The tale of a boy who must survive on his own in the woods until he is at last rescued, Hatchet (published in 1986) is a go-to book for librarians facing the challenge of a reluctant reader, and many kids' favourite book. I read it for the first time when working as a children's librarian, and loved it. I wrote about Hatchet here.*
In 2021, shortly before he died at age 82, Gary Paulsen published Gone to the Woods: Surviving a Lost Childhood, a remarkable autobiography. Gone to the Woods is written as children's nonfiction, but I cannot recommend it strongly enough to readers of all ages.
Gone to the Woods is told in the third person, about a character referred to as "the boy". As a very young child, the boy endures an almost total lack of parenting, then a fairy tale of love and living off the land... then a brutal separation and loss. His young life becomes a series of dislocations and separations -- and total neglect. As a preteen and young teen, the boy lives on his own, surviving by his keen intelligence, self-education, mental strength, and bold courage.
Salvation begins in the form of the library, and a canny, sensitive librarian. She understands what's at stake and does everything exactly right -- gradually, gradually, ever so gradually, making the library the boy's refuge. Eventually, the boy "reads like a wolf eats". (When you get to the part about the library, have a box of tissues handy!)
The book is gripping and suspenseful, a true page-turner. Similar to Hatchet, it's packed with tips and tricks of survival -- survival in the woods, on a farm, and in a harsh, urban landscape.
For young readers, it's exactly the kind of book that can help children in troubled circumstances feel less alone.
For adult readers, it's a view into several hidden, fascinating worlds, heart-wrenching but also uplifting.
For all of us, it's a testment to how the presence of a caring adult can make a profound and lasting difference in a child's life.
After reading Gone to the Woods, I was so sorry that I was unable to tell Paulsen how much I loved the book, and thank him for writing it. Paulsen died in October 2021.
I have purposely not revealed much about the actual plot. I loved the way the story unfolded, taking the reader through the same sudden and harsh transitions that the boy experienced. If you want more plot description, this review in The New York Times will help.
Also: the extreme neglect that the boy endures clearly constitutes abuse, but Paulsen does not describe (or even allude to) being physically or sexually abused. Readers concerned with that have nothing to fear, for themselves or any young readers.
Read this book!
* I notice that post was meant to be part of a series contrasting older children's literature with more contemporary counterparts. Some months later, I finished graduate school and started working full-time... and the series didn't go anywhere.