Gary Paulsen: An author study and writing workshop mini-lesson

Author Study

Background Information on Gary Paulsen:

Gary Paulsen, award winning children’s author, has held myriad careers. Born to an army officer and his wife in 1939, he was destined to follow in similar footsteps and did achieve the ranking of sergeant within the U.S. army during his journey that led him to achieve the literary masterpieces known to readers today. In this way, he looked up to his father, but this was not always the case. His parents were abusive to him, and this pushed him to run away and live on his own at the age of fourteen. As he grew older and needed to find jobs, he worked as a truck driver, migrant farm worker, and participant of Iditarods throughout the seventies and eighties. Because of these careers, his sense of adventure was born and many of the trials and tribulations that his main characters face are similar to experiences he faced during this time.

Some of the events that happen to the characters in his books seem outlandish and unbelievable, but Paulsen actually survived a moose attack, frostbite, and severe sleep deprivation on his journeys of survival. These ideas of survival obviously play a major role throughout his novels, but the subtler themes pack just as much of a punch to the audience. He touches on topics that are poignant and potentially difficult such as divorce, loss of a loved one, holding in a secret for a family member, and the difficulties associated with coming-of-age. Because of this mix of adventure and emotionally packed content, these books resonate with a young adult audience in a way that most literature fails to do. It is as though the reader can feel the personal connection Paulsen has with his characters and it makes them so appealing to spend time with that readers will go in search of another novel by this author.

After his unpleasant childhood and his travels through his various jobs as an adult, he finally did settle into writing adventure books and claims that he prefers writing for children over adults because they are so much more open to new ideas. He has gone on to win various awards such as the Newbery Honor, and placements for multiple titles on the American Library Association best-books list. Ironically, he claims that he does not enjoy what he has written stating, “When I write a story, the hair goes up on my neck. I taste blood. I put bloody skins on my back and dance around the fire and tell what the hunt was like. But after it’s done, it’s done. You move on” (Paulsen). His most prized advice to young readers is also that they will never learn to write well unless they learn to make reading an occupation; that young writers need to unlock what is going on the brain of Stein, Pound, Hemingway- and then they can start truly writing.

List of Books Read- all by Gary Paulsen:

  1. Hatchet
  2. Brian’s Winter
  3. Canyons
  4. The Island

(And after reading the chapters from Wondrous Words, I am also going to now seek out Dogsong and Woodsong for my teaching of writing shelf!)

Paulsen’s Literary Moves and Strategies:

The first, and most abundant, “writerly” or rhetorical strategy that Paulsen uses is what Ray refers to as “re-say” in conjunction with “artful sentence fragments.” Gary Paulsen does this to emphasize a main idea that has been presented that he wants the reader to pay attention to carefully. Within the novel Hatchet, he does this a multitude of times. When he is explaining to his audience that Brian, the main character in the novel, needs to eat and has found raw turtle eggs in the woods of Canada where he is stranded, he demonstrates this strategy:

He picked one up and tried to break the shell and found it surprisingly tough. Finally, using the hatchet he sharpened a stick and poked a hole in the egg. He widened the hole with his finger and looked inside. Just an egg. It had a dark yellow yolk and not so much white as he thought there would be.

Just an egg.


Just an egg he had to eat.

Raw (Paulsen, 1987).

The idea of starvation and the thought process Brian is going through is overtly clear because of the usage of this type of writing.

Many times, these “re-says” will also align with a second rhetorical strategy of one sentence paragraphs to off-set them for emphasis. At the end of the chapter in which he finds the eggs, and starts to become more comfortable with his role of survivor, Paulsen decides to end the chapter with the one sentence paragraph, “He had to keep hoping” (Paulsen, 1987). This allows the reader to be in the same mind set as Brian moving ahead in the journey while truly emphasizing the idea of hope. If I were to implement the strategies of “re-say,” “artful sentence fragments,” and “one-sentence paragraphs” within my own writing, I would choose to use them when talking about an experience from my childhood in which my mother ended up sobbing while reading my sister and me the portion of Bridge to Terabithia when Leslie dies, while in the car. I would explain the setting first and then emphasize the details of this moment by writing:

She scanned the chapter for the details that were coming and noticed the little girl’s death. She began to get choked up at first and then it turned into full on sobs.


