At my Kids' Writing Workshop yesterday, I updated a lesson I created a few years ago about writing engaging beginnings. I combed through the upper middle grade books at our library and looked through all of my favorites, seeing if the first line was something I would hold up as an example of a great "hook."
You'll notice the selection of books is very eclectic. It's something I try to keep in mind when planning workshops for kids who have all different reading interests.
Not all good books have a gripping first line, but of the ones that do, I found a lot of patterns. I grouped these into five categories:
1. Give the Reader a Sense of Urgency and Danger (Adventure, Thriller)
The house is falling in.
The house is falling in and Danny is falling, knees and elbows crumpling onto the floor, and an earsplitting crash is tearing through the air—that’s surely the roof, breaking in two, about to come pelting down on top of him.
--The Bookof Storms by Ruth Hatfield
2. Tug on the Reader’s Heart Strings (Sympathy, often for poverty or loss, often sad)
It was fun at first, playing house.
I made all my own meals. Crackers and cheese, three times a day.
--Love,Aubrey by Suzanne LaFleur
Wilhelmina knew that there were some houses that had glass in every window and locks on the doors.
The farmhouse in which she lived was not one of them.
--Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms by Katherine Rundell
3. Make the Reader Scratch His Head (Humor, Strangeness, Mystery)
On the morning I was scheduled to die, a large barefoot man with a bushy red beard waddled past my house. The thirty-degree temperature didn’t seem to bother him, but he must have had a lousy breakfast, because he let out a burp as loud as a tuba.
Belching barefoot giants who look like Vikings are not normal in Belleville, Indiana. But I didn’t really get a chance to see the guy closely.
At that moment, I, Jack McKinley, was under attack in my own bedroom. By a flying reptile.
--The Colossus Rises by Peter Lerangis
How five crows managed to lift a twenty-pound baby boy into the air was beyond Prue, but that was certainly the least of her worries. In fact, if she were to list her worries right then and there as she sat spellbound on the park bench and watched her little brother, Mac, carried aloft in the talons of these five black crows, puzzling out just how this feat was being done would likely come in dead last. First on the list: Her baby brother, her responsibility, was being abducted by birds. A close second: What did they plan on doing with him?
--Wildwood by Colin Meloy
4. Speak to the Reader Like a Trusted Friend (Narrative voice, Show the reader who you are)
We only have a few hours, so listen carefully.
If you’re hearing this story, you’re already in danger. Sadie and I might be your only chance.
--TheRed Pyramid by Rick Riordan
My name is Charlie Joe Jackson, and I hate reading. And if you’re reading this book, you hate reading, too.
In fact, you do whatever you can to avoid reading, and the fact that you’re holding a book in your hand right now is kind of shocking.
I know exactly how you feel; I’m one of you.
Just remember: you are not alone. We’ll get through this together.
--Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to Not Reading by Tommy Greenwald
All I’ve ever wanted is for Juli Baker to leave me alone. For her to back off—you know, just give me some space.
--Flipped by Wendelin Van Draanen
5. Set the Scene (Not Just The Setting! Tie it to plot, themes, meaning of book)
There is no lake at Camp Green Lake. There once was a very large lake here, the largest lake in Texas. That was over a hundred years ago. Now it is just a dry, flat wasteland.
--Holes by Louis Sachar
The fjord is freezing over. I watch it from the edge of the cliff near our hall, and each day the ice claims more of the narrow winding of ocean. It squeezes out the waves and the blue-black water, while it squeezes us in. Just as Father intended it to. Winter is here to wall us up, to bury us in snow and keep us safe.
--Icefall by Matthew J. Kirby
After we read these excerpts and talked about each writing style, I read selections from five other middle grade books and asked the kids which category each one would fall under:
- The Tiara on the Terrace by Kristen Kittscher
- Crispin: The Cross of Lead by Avi
- Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate
- The Name of This Book is Secret by Pseudonymous Bosch
- A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd
The kids really got into analyzing these opening lines for what kind of opening they represented. I love it when I see kids realize there are principles and theories that they can apply to their own writing.
Then we did an activity: the kids had to write two different openings to a story, and their peers voted on which one they liked better by holding up "A" or "B." I find that the method of having everyone vote on their favorite version is a kind and encouraging way of giving kids feedback on which piece was the most effective. The kids read their pieces aloud. We all guessed what kind of opening they wrote (1, 2, 3, 4 or 5) and then we voted which ones we liked best.
Here's a photo from when I did this a few years ago:
Here's a photo from when I did this a few years ago:
The other thing I like about this is that they can see that different people respond to different things. It's all very subjective, and that's how writing is.
I encouraged everyone to read The Tiara on the Terrace or The Wig in the Window by Kristen Kittscher, because she's going to be our guest instructor for our next workshop! I told the kids that I would have a prize for whoever asked Kristen the best question, and then they rushed to grab the library copies of her books.