Saturday, October 22, 2011

Middle Grade Openings That Hook Readers

You're standing in the bookstore. You pull a book off the shelf, flip it open, and scan the first page ... then you tuck it under your arm and head for the checkout line.

Or you're sitting at your computer. You click "See Inside" on Amazon and scroll down to the opening paragraph ... and, the next thing you know, you're adding the item to your cart.

What makes some middle grade books instantly captivating? There's no formula for magic, but an orienting first sentence can help.

I like some grounding before plunging into action or dialogue. I'm not talking about pages and pages of explanation or description--but I don't want to be in the middle of a battle scene before I know who I'm rooting for, or in the middle of a conversation with no idea who is talking. A little grounding works wonders.
The orienting sentence can be detailed and specific:
Once upon a time, sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little gray house made of logs. (Wilder; Little House in the Big Woods)

Or it can be prosaic:
Ramona Quimby was nine years old. (Cleary, Ramona's World)
I first met Jennifer on my way to school. (Konigsburg; Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and me, Elizabeth) 
Emmy was a good girl. (Jonell; Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat)

It can be funny and intriguing:
I’m pretty sure my camp knapsack is not supposed to be levitating off the sidewalk of Fifth Avenue. (Mlynowski, Spells and Sleeping Bags)

Sunday morning began with the awful realization that I’d made the biggest mistake of my life. (Kessler; Philippa Fisher's Fairy Godsister)

It can establish the main character's voice:
I have been accused of being anal retentive, an overachiever, and a compulsive perfectionist, like those are bad things. (Yee; Millicent Min, Girl Genius)

It can even involve secondary characters and not mention the main character at all:
Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. (Rowling; Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

A sentence of dialogue followed by an orienting sentence can work, too: 

“That slowpoke Sarah!” Henny cried. “She’s making us late!"
Mama’s girls were going to the library, and Henny was impatient. (Taylor; All-of-a-Kind Family)

If you've read a middle grade novel (old or new) with an opening that grabbed you and wouldn't let go, please share it in the comments!

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Mister Li Liu said...

This often happens with me and science fiction. Although it's not from an MG novel, Robert Heinlein's famous "The door dilated" comes to mind. In 3 words he's established that we're not in Kansas anymore.

inluvwithwords said...

I like the first line of A Crooked Kind of Perfect: "I was supposed to play the piano," because right away we know that things didn't go as planned.

Ruth said...

I like that one, Mister Li Liu. We know we're in a world where even doors are not the same.

inluvwithwords, that's a great example. It seems so simple, but it raises interesting questions.

Anonymous said...

I think it's interesting that you don't have to have a killer first line. "Emmy was a good girl" is not that intriguing but what follows right after is. And you know she's going to break the rules.

I have the usual standards that I love: E.B. White's "Where Papa going with that ax?" but I'll offer a couple of contempory examples:

"Ticket please." Miss Spitfire by Sarah Miller.
My nightmare started like this. The Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan.
The big question: Is Origami Yoda real? The strange case of Origami Yoda by Tom Anglegerger.


Ruth said...

That's a good point, Vijaya. I just pulled 10 MG novels off my shelf, and few of them had really memorable first lines. The best ones were:
Ms. McMartin was definitely dead. (The Books of Elsewhere: The Shadows by Jacqueline West)
In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is puite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. (Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

bfav said...

I loved A Tale Dark and Grimm: Once upon a time, fairytales were awesome.

Love this post. cheers.

Ruth said...

That's great, bfav. Once upon a time--but not any more. It makes you wonder why not, and whether they'll ever be awesome again.