For Writers

Start with a Bang–Or Not: Story Openings

     “Begin with a bang!” Is the advice I’ve heard as a writer over and over from the very beginning.
     “Kids attention spans are short.”
    “Grab them from the very first line and don’t let them go!”
     It seems like sound advice. Certainly there are clear advantages to beginning a book with a scene of physical action, high suspense or emotional intensity. It establishes what’s at stake at once and sets up an expectation for a fast paced, high energy plot. It can create an element of mystery or suspense. It can highlight a distinctive voice

 

     A splashy opening is lots of fun to write and who doesn’t love a gripper of an opening line? And yet in my own writing I’ve come across a few limitations to the big bang beginning. For example, If the reader doesn’t identify with the MC right off the bat, the stakes you create won’t matter to your reader. Also there is a danger that the reader
 may not know who the MC is and feel sympathy for and loyalty to a character you don’t intend them to. A power house opening can feel manipulative & jarring at best and over-wrought & silly at worst. And sometimes a very intense first scene sets an expectation that’s nearly impossible to top.

     So what’s a writer to do? I have always been drawn to a high action beginning, but more and more often I’ve found myself editing out my zippy opening paragraphs or moving them a page or two into the story.
As I often do in a quandary I turn to the books of authors I admire, to stories I’ve found moving. In a quick search on novel beginnings. I chose 12 books, 10 of which were published in the last 15 years. They were all award winners and strong sellers. To my complete shock only one of the 12 had an action opening. Number the Stars by Lois Lowry begins with the main character and her friend racing home from school only to be stopped and questioned by a Nazi soldier. Two others had action scenes that started within the first 3 pages, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson and Heart of a Samurai by Margie Preus. And in the case of Speak the it’s a scene of great emotional intensity rather than one of action in the classic sense.
But by far my sample of best selling and award winning books did not begin with action. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie begins with an explanation of encephalitis, and its repercussions in the life of the narrator Junior. The first scene that has anything resembling action is actually a moment of incredible emotional power in which Junior’s father shoots Junior’s dog because they can’t afford to take him to the vet. The scene occurs on page 9. Holes by Louis Sachar maybe the most popular MG novel ever to win the Newberry, but it does not begin with action either. Stanley doesn’t start digging a hole until page 26.
So what are those authors doing in those precious first pages?

In every book I looked at they were introducing me to a character so unique and compelling that I cared about what happened when the high stakes action finally came into play. They opened not with a bang but with a voice–a choice well worth emulating.
So here’s my reading challenge for the week. Pick up 5 of the books you’ve read in the last year that you admired the most. Go look at the opening scene and analyze what you see there? You might be surprised. I’d love to hear about your favorite opening scenes in comments below.

 

Happy Clerihew Day!

What is a Clerihew, you ask?

It’s a comical poem made of four lines – two couplets and a specific rhyming scheme, aabb. It was created by Edmund Clerihew Bentley (1875-1956) at the age of 16 and duly named after him. In a Clerihew poem, the first line names a person with the end of the second line rhyming with the person’s name. Most often, these poems make light of or take the serious out of the person being focused on. They’re funny and light-hearted.

If you’re unfamiliar with rhyming scheme and all the differences, here’s an informative video for you to peek at.

How does Clerihew poetry play into middle schoolers reading and writing? Just that – play. And it can actually play into more than the R and W of school, too. Clerihew poems are all about being silly and causing giggles. They’re all about fun and seeing things in a different way.

Everyone is probably familiar with Garfield the cat. He’s lazy, overweight, has an aloof attitude about life and pretty much everything. His constant picking on Odie in the comic strips is presented in a silly or funny way, even though some of Garfield’s actions really aren’t funny.

That’s what a Clerihew poem does. It takes a person (most of the time famous or well-known) and sheds them in silly or humorous shadows, presenting them in an altered way. It makes light of who they are and shows the flip-side of that person in a nice way. By doing this, it forces the writer to see more than is visibly there, plugging into their creative mind and exploring possibilities. What a great exercise to have middle grade readers/writers do. And they can be silly to boot!

Here’s an example:

Garfield the cat
On his rear he sat.
Eating lasagna galore
All about the decor.

Copyright © 2000 James & Marie Summers

Here are a couple videos about the art of Clerihew poems I think you might find helpful. Here & Here. Take a view and then try an exercise with your students or kids. I remember doing exercises like this with my kids to pass the time as we traveled to yet another of their travel hockey or soccer games.

