Read More, Write Better

Stack of books and plant

As a writing coach at Options for many years, I routinely hear parents complaining (lovingly, of course) about their children’s ability to write. They might comment on the writing’s lack of flow or pick at some glaring spelling mistakes. They might be pleasantly surprised by a bold, declarative sentence only to look in vain for any subsequent explanation or analysis. They might trip over quotations that appear out of nowhere, jarringly appearing between two sentences with no introduction or warning. They might lament their child’s digressive tendencies, watching with a growing sense of unease as their child’s essay, initially so focused, leaves its tracks (so to speak) and careens through a grassy meadow, destined for a lake.

To these parents, I have a whole lot of suggestions about how to improve their writing, most of which are specific to their child’s strengths and weaknesses. I always ask one thing, though, no matter the student:

“Do you read? For pleasure?”

Reading teaches vocabulary, syntax, and rhythm; it sharpens critical thinking skills; it serves as a window into other places, times, and lives. The pleasure part won’t come immediately for all students, but it can be gradually arrived at. I have some theories about how to encourage reading (scheduled reading sessions, comfortable chairs, bribes, gentle cajoling, desperate pleading, hypnosis?), but it makes sense to begin with good material. To help, I asked my Options colleagues to tell me what they’re currently reading for pleasure and to pass the time during social distancing. You might also get inspiration from the Vancouver Public Library’s many lists of recommendations for teens, Goodreads’ list of the top 100 Young Adult books, and the Guardian’s list of the 21st century’s best books.

What we’re reading right now

Marisa, Writing Coach: “Team, what’s on your reading list? What’s getting you through these days, bringing you comfort or stimulation or delight? I’ll go first: after being inspired by Megan’s recommendation in our spring break books post, I’ve been slowly, slowly working my way through Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I’m also dipping in and out of Lydia Davis’ Essays, where she reflects on literature and art and her own writing practice. I’m a big fan of her short stories, which are often as short as a paragraph or a few sentences. For those getting back into reading, I’d recommend her collection Can’t and Won’t, which is full of delightfully enigmatic, humorous, and smart pieces.”

Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto

Melodie, Surrey Office Manager: “I just finished Forgiveness:  A Gift from My Grandparents by Mark Sakamoto, a real biographical gem. Sakamoto tells the story of his grandfather, Ralph MacLean (a Canadian prisoner of war captured by the Japanese army in Hong Kong), and his grandmother, Mitsue Sakamoto, a Vancouverite who was expelled from the West Coast to rural Alberta after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The account was captivating and moving, perhaps striking a chord with me because my four grandparents and parents were also victims of the 1942 Japanese Canadian evacuation. I’m shipping a copy of Forgiveness to my Calgarian parents, so they can read about how love and forgiveness can rise above great strife and suffering, reflecting the admirable attitude and resilience of my own ancestors.”

Robertson Davies' The Deptford Trilogy

Monika, Educational Consultant: “The magic of Robertson Davies was that he told traditional, small-town Ontario tales, but they were intermingled with his vast knowledge of mythology, philosophy, psychoanalysis, and history. I have been looking through my shelves for books to re-read (I miss the library!), and, in The Deptford Trilogy, Davies stands out as a distinctly Canadian voice with a remarkable ability to synthesize the concerns of the world into tiny Deptford, Ontario.”

Michael Christie's The Beggar's Garden

Amanda, Educational Consultant: “I am reading The Beggar’s Garden by Michael Christie, a collection of stories about people who live in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The stories are told with grace and humour, and without judgement. It’s a stark reminder that everyone has hopes, dreams and feelings which are often no different from our own. I’m not usually a fan of short stories, but I love this book. Please read it.” 

Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth

Megan, Writing Coach: “I recently read Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, and I strongly recommend it. Wharton transports the reader into the life of Lily Bart, an unmarried 30-year-old woman living in 1905 in New York City’s upper-class society. As an orphan with increasingly limited funds, Lily must marry soon—and marry rich—if she hopes to maintain the only lifestyle and relationships she has ever known. However cliché this premise might seem, this novel will surprise you. The dazzling, dark world Wharton creates for Lily is a poignant commentary on the limited options available to women in her society and illustrates the consequences of a refusal to conform.”

Jeffrey Eugenides' Fresh Complaint

Alyssa, Writing Coach and Educational Consultant: “I just started Jeffery Eugenides’ Fresh Complaint, a collection of not-so-short stories that mark Eugenides’ debut as a short story author. I’ve always loved his novels for the familiarity of their settings (many taking place in and around Detroit, Michigan, a city that bordered my hometown), and these stories are no different. Beyond this, each story introduces readers to a set of characters so relatable that each time a story ended, I was sad to see them go.” 

Mark Sullivan's Beneath a Scarlet Sky

Michelle, Educational Consultant: “Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan is historical fiction based on the life of Pino Lella, a young Italian teen, who demonstrated incredible resilience and strength by helping Jewish people escape on foot over the Alps during the Second World War and later became a spy for the Allied forces. This is an action-packed, compelling read and a great reminder of the enduring human spirit.”

Katherine, Educational Consultant: “I just finished reading Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. Shaker Heights is a planned community. Elena Richardson believes that if you play by the rules, you’ll be rewarded, a belief she’s shared with her small children. When Elena rents a house to Mia Warren, an enigmatic artist and single mother, Mia’s disregard for the status quo threatens the tranquility of Shaker Heights. Friends of the Richardsons attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, but then a custody battle unfolds that splits the community. Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Elena uses her journalism skills to uncover the secrets of Mia’s past, which come at a devastating cost.”

Melinda, Educational Consultant and Options President: “My reading for pleasure has stopped as I try to keep up with the dynamic admissions climate for both fall 2020 and 2021. I’m constantly following UK, American and Canadian media, as well as professional resources like University Affairs, NACAC, EdSource, The Chronicle of Higher Education and Diverse: Issues in Higher Education. There is so much unknown at both the secondary and post-secondary levels, but the best way to keep ahead of the curve is to read and research.”

For past reading lists, check out our posts from March 2020, December 2019, July 2019, and December 2018. Want some help with your writing and reading skills? Get in touch! Our writing coaches are available to help students develop the skills needed for success in high school, university, and beyond, and they have plenty of book recommendations, too!

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