A little girl, dead.

So much sobbing.


By using this technique taken straight from the pages of Paulsen’s writing, I would strengthen the connection to my reader and put emphasis on the death of the character as well as the crying that then ensued as a result. The readers, much like Paulsen’s readers, would get a clearer picture of the moment due to the use of these “writerly” strategies.

The third rhetorical strategy Paulsen employs is the usage of commentary dashes to show the reader the emotionality of the scenes in which he uses them. Within Brian’s Winter, an alternate ending to the novel Hatchet, when Brian senses danger and is incapable of finishing his own thoughts, the writing mimics this:

There was a soft rustle, then a whoofing sound and the whole wall of the shelter peeled away from the rock as if caught in an earthquake, away and down and Brian – still in his bag – was looking up in the dark at the enormous form of a bear leaning over him.

There was no time to react, to move, to do anything.

Meat, Brian had time to think – he’s smelled the venison and come for it. He’s come for the mea-

And it was true. The bear had come for the meat but the problem was that Brian lay between the bear and the meat, and the bear cuffed him to the side. As it was it wasn’t much of a cuff- nowhere near what the bear could have done, which would have broken Brian’s legs- but the bag was zipped- and Brian became tangled in it and couldn’t move fast enough to stay out of the way so the bear hit him again (Paulsen, 1996).

Brian’s calm, that quickly turns to panic as the bear draws nearer, is evident to the reader through the usage of wondrous punctuation. If I were to implement this strategy in my own writing in order to convey to the reader this sense of urgency, I may choose to tell the story of when my husband and I purchased our house and we needed to make the quickest decision of our lives to put in an offer:

Joel stood in the kitchen, poised and confident, and while I stood there too- no one knowing that I was a nervous wreck inside- he said the words that would change our lives, “I think we should do this.” I turned to everyone in the room- our parents, our realtor, with eyes growing ever wider- and said that I agreed. It was Sunday then, we had an answer of yes by Monday afternoon, and I had never been happier.

By implementing this strategy, my audience would be able to feel the nerves and anxiety that making this decision caused for me, and the idea that my husband being so calm kept me calm as well. In much the same way as Brian’s emotions jumped off the page, my recount of agreeing to purchase our house would allow my audience to feel exactly what I felt in that moment.

The fourth rhetorical strategy that is employed is an abundance of detail and powerful imagery. Where another author would only spend a sentence or two, Paulsen devotes pages of his novels to a minor event that turns into a major development for the reader. Within the novel, The Island when Wil is engaged in self-discovery on the island on which he is camping out he finds a set of watercolors. Paulsen spends close to three pages describing in vivid detail, appealing to all five senses through his imagery, Wil’s discovery and his interaction with the painting materials:

At the boat he pulled out his pack and rummaged in it until he found the watercolor set. It had three brushes, three different sizes, and he took them out and studied the metal paint box. On the back, in small print, were some instructions with illustrations, clearly done in Japan, he decided, smiling.

‘It is necessary first to take the color from the paint box’ he read aloud, ‘and deposit color on paper before a painting can be constructed.’

Right, he thought. I agree with that. He read on. “Find some water in small amounts to be used for mixing.’

Wil went down to the lake and put in a little water in the stew can and carried it carefully back to the campsite. ‘All right,’ he said aloud. ‘I’m ready to paint.’

‘In the box,’ he read, ‘are basically twelve colors. Mixing from them it is possible to make all the colors there are. It is necessary to make an experiment with the blending of the colors to find the right shades. Mix the colors in the depressions on the lid.’