Have you ever written a Clerihew poem? Why not give it a try in the comments and share? We’d love to read!

July New Releases

July is simply exploding with sparkly new books! As a budding “tangler,” I’m especially excited about TANGLES by Abby Huff, and of course, I can’t wait to dive into Mrs. Smith’s Spy School for Girls by our own Beth McMullen! Be sure to tell us in the comments what books you’re looking forward to this summer!

Mrs. Smith’s Spy School for Girls by Beth McMullen from S&S/Aladdin (July 4) After a botched escape plan from her boarding school, Abigail is stunned to discover the school is actually a cover for an elite spy ring called The Center, along with being training grounds for future spies. Even more shocking? Abigail’s mother is a top agent for The Center and she has gone MIA, with valuable information that many people would like to have–at any cost. Along with a former nemesis and charming boy from her grade, Abigail goes through a crash course in Spy Training 101, often with hilarious–and sometimes painful–results. But Abigail realizes she might be a better spy-in-training than she thought–and the answers to her mother’s whereabouts are a lot closer than she thinks…

Tap into your artsy side with TANGLES! Kids of all drawing abilities can have fun and unwind with tangles — simple, repetitive patterns that combine to form beautiful and elaborate drawings called zendoodles. And with TANGLES as your guide, it’s easy to dive into this doodly art style. Explore over sixty awesome drawing projects in Animals, Fairy Tales, Nature, and Lettering and Embellishments themes. Doodle prompts plus space for coloring and tangling will ignite your imagination, and bonus craft ideas will inspire you to create a DIY zendoodle masterpiece. Packed full of step-by-step tangle instructions and extra tips, you’re sure to have fun getting creative. So sharpen your pencils and get lost in the twirls, curls, and swirls of tangles!

Bubbles by Abby Cooper from Farrar, Straus and Giroux (July 3) Twelve-year-old Sophie Mulvaney’s world has been turned upside down. Mom lost her job at the TV station and broke up with Pratik, whom Sophie adored. Her teacher is making them do a special project about risk-taking, so Sophie gets roped into doing a triathlon. And to top it all off, she’s started seeing bubbles above people’s heads that tell her what these people are thinking. Seeing other people’s thoughts seems like it should be cool, but it’s actually just stressful. What does it mean that Pratik wishes she and Mom were with him to eat dinner? Is her best friend Kaya really going out with their other best friend, Rafael, whom Sophie also has a crush on? And can Sophie’s mom ever go back to her old self? In this funny, heartwarming novel from Abby Cooper, BUBBLES shows readers that people are more than what they seem or what they think. A Margaret Ferguson Book

Walking With Miss Millie by Tamara Bundy from Nancy Paulsen Books (July 4) A poignant middle grade debut about the friendship between a white girl and an elderly black woman in the 1960s South. Alice is angry at having to move to Rainbow, Georgia–a too small, too hot, dried-up place she’s sure will never feel like home. Then she gets put in charge of walking her elderly neighbor’s dog. But Clarence won’t budge without Miss Millie, so Alice and Miss Millie walk him together. Strolling with Clarence and Miss Millie quickly becomes the highlight of Alice’s day and opens her eyes to all sorts of new things to marvel over. During their walks, they meet a mix of people, and Alice sees that although there are some bullies and phonies, there are plenty of kind folks, too. Miss Millie shares her family’s story with Alice, showing her the painful impact segregation has had on their town. And with Miss Millie, Alice is finally able to express her own heartache over why her family had to move there in the first place.

Overboard! Survivor Series by Terry Lynn Johnson, illustrated by Jani Orban from HMH Books (July 4) Eleven-year-old Travis and his family are on a whale watch off the coast of Washington when disaster strikes. The boat capsizes, throwing everyone into the ice-cold chaotic waves. Separated from their families and struggling to stay afloat, Travis and twelve-year-old Marina must use all of their grit and knowledge to survive.
With seventeen years of hands-on experience and training in remote areas, survival expert Terry Lynn Johnson (Ice Dogs; Sled Dog School) creates on-the-edge-of-your-seat storytelling featuring the real skills that kids need to survive a disaster. This book includes Coast Guard-approved cold-water survival tips; you may have a better chance of surviving a real-life cold-water disaster after reading this book.

