You can’t just have someone sitting around thinking.

As I’m revising my next book, The Water Castle, I’ve had to remind myself of this several times. I can’t just have a character staring up at the clouds and ruminating about life and how to fix a wagon wheel. While of course there is time for quiet reflection, story and tension happen when one character rubs up against one another.

I took a class this past summer with Monica Wood, and one of my fellow students was working on a book about a character on a quest through Africa. Wood recommended that the character have a foil, and as soon as the writer started adding this new character to the mix, the already strong story came alive.

So, why does Hatchet, the 1998 Newbery Honor winner by Gary Paulsen, work so well?

Hatchet has always been a go-to recommendation for me, especially for reluctant readers, even though I had never read it. When I started work at my new school where the book is required summer reading for sixth graders, I decided it was time to get on board.

The story concerns thirteen year-old Brian who finds himself alone in the Canadian wilderness after his plane crashes. It’s just him and his hatchet struggling to survive. Now survival stories are their own beast, and the conflict is one of those tropes we all learned about in middle school: man versus nature. Much of the conflict in the story comes from the hostile environment and Brian’s own inexperience in the wild.

But there is a lot of time in Brian’s head, too. Sometimes he’s chastising himself, sometimes he’s planning, and sometimes he’s recollecting the good and bad of his life. Why it works, I think, is the balance that Paulsen strikes. High tension moments are balanced by these more reflective sections. If the book were all action all of the time, then it would be too intense, like the finale of a fireworks show without the buildup.

His memories of his parent’s failing marriage serve a purpose, too: to make Brian more relatable to readers. Few teens and tweens have had to survive on their own in the wilderness, but, sadly, many have had to deal with infidelity and divorce. Just when Brian’s story may seem too far removed from the average reader’s experience, these thought about family reconnect Brian and the reader.

So should I put that scene of a boy lying in a field, staring up at the clouds and thinking about how he could fix a wagon wheel? No, it’s much better to see him actually working on the wheel. But, Hatchet reminds me that even in a high action story, there is a place and a reason for taking a pause.

Awardable: Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
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