There were two drawings showing a hand with a brush taking color from one of the little color pots and mixing it with another color in the dented places in the metal lid. He pulled out a piece of typing paper and, using the notebook as a back, settled in the sand on his haunches. Then he dribbled a bit of water in the blue color pot, rubbed the brush in, and painted a bit of water in the blue color pot, rubbed the brush in, and painted a bit of blue on the paper.

It was pale, too pale to be the sky, far too pale to be the lake. But he could make it darker by repeated applications, and on the fourth layer he had a color not to far from the sky. A gentle blue, an alive blue. Then he added still more blue, and a touch of gray because he thought that might help, and he came up with a slate blue that might be the color of the lake in the wind, when the water took on the slatey color of wave and wind and action.

And then red, yellow, all the colors – a dab here mixed with a dab there, a wipe over another wipe, watching the colors change, grow, become more or become less; sheet after sheet of paper to find the way the colors work with each other to make new colors – and some of the lessons from his art classes in the fifth grade came back, and he covered more paper with the swatches of color, the wipes and spots blending and comping apart until he thought he had a handle on it (Paulsen, 1988).

Paulsen continues to describe the act of the painting and Wil’s interaction with it for another page and a half after this as well. It becomes evident that the act of obtaining the watercolors and painting is more than a surface level activity for Wil, it is bound up with the idea of self-discovery that runs throughout the course of this novel. The act of painting and what he creates is a symbol of Wil’s greater achievement, the discovery and creation of himself, which he so desperately longs for. To mimic Paulsen, I would also employ great detail and imagery by drawing on a personal experience that shaped me into who I am today.  I spent countless hours at Southampton Gymnastics during my formative years; this could easily be explained in a sentence or two, but then my reader would miss out on the fact that:

The night I knew that I wanted to do this for years to come was a cool one in the middle of the summer. I had laid down on the balance beam, waiting for my coach to tell me what flip or trick we were going to work on next, and the song “Quit Playing Games with My Heart” by the Backstreet Boys came blaring over the stereo system. The giant garage door near the uneven parallel bars was wide open, letting in the cool night breeze and if I craned my head just right from the beam, I could see the beautiful sunset. There were girls ranging from ages 5-18 sprinkled throughout the gym, working on various routines. I saw a girl, arms strapped in tightly, working on giants- when one swings fully around the high bar- and thought that someday maybe I could do that too. Eventually, my coach came over and we warmed up the muscles that would be needed to complete the routine on the tiny four-inch piece of wood sitting four feet off the ground.

I would continue this strategy, stretching out the imagery to fill up pages of detail including the smells from the gym, dialogue between my coach and me, the feeling that came from doing the “flips and tricks” mentioned in the piece. By doing this, my reader would feel much the same way Paulsen’s do- that they too have experienced being in the gym on a cool summer night, flipping around the balance beam. When Paulsen employed this strategy, even though I have certainly never been stranded in the woods needing to survive on my own (thank goodness), I felt like I had gone through all the same experiences Brian had due to the level of detail in the writing.

After analyzing Ray’s wondrous techniques within writing and applying them to Paulsen’s craft and experimenting with them on my own, I feel as though I can take much of this information back to my classroom with me. I have a much deeper understanding of reading like a writer, and for this I am appreciative.


Cindrich, S. M. (2004). Gary Paulsen’s love affair with WRITING. Writer (Kalmbach Publishing Co.), 117(6), 22-25.

Gary Paulsen. (2016). In Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale. Retrieved from

Paulsen, G (1996). Brian’s Winter. New York, NY: Bantam Doubleday Dell Books for Young Readers.

Paulsen, G. (1990). Canyons. New York, NY: Bantam Doubleday Dell Books for Young Readers.

Paulsen, G. (1987). Hatchet. New York, NY: Aladdin Paperbacks.

Paulsen, G. (1988). The Island. New York, NY: Bantam Doubleday Dell Books for Young Readers.