The Unicorn in the Barn by Jacquelin K. Ogburn, illustrated by Rebecca Green from Houghton Mifflin (July 4) For years people have claimed to see a mysterious white deer in the woods around Chinaberry Creek. It always gets away. One evening, Eric Harper thinks he spots it. But a deer doesn’t have a coat that shimmers like a pearl. And a deer certainly isn’t born with an ivory horn curling from its forehead. When Eric discovers the unicorn is hurt and being taken care of by the vet next door and her daughter, Allegra, his life is transformed. A tender tale of love, loss, and the connections we make, The Unicorn in the Barn shows us that sometimes ordinary life takes extraordinary turns.

Our Story Begins edited by Elissa Brent Weissman (July 4) Simon and Schuster From award-winning author Elissa Brent Weissman comes a collection of quirky, smart, and vulnerable childhood works by some of today’s foremost children’s authors and illustrators—revealing young talent, the storytellers they would one day become, and the creativity they inspire today. Everyone’s story begins somewhere…

For Linda Sue Park, it was a trip to the ocean, a brand-new typewriter, and a little creative license.
For Jarrett J. Krosoczka, it was a third grade writing assignment that ignited a creative fire in a kid who liked to draw.
For Kwame Alexander, it was a loving poem composed for Mother’s Day—and perfected through draft after discarded draft.
For others, it was a teacher, a parent, a beloved book, a word of encouragement. It was trying, and failing, and trying again. It was a love of words, and pictures, and stories. Your story is beginning, too. Where will it go?

The Secrets of the Superglue Sisters by Susie Day from Penguin (July 6) Best friends Georgie and Jem aren’t just new at school; they’re new at being full-time sisters too. Georgie’s mum and Jem’s dad have finally bought a house together, and they get to share a home at last, just like they always wanted. But being full time sisters is maybe a tiny bit harder than they expected. At school, there are new friends to make and a new class project to complete. Everyone must write down their deepest secret so that their teacher Miss Eagle can set a giant ball alight and they can all watch their worries disappear. But the ball of secrets mysteriously disappears and everyone’s secrets are revealed. Can Georgie and Jem discover who the secrets thief is and learn how to stick together in their new family? 

The Wild Bunch by Jan Gangsei from Aladdin (July 11) Three unlikely friends–brainiac Hector, bullish Jack, and sarcastic Paul–find themselves braving the wilderness in search of the mythical Beast of Bear Falls in this hilarious MAX novel.As far as Paul Adams is concerned, the idea of a weekend camping in the nearby state park with his dad’s two college friends and their sons, Hector and Jack, sounds like a nightmare. But even he finds the myth of the Beast of Bear Falls–a legendary Bigfoot creature–intriguing.The trip gets off to a rough start, and calamity and disaster follow catastrophe. Against all odds, arguing most of the way, the crew face all sorts of obstacles natural and man-made. Can the three boys make it to Bear Falls and uncover the truth about the Sasquatch living there?

It All Comes Down To This by Karen English from Clarion (July 11) It’s 1965, Los Angeles. All twelve-year-old Sophie wants to do is write her book, star in the community play, and hang out with her friend Jennifer. But she’s the new black kid in a nearly all-white neighborhood; her beloved sister, Lily, is going away to college soon; and her parents’ marriage is rocky. There’s also her family’s new, disapproving housekeeper to deal with. When riots erupt in nearby Watts and a friend is unfairly arrested, Sophie learns that life–and her own place in it–is even more complicated than she’d once thought. Leavened with gentle humor, this story is perfect for fans of Rita Williams-Garcia.

You May Already Be a Winner by Ann Dee Ellis from Dial (July 11) Twelve-year-old Olivia Hales has a foolproof plan for winning a million dollars so that she and her little sister, Berkeley, can leave behind Sunny Pines Trailer Park.But first she has to:
– Fix the swamp cooler and make dinner and put Berkeley to bed because her mom is too busy to do all that
– Write another letter to her dad even though he hasn’t written back yet
– Teach Berk the important stuff, like how to make chalk drawings, because they can’t afford day care and Olivia has to stay home from school to watch her
– Petition her oddball neighbors for a circus spectacular, because there needs to be something to look forward to at dumb-bum Sunny Pines
– Become a super-secret spy to impress her new friend Bart
– Enter a minimum of fourteen sweepstakes a day. Who knows? She may already be a winner. Olivia has thought of everything . . . except herself. Who will take care of her when she needs it? Luckily, somewhere deep down between her small intestine and stomach is a tiny voice reminding her that sometimes people can surprise you–and sometimes your family is right next door.

