fantasy or magic to it as some of the other YA novelists that you may have heard of.
But his style of writing, and the matter-of-factness that he approaches his character’s struggles with, make him a standout in the genre.
Frequently Asked Questions
How Many Books Has Gary Paulsen Written?
Gary Paulsen wrote over 200 books for both children and adult audiences.
Did Gary Paulsen Write Any Adult Fiction?
Despite many of the books we listed is for kids, the adult Murphy series is one of Paulsen’s best series.
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