Book Lists

First Lines OR Love at First Sight

“It was a dark and stormy night.”

(A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle)

“Where’s Papa going with that ax?”

(Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White)

Some people call them “hooks”—that all important first line of a book. Imagine a fishing hook with a big, fat juicy worm on the end wriggling like a delicacy. That worm is much more appetizing to a fish swimming by than the metal hook will ever be dangling all by itself–and so will a juicy first line of a book to potential readers cruising the shelves in a bookstore or library.

A fishing rod and worms is how I describe the creation of story hooks when I do my Creative Diary writing workshop with kids. You want to throw that great, delicious hook out there, capture your reader, and then reel them in. As a writer or a librarian or a teacher trying to grab a child with a book, we want our potential reader to get intrigued, to *Get Hooked* and KEEP READING.

So just how important IS that opening first line or first page for Readers and how important are first lines for Writers?

Let’s go to our panel of experts:

Readers First!

Aubri, 15-years-old: “The cover of a book definitely draws me in first, but the first line makes or breaks it. I have to be intrigued, but I also like funny stories like the Junie B. Jones books that start out really funny and scary books where a character might be in prison and something is going to happen to them.”

Shelby, 12-years-old: “A first line makes me want to keep reading. If it’s boring, I’ll stop. I will probably read the whole first page, but unless I like it, I’ll stop reading the book. When I’m browsing the bookshelves, I read the synopsis on the jacket, too. And the Author stuff on the back.”

Milyssa, 16-years-old: “I like good first lines, but it’s more than that. The whole first paragraph has to be great.”

Writers Next! (Clicking on the author’s name will direct you to their website)


“The first line needs to set the stage, giving us a glimpse into when and where the story takes place so we can immediately begin to picture things. Optimally, it should give us a meaningful glimpse at the main character–saying, thinking, doing something relevant to the story. (That is, I don’t think highly of stories that try to grab you with a cheap falsehood, as in: Terrified, Melanie screamed, convinced she was going to die. Of course, no one had ever died from seeing a mouse, but it COULD happen…) It should set the tone, giving us the voice of the character if it’s in 1st person.

And, if possible, hint at the conflict which will be at the heart of the story.

The story where I think I accomplished this most successfully is GHOST OF A HANGED MAN, which starts: “Pa said we were too young to go to the hanging.”


“The voice has to grab you and make you want to continue and there should be some follow-through in the rest of the novel about the thing(s) that arose in the first line.

In NINJAS, I used, “I knew I was in trouble when I heard the cello,” which lets us know the protag is (a) in trouble and (b) is in some strange situation wherein that trouble is announced via a cello. And the “trouble” itself forms the basis for the main conflict.”


“First lines set the tone for the story (funny, dramatic, etc). First lines are the front door of the story and should say “come on in”.

My new favorite first line is from The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester coming out the end of August: “Owen Jester tiptoed across the gleaming linoleum floor and slipped the frog into the soup.”


“I have a very simple requirement for Line #1. It has to make the reader want to read Line #2!

My favorite first line is from my book, Attack of the Fluffy Bunnies.”

“Meanwhile, in space . . .”


I think the first line should give the reader a certain amount of information but also leave the reader with questions.

Nothing to Lose: “I should never have come back to Miami.”

The information in this short line is: The Main Character is in Miami. He left Miami. Now, he’s back. He’s regretting it.

The Questions raised: Why did he leave? Why did he come back? Why does he regret it?

Enough to keep the reader reading on.


“I never know my first line until I’m sure of the last. Several first lines often fall off.

The first line of my new middle grade The Grand Plan to Fix Everything (Atheneum, June 2011) has stayed almost intact from about the 3rd draft.”

“Dolly Singh’s fabulous face floats across the screen of the TV in the family room.”


“The former journalist in me always thinks of first lines as the “lead” to a story. When I was writing for newspapers and magazines, I always found that once I got the lead right, the rest of the article flowed from there. It’s like building a house on a solid foundation.

My goal for the first line is to reach out and grab the reader by the lapels and pull them into the story.”

Favorite first line? Still my first-born, from The Voyage of Patience Goodspeed:

“‘Absolutely, positively not!’ roared my father in a voice meant to be heard through the teeth of a Cape Horn gale.”


“Tell him, Muddle! Tell him we’re not mice!”

The first sentence of The Barrel in the Basement is a first sentence that HAS to be followed by the second – which is even better!

“Pudding gazed with horror at the huge yellow cat who lay on his side daintily probing the mouth of the jar with his paw.”