Ray, K. W. (1999). Wondrous words: writers and writing in the elementary classroom. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Writing Workshop Mini-Lesson: One Sentence Paragraphs:

Focus Mini-Lesson for 5th Grade Students

[Gary Paulsen]


            Remember that as we move through this unit, we are looking at the writing craft of Gary Paulsen. He has many crafting techniques including the one we examined during our last writing workshop- using dashes in our writing. Paulsen does this to mimic the thoughts and feelings of his characters in the writing itself, just like we have been practicing during our writing of narratives. As we go back and look at your drafts today, we are going to examine another technique Paulsen uses, that sometimes also connects with our characters’ emotions. The technique looks like this when Gary Paulsen uses it:


            Gary Paulsen opens one of his chapters in Hatchet, his most famous novel, by saying “There were these things to do” (Paulsen, 1987) and then he moves on to a new paragraph.

Short Discussion:

What do you notice about what Paulsen has done in the short section I shared with you?

Is there a name we think we should give this writerly (for older students, rhetorical, strategy)? Prompt students to form the term one-sentence-paragraph by asking guiding questions, such as what do we call a section of text that has been indented? And what does this first example do for the reader?

Teaching Point:

Today, we are going to examine his technique of one-sentence paragraphs. There are a few reasons an author may also use one sentence paragraphs:

  • At the beginning of a section of text to “hook” their reader
    • They might do this by making them ask a question, or get them more interested
  • For emphasis
    • Paulsen often comes back to a main idea, in a single sentence, at the end of a paragraph or group of paragraphs. He does this to remind his readers of the most important parts of what he just talked about, or to make them pay even more attention to an emotion that a character has felt during that time.
  • To give the reader comfort by bringing back an idea that is already familiar to him or her


The first text we are going to look at is one where Paulsen uses one sentence paragraphs to show how the main character of Hatchet, Brian, is feeling when he must continue being hopeful that he will be rescued in order to survive in the Canadian wilderness, where he is stranded!


“He had forgotten to think about them [the searchers] and that wasn’t good. He had to keep thinking about them because if he forgot them and did not think of them they might forget about him.

And he had to keep hoping.

He had to keep hoping” (Paulsen, 1987).

Another author that uses one sentence paragraphs for emphasis is Scott O’Dell. One of his most famous books is Island of the Blue Dolphins. An example of him using this writerly strategy of a one sentence paragraph for emphasis looks like this:


“The morning was fresh from the rain. The smell of the tide pools was strong. Sweet odors came from the wild grasses in the ravines and from the sand plants on the dunes. I sang as I went down the trail to the beach and along the beach to the sandspit. I felt that the day was an omen of good fortune.

It was a good day to begin my new home” (O’Dell, 1960).

Guided Practice

            Students are working on drafts of narratives, mimicking much of what they see in Hatchet, with their own topics. In order to guide them in using this strategy I might “write in the air,” as Ray does in her book Wondrous Words. If one of my students was writing a narrative about a character that lives in a haunted house this would look something like: “Johnny, you could use this technique in your writing about Billy living in a haunted house. It might go something like:

The lights continued to flicker and Billy became more frightened. He heard noises and counted the number of times the doors slammed on their own. He knew he had to go downstairs to find out what was going on, but he couldn’t bring himself to do so. He just stood at the top of the landing frozen.

But he knew.

He knew he had to face his fears.”

After this “writing in the air” I would invite students to confer with those around them, at their table groups, where they might revise to put a one sentence paragraph in their narratives.

Guiding question for this discussion:

Does it make more sense for you to put a one sentence paragraph before another paragraph or after a paragraph or group of paragraphs in your narrative?


            When you are writing today, test where it makes the most sense to put a one sentence paragraph in your narrative. Take a paragraph you have already written and see if you can add a one-sentence paragraph before or after it to emphasize how your character is feeling, or reinforce a main idea.



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