The Emperor’s Ostrich by Julie Berry from Roaring Book Press (July 13) Young dairymaid Begonia has lost her cow Alfalfa. So she has set off on a search across the countryside even though she has nothing but a magical map to guide her. Along the way she meets a mother and baby, a woodcutter, a very dirty young man, and an eight-foot ostrich. Meanwhile, the emperor has gone missing from the royal palace in a most mysterious manner. Was it murder? Was it magic? It will take all of Begonia’s wits to save the empire and get Alfalfa home safely.

Princesses, Inc. by Mari Mancusi from Aladdin (July 18) Twelve-year-old Hailey and her BFFs are all big fans of Collin Prince, a YouTube star, and swoon-worthy crush. So when the opportunity to meet him at a local Comic-Con comes up, the girls jump at the chance. The problem? The convention isn’t cheap–and the girls don’t have the money to go. But Hailey isn’t ready to give up just yet. In addition to meeting Collin at the convention, there is a young writer’s competition that she is determined to enter–and win.The girls dream up Princesses and Pirates, Inc., a babysitting service where the girls will dress up in costume to entertain their charges. Of course, they aren’t as prepared as they thought they would be to deal with bratty kids, scheming older siblings (who are less than thrilled that their own babysitting jobs have dried up), and trying to balance their new “jobs” with school. And more responsibilities means less time for Hailey to work on her contest entry. Will their plan to make it to Comic-Con pay off…or could their business end up as shipwrecked as the pirates they portray?

Wormwood Mire by Judith Rossell  from Atheneum (July 25) This spine-tingling sequel to Withering-by-Sea sees Stella sent away to the moldering old family estate, where she discovers two odd cousins–and a mystery.Eleven-year-old Stella Montgomery has always wondered about her family. What happened to her mother? And could she have a long-lost sister somewhere? Stella’s awful Aunts refuse to tell her anything, and now they have sent her Stella away to the old family home at Wormwood Mire, where she must live with two strange cousins and their governess. But dark secrets slither and skulk within overgrown grounds of the moldering house, and Stella must be brave if she’s to find out who–or what–she really is…

Refugee by Alan Gratz from Scholastic (July 25) JOSEF is a Jewish boy living in 1930s Nazi Germany. With the threat of concentration camps looming, he and his family board a ship bound for the other side of the world . . .
ISABEL is a Cuban girl in 1994. With riots and unrest plaguing her country, she and her family set out on a raft, hoping to find safety in America . . .
MAHMOUD is a Syrian boy in 2015. With his homeland torn apart by violence and destruction, he and his family begin a long trek toward Europe . . .
All three kids go on harrowing journeys in search of refuge. All will face unimaginable dangers — from drownings to bombings to betrayals. But there is always the hope of tomorrow. And although Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud are separated by continents and decades, shocking connections will tie their stories together in the end.
This action-packed novel tackles topics both timely and timeless: courage, survival, and the quest for home.

Almost Paradise: A Novel by Corabel Shofner from Farrar, Straus and Giroux (July 25) Twelve-year-old Ruby Clyde Henderson’s life changes the day her mother’s boyfriend holds up a convenience store, and her mother is wrongly jailed for assisting with the crime. Ruby and her pet pig, Bunny, find their way to her estranged Aunt Eleanor’s home. Aunt Eleanor is an ornery nun who lives in the midst of a peach orchard on Paradise Ranch. With a little patience, she and Ruby begin to get along, but Eleanor has secrets of her own―secrets that might mean more hard times for Ruby. It’s not going to be easy for Ruby Clyde and Eleanor to heal old wounds, face the past, and learn to trust each other. But with enough little pieces of love, they might be able to bring their family together again, and learn that paradise isn’t a place―it’s the feeling of being home.

Spirit Hunters by Ellen Oh from HarperCollins (July 25) We Need Diverse Books founder Ellen Oh returns with Spirit Hunters, a high-stakes middle grade mystery series about Harper Raine, the new seventh grader in town who must face down the dangerous ghosts haunting her younger brother. A riveting ghost story and captivating adventure, this tale will have you guessing at every turn.

Harper doesn’t trust her new home from the moment she steps inside, and the rumors are that the Raine family’s new house is haunted. Harper isn’t sure she believes those rumors, until her younger brother, Michael, starts acting strangely. The whole atmosphere gives Harper a sense of deja vu, but she can’t remember why. She knows that the memories she’s blocking will help make sense of her brother’s behavior and the strange and threatening sensations she feels in this house, but will she be able to put the pieces together in time?