One chance. That’s all kids will give you before they toss your book aside. If the first sentence doesn’t grab them, you’re in trouble. If you haven’t hooked readers by the end of the first page, you’re about as good as last year’s video game.
“No fair!” you cry, and rightly so. After all, your second chapter would make the toughest kid applaud and Dr. Seuss tootle a horn. But the fact remains, if kids don’t like your opening, chances are they’ll never read the rest of your story. Here are some tips to give your story a fighting chance with today’s kids.
Curiosity as bait
Curiosity might kill a cat, but it’s just the thing when it comes to getting a child to read. Kids are naturally curious about their world. Tap into that curiosity by using dramatic statements that are sure to grab their attention. After drafting your picture book, chapter book or novel, study your opening to make sure it entices the natural curiosity of children. Dramatic statements that cause children to wonder why are sure-fire ways to spark the interest of young readers.
Sharon Creech begins her novel, Chasing Redbird, with, “Worms dangled in Aunt Jessie’s kitchen.” Face it, worms dangling in an adult’s kitchen are bound to make a young reader curious. For us, this would be a problem, but it definitely catches the attention of a kid who loves gross things (which, by the way, is 98.96 percent of all children).
Sixth Grade Secrets by Louis Sachar gets kids curious with, “It all started with a hat.” Lois Lowry does it in The Giver by beginning with, “It was almost December, and Jonas was beginning to be frightened.” Both of these statements cause kids to ask questions. They’ll continue reading to find the answers to those questions.
Picture book writers aren’t off the hook (pun intended). Dramatic first lines can reel in the attention of kids whose attention spans aren’t always as long as we’d like. Paul Brett Johnson uses this technique to entice readers with this first line of his picture book Frank Fister’s Hidden Talent: “Whenever Frank Fister crossed his eyes and stuck out his tongue at the same time, he could make things not work.” What child wouldn’t be curious enough to read and find out exactly how Frank Fister did that, and what things wouldn’t work?
Another favorite technique of ours is to start with dialogue. Kids talk. They like to talk. When a book begins with dialogue, young readers immediately hear a character’s voice and are drawn into a story.
“No!” you shout in horror. “My high school English teacher said never start with dialogue!”
Perhaps your teacher never read Charlotte’s Web or Over Sea, Under Stone. Both of these children’s classics begin with dialogue and a question. Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White, reads, “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” How’s that for an attention grabber? Any kid would have to continue with the story, even if just out of curiosity. Over Sea, Under Stone from Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series starts with, “Where is he?”
These openings are particularly effective because we not only hear a character’s voice, but we are drawn into his or her world with a question. The reader becomes actively involved with the character’s plight and reads to discover the answers. When young readers continue reading in order to figure out the answer to the question, you’ve got them hooked.
The lure of trouble
Kids have problems. Fights over toys, losing a race, a dead goldfish, all may seem like trivial problems to us, but to kids these everyday problems cause major disruptions to their lives. Of course, many kids are dealing with problems that adults also find difficult such as divorce, death and homelessness. One way to get a young reader’s attention is to open with a problem that affects real kids’ lives.
For instance, in Lois Lowry’s novel, Summer To Die, the beginning is, “It was Ann who drew the line.” Immediately, a kid wonders what line? Why did Ann need a line? Sibling rivalry, Ann’s trouble in the story, is a real problem. Real kids will relate and want to read more. That first sentence entices kids to continue reading.
Dav Pilkey effectively uses this technique in the opening of his best-selling book, Captain Underpants and the Perilous Plot of Professor Poopypants:
In our last three adventures, we tried to save our crazy principal from disaster. He thought he was a real super hero—but he wasn’t. We didn’t think things could get worse—but they did!
The promise of a major problem arouses readers’ curiosity. Kids will naturally continue reading to find out what could be worse.
Whether you begin with a question or a dramatic statement, always remember to grab a kid’s attention by starting in the middle of action. Forget back-story. Kids won’t wade through it in order to get to the action. Skip lengthy descriptions of setting. Kids won’t sit still for them. Ansen Dibell, in the Writer’s Digest book Plot, puts it this way: “In the beginning of a story, in particular, drop the people out of the plane and then say how they got there in the first place.”
Barbara Robinson’s The Best Christmas Pageant Ever starts with kids burning down a building. How’s that for action? Debbie’s Shooting Star: Annie Oakley the Legend begins with Annie spitting bullets at the family barn. Immediately, readers are involved in action.
Some authors actually find that, after writing their stories, they can go back and chop off the first few pages of their rough drafts to find the true beginning. Other writers plan ahead by outlining their stories so they know exactly where things will get juicy.
Now, research the pros
Examining how the pros do it is always helpful. Go to the library, and examine the first lines of your favorite children’s books. How do they hook you? Now, read the first line of one of your stories for children. See what you can do to grab the reader with your first line using the ideas below:
1. Pick five of your favorite beginnings from a collection of children’s stories. Modify one of them to begin your story.
2. Read through your opening pages. Is there a dynamite line in there that would grab a kid’s attention? Delete everything else, and start with that line.
3. Read your first sentence, and then watch the first few minutes of a show on the Disney channel. Which was more interesting? The show or your sentence? Do you need to get back to work?
“So much to do!” Don’t be discouraged. Using great opening hooks on your story’s first page saves time and energy. Think of all those rejections you won’t see because an editor loved your first line so much that she kept reading. Once it’s published, think of all the kids who will line up at the bookstore to “get hooked” on your stories!
Now, aren’t you glad you worked on those hooks?
Marcia Jones and Debbie Dadey like hooking readers together and separately. Marcia’s Godzilla Ate My Homework begins with “Pleeeease?” and Debbie’s King of the Kooties hooks with “It had to happen.” They are also the authors of Story Sparker.