“I often go back and change my opening after I’ve written the end. In Daniel at the Siege of Boston, 1776, my main character thinks in the end that the siege was like one long staring match between the British and the Patriots. I wasn’t happy with my opening, so I went back and decided to open with a staring match:

“I stared into Josiah Henshaw’s red brown eyes and vowed not to blink.”

“I wanted to open with action, and this sets the tone for the rest of the book.”


“Here’s my favorite from a short story called “Witch’s Son”.”

“When Abigail Brewster brought her son, Hugh, back from the dead the first time, he looked all fragile and wispy, like morning mist on the village commons.”

A big thank you to all of our reader and writer experts on the subject of First Lines and Hooks!

Now Go forth! Find a Great Hook Today or Write a Great Hook  – and Fall In Love at First Sight!

Kimberley Griffiths Little’s been juggling book launch parties for The Healing Spell (Scholastic) with her right hand, twirling a handful of new characters with her left while typing her next book for Scholastic with her toes. Throw in a pot of Louisiana gumbo, too many pecan pralines, fishing for the perfect worm . . .and you have a typical day in the life of a writer on deadline.

Should-a-Could-a-Won-an-Award Awards

I don’t know about you but I’ve participated in a few Mock Newbery Discussion Programs and each time, I’m just sure I know who will win the real one. But then, January rolls around and I hear the announcements and I am almost always surprised. Not so much by which books won but more so by which wonderful books didn’t win. I want to tell people about these books – these wonderful gems that somehow escaped the fame and fortune I feel they deserve!!! And lucky me, it’s my turn to blog. So, here you go – past books that, IMHO, deserve(d) something gold and shiny on their covers:

Greetings from Nowhere by Barbara O’Connor

“When she reluctantly places a For Sale ad in the newspaper, Aggie doesn’t know that Kirby and his mom will need a room when their car breaks down on the way to Kirby’s new reform school. Or that Loretta and her parents will arrive in her dad’s plumbing company van on a trip meant to honor the memory of Loretta’s birth mother. Or that Clyde Dover will answer the For Sale ad in such a hurry and move in with his daughter, Willow, looking for a brand-new life to replace the one that was fractured when Willow’s mom left. Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is that Aggie and her guests find just the friends they need at the shabby motel in the middle of nowhere…”

I am still scratching my head over how Ms. O’Connor, using such clean and simple prose, was able to make me feel and care so deeply about these characters. I don’t usually find myself in tears while reading a MG book, but this was an exception. Touching and true without being maudlin or dramatic.

Shackleton’s Stowaway by Victoria McKernan

This fictionalized account of Ernest Shackleton’s 1914-16 Antarctic expedition follows steward Perce Blackborow from the time he stows away on the Endurance through his harrowing experiences in the Antarctic (including the amputation of his toes). Sprinkled throughout the narrative are selections from Blackborow’s pseudo-journal record that chronicles ongoing shipboard routines and the camaraderie among crew, in spite of fractious personalities and grim conditions…”  Booklist

People, people! Where were your heads when you were handing out awards in 2006?I have never read a more gripping, unbelievable tale and it is based on a true story! This book should be a requirement in every Social Studies Explorer unit as well as on every Free reading list (especially for boys) in the U.S. I am not kidding. Masterfully written and incredibly researched. This coming from a person who HATED history class, so you know it’s gotta be good.

Wolf Story by William McCleery

“A young father tells his five-year-old son humorous variations on the theme of a hen escaping the clutches of a wily wolf.”


That’s all I’m gonna say.

Oh, except that, DARN, it’s out of print. But available online, used, or in fabulous, hilarious audio format.

Elephant Run by Roland Smith

“…as soon as Nick arrives, trouble erupts in this remote Burmese elephant village. Japanese soldiers invade, and Nick’s father is taken prisoner. Nick is stranded on the plantation, forced to work as a servant to the new rulers. As life in the village grows more dangerous for Nick and his young friend, Mya, they plan their daring escape. Setting off on elephant back, they will risk their lives to save Nick’s father and Mya’s brother from a Japanese POW camp…”

Okay, another historical fiction book, I know – and I don’t even consider myself a HF fan (except for the crazy fact that I’ve written two, but, whatever) – this book had it all. Cool setting, gripping tale, great kid-animal relationship, a missing father, war and hostages and characters that leap off the page. Again, where are the award-givers when you need ‘em?

One book that writer friend, Esther Hershenhorn felt was worthy of something shiny:


“Based on incidents from her own life and told in the voice of her older sister, Audrey, White offers a heartfelt story of what it’s like to be poor, hungry, and sometimes happy. It’s 1948, and Audrey lives in a Virginia coal-mining camp with her father, who drinks; her mother, who drifts away, if not physically, emotionally; and her sisters, “the three little pigs…” Booklist, starred review

Esther calls it simply “a gem.”

