During my first year of teaching in the US, back in 1998, I heard about this book called Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen. "Paulson is Hemingway for middle schoolers," my mentor teacher told me. While I was only mildly charmed by the famous adventure tale, I quickly fell for Nightjohn, then in quick succession, Soldier's Heart, The Rifle, Sisters/Hermanas, Harris and Me, and Dogsong. The last one made me realize that a memoir my father had shared with me, one I resisted reading for quite awhile and then absolutely loved, was also by Paulsen (Winterdance: The Fine Art of Running the Iditerod).
Gary Paulsen can do Hemingway-esque tales of brutal adventure, the stoic masculine figure against the elements. Hatchet and its many sequels and reimaginings are just the tip of the iceberg. Soldier's Heart tells of a young boy's journey from enthusiastic patriotism, through the horror and boredom of war, and out the other side with lifelong PTSD.
Guts is another memoir, this one aimed at his teenaged audience, in which he shares the real life experiences that inform his adventure writing, from working as a paramedic to seeing a small child killed by a mule deer. It's not just his topics that reminded my colleague of Papa; Paulsen also writes in deceptively straightforward, factual way that manages to convey great emotional impact.
He can also do humor (Harris and his cousin tackling a brood sow because she represents the enemy in their war game), and he is far less sexist that his predecessor. Nightjohn and Sisters/Hermanas are both told from the point of view of a pre-teen girl, and whether he's giving voice to a slave or a beauty queen, he represents her voice with respect and clarity.
Not long after discovering Paulsen, I was introduced to another Gary. Gary Soto's mid-90s short story collections, Baseball in April, Petty Crimes, and Local News were among the only books I could find for my ESL students written by someone from a background they could relate to. House on Mango Street was too arty, and The Circuit only consisted of the one volume back then, but Soto was prolific and relatable.
When Neighborhood Odes came out, we wrote our own odes and experimented with cut-paper illustrations. The Afterlife and Buried Onions showed us he was equally at home with novels. Facts of Life, the latest Soto collection I've introduced to my classroom library, is as full as ever of slice-of-life vignettes that show early teens finding their place and developing a sense of self, with mixed success.
For years, I spoke of The Two Garys with reverence, and sought their work for my classrooms. The third Gary, Gary Schmidt, snuck up on me more recently. The Wednesday Wars was the first book of his that came to my attention. It combined three story elements I particularly enjoy: historical fiction, family drama, and wry humor. I started looking for other books by him. They were out there, but always checked out at the local library, which is definitely a good sign. Okay For Now re-immersed me in the qualities I'd so enjoyed in the first book I'd read, then What Came From the Stars startled me by going in an entirely different direction. Orbiting Jupiter, his latest, totally made me sob, and somehow that was enough of a recommendation to get a boy in my reading lab to pick it up. It was the first book that he finished, and he plowed through it in a few days, reading every chance he got.
All three Garys write YA work that is accessible, but not dumbed down; emotional, but not cheesy; thematically mature enough to appeal to middle schoolers without being racy enough to raise parents' eyebrows. They all deserve a place of honor in any middle school library.