Today, I grieve the incredible loss of an author who was one of my literary heroes. Gary Paulsen was the author of over 200 books all of which explored adventure, wilderness, and survival.

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Paulsen, a three-time Newbery Award-winner died on Wednesday, October 13, 2021, at the age of 82-years old and it is profoundly difficult for me to come to terms with the fact that the person who wrote the books that I read until they were dog eared is no longer in this world. Poof, no more. Gone and just like that.

Paulsen was the mastermind author of the books Nightjohn, Hatchet, Dogsong, The Winter Room, and so many more. I have cried my share of tears over the deaths of authors I've loved throughout my life but the passing of Paulsen has hit me in a different way. In a deeper way.

I've loved to read since my brain was able to form words out of letters on paper and growing up, my family joked that I had such an insatiable thirst to read that I would read the Yellow Pages if there was nothing else within reach.

However, by the time I reached middle school, I'd read every book I could get my hands on that was geared toward readers my age but I was bored. I wanted a deeper reading experience, I wanted to read books of substance, books that would make me think and feel. Books that would linger with me long after I'd read the last word.

One of my teachers recognized that I needed more and handed me a brand new copy of the book Nightjohn by Gary Paulsen. Nightjohn, based on a true story, was the book that changed the way that I saw the world.

I cried when Sarny laid eyes on Nightjohn after he was brought to the plantation with a rope around his neck. I bit my nails when I read that although Nighjohn knew that reading was punishable by dismemberment he still made it his mission to teach other slaves to read. I wept when Nightjohn was caught and the toes were cut off his feet.

Nighjohn stirred so many feelings deep inside of me. Set in the American South shortly before the time of the American Civil War, Nightjohn was the book that opened my eyes to the cruelty of the world. It was the first time in my life that I had a clear picture of what slavery must have really been like. Life was no longer sugarcoated. Paulsen was able to weave his words in a way that lit a fire inside me, a young white girl who lived in suburbia, and that fire told me that I should never take anything at face value, that I should dig deeper for the truth. Always.

Although I never met him, Paulsen was a kindred spirit, one I felt a closeness to especially after he said this, “I read like a wolf eats. I read myself to sleep every night.”

Thank you, Gary, for showing us all the power of books.

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