And believe me, Esther knows children’s books.

Finally, a super MG recommended by agent Michael Stearns in this post:


Michael Stearns says, “Though it brims over with heart and serious concerns, Jennifer Murdley’s Toad is a comedy—the kind of book that actually could be described as “madcap,” if that word hadn’t been hollowed out and made hokey through overuse by bad Hollywood copywriters.”

Mr. Stearns, being hilarious himself, can spot good comedy faster than you can kiss a frog and turn into a frog…which is just one of the funny twists that occur in JENNIFER MURDLEY’S TOAD. If I were you, I’d take his word for it.

So there you are – a start to what I’m hoping will be a long list of Should-a-Could-a-Won-an-Award books.

Nominate your own! Vote early and vote often! (Hey, I’m from Chicago, whaddya expect?)

Beverly Patt’s recent MG release, BEST FRIENDS FOREVER: A WWII SCRAPBOOK is actually on this year’s Allen County Mock Newbery AND Mock Sibert Awards lists. She is hoping that her 2009 novel, HAVEN, will one day be considered for a Should-a-Could-a Award. Learn more about Bev and her books at

Humor ain’t just something you find in the bathroom

I have often been told, “Brian, you’re a numbskull.” Thankfully that has nothing to do with this post, I just wanted to put it out there for discussion. I’ve also been told that there are two types of people, those who laugh at ‘I Love Lucy’ and those who laugh at ‘The Three Stooges’.

I don’t think it’s quite that black and white and read all over, but it gives us a gauge.

What makes an 8-12 year old boy or girl laugh? In my experience… if it’s presented in the proper format, almost anything can make a middle grader crackup. Honestly. Especially when you’re with them in person. But what about in books? That’s where things get like my mom’s liver++… very, very tough.

++ Referring to the liver my mom COOKS, not her ACTUAL liver. Yet I’m craving fava beans and a nice chianti?

Cover and Title:

Probably the hardest part about humor in books is getting the middle grader to actually pick up the book. A good title or cover can make that happen. For example, Captain Underpants and the Perilous Plot of Professor Poopypants by Dav Pilkey, that’s a book I gotta… um, I mean a middle grader has got to have. Of course, it doesn’t have to be bathroom humor. It could be as simple as Hoot by Carl Hiaasan or as extreme as The Strange Case of the Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger.


Once you have the book in the hands of the questionable reader in question, the author must come through with something funny to read about. The entire book doesn’t have to be humorous, mind you, but slanted in that direction. For example, how about having two kids sneak in and spend the night at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as in The Mixed-Up Files of Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg. Or how about the Nightmare Academy: Books 1, 2 and the soon to be released Book 3: Monster Wars by  Dean Lorey . The premise: When Charlie Benjamin sleeps, monsters wake up. And sleepovers just aren’t as fun when these horrible creatures try to eat the other children. These books are hysterical. And just wait until you learn about the Trout of Truth.


Words, Puns and Analogies:

Certain words will always crack a smile on the face of a middle grader. (As mature adults, we certainly don’t find these funny anymore.) The obvious being ‘poop’ *snickering* and *still giggling* ‘fart’. *laughing* *coughing* Er… ahem. Sorry about that. But even words like ‘fanorkle’ and ‘gloop’ can be funny when used properly. Still better, twist words into puns or analogies and you have yourself a laugh riot that may need defused by teargas totting Tommies. Take the book HECK – Where the Bad Kids Go by  Dale Basye , these pages are just full of it+++.

+++ Referring to puns and analogies, not *snickering again* poop


Just like Adult and Young Adult books, humorous Middle Grade books use characters to tell the story.


The voice of the author can imbue (how about that for word usage) humor from the get go. The Fudge books written by Judy Blume are perfect examples. (Not to mention ‘fudge’ can be a funny word – see the movie ‘A Christmas Story’.) But voice can go beyond the pages. I read the book Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman and was entertained by the tale. When I had the chance to LISTEN to Neil read from the book, it was hilarious. The crowd roared as he became the characters, mimicking their voices as he imagined them.


To help take humor to the next level, more and more books are including illustrations with the prose. And we’re not talking about picture books, people. We’re talking stick figures! Books like Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney may one day be a bestseller. What? Oh… it is? Um, I meant to say IS a bestseller.

How about You?

I’ve mentioned a few of my favorite humorous MG books in this post, but what about you? What books, growing up or just recently, made you laugh? Or giggle? Or at the very least, give up a crooked smile?

To entice you to reply, I’m going to give away a SIGNED copy of Rapacia by Dale Basye (Book 2 of Where The Bad Kids Go) to a randomly drawn winner.