Jul 10, 2009

Tightening my Strokes

by Sarah Albrecht

This summer my five-year-old daughter is in a swim class with two older kids. They can apply what the teacher tells them more quickly than she can, but they are still working on tightening their strokes. The older boy, for example, swims freestyle with considerable flopping and splashing, but he can certainly swim across the pool. As the class session has progressed, so has he: his kicks are a bit smaller, his arms enter the water more cleanly, and he can swim across the pool more quickly.

I’ve been trying to tighten my writing strokes. One thing I’ve focused on is learning from published writers in my genre (middle grade fiction) because I can squeeze reading in at odd moments and because, hey, I get to read and call it writing!

Here are a few books I’ve learned from (and also thoroughly enjoyed):

Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson: A character can recognize his/her primary motivation (be the fastest runner) without recognizing a deeper motivation the primary one represents (belonging).

Half Moon Enterprises, by Eoin Colfer: A strong lead character can make you have no choice but to keep reading.

Shakespeare’s Spy, by Gary Blackwood: Hooks at the end of chapters keep you turning pages. Blackwood has great chapter-ending “hooks.”

Gideon the Cutpurse, by Linda Buckley-Archer: Background story dispersed through the main story adds tension and interest.

My Brother Sam is Dead, by Christopher Collier and James Lincoln Collier: I needed a good example of a character torn between two sides of an issue (here, the Revolutionary War), and this was it.

I’ve also learned more about “what’s out there”; what themes recur in book after book (lots of orphans needing to belong!); and that many of my ideas that I thought were so original, like a lead character having issues with his name, are not original in the tiniest bit.

Funny how I could read for so many years and never see these things because I wasn’t looking. Now I can use the books as teachers and tighten my floppy strokes.


  1. I can't think of a better way to tighten your strokes than by reading what's popular and what's not in your chosen genre. Good reminder, Sarah.

  2. Loved this blog. I once devoured children's lit, kept up with all the Newbery awards, and encouraged my students to do likewise. Just the other day I checked out "Carry on Mr. Bowditch" by Jean Latham from the library to re-read. It's great motivation for overcoming obstacles by self-teaching and diligence. This time I'll be noticing form and technique. Thanks.

  3. Great insights. I LOVE young adult novels because they are usually quite good and they are quick reads. A couple of my all-time favorites are "Number the Stars" by Lois Lowry, "Sign of the Beaver" by Elizabeth Speare (and "Witch of Blackbird Pond"), and almost anything by Gary Paulson. There are others too. But it's true you can learn a lot by those who have gone before. Take care. :)

  4. thanks for the reading list! There are a couple of books there I haven't read and I enjoy these middle grade books, too. Love the analogy and insight!

  5. The oldest story told in a new way can be the best story of all. I do have to say that the reason there are so many orphans is because for a kid to have an adventure, you have to get rid of his parents. That's the easiest way to do it.

  6. So happy to see My Brother Sam is Dead on your list! I re-read this book about 4 years ago and was blown away by all I had missed reading it back in 6th grade...even worse was the fact that I grew up in Redding. I've been promoting it ever since. It covers many important topics and deserves a place in the classroom. This my online resource: http://mybrothersamisdead.historyofredding.com
    Feel free to email about the book too. Thank you, Brent Colley


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