If you are like me, by the time you’ve read the first page or two, you’ve already decided if you’ll finish a book. The beginning, the intro, the hook, those are crucial to a reading experience.
So crucial, in fact, that when a nonfiction author writes a book proposal (an overview, outline, comparable books, audience information, author platform, etc.) the writing sample that accompanies the proposal almost always includes the introduction. Editors don’t ask to see the chapter that will require the utmost skill in handling technical information – in the space books featured this month that could include trajectories, subsystems, eight letter acronyms, and numbers too large for the human brain to grasp. They don’t ask to see the conclusion chapter – the one that is likely to require the greatest artistic ability to tie up the loose ends of in-depth concepts, inspire the reader, and launch them into further inquiry. No, editors want to see the introduction. The one that requires both art and craft, wound together skillfully enough to hook a young reader.
So, how do successful writers begin? Let’s take a look at the choices made by Mary Kay Carson, Elizabeth Rusch, and Catherine Thimmesh in Mission to Pluto: The First Visit to an Ice Dwarf and the Kuiper Belt, Impact: Asteroids and the Science of Saving the World, and Team Moon: How 400,000 People Landed Apollo 11 on the Moon.
Setting the Mood
The first spread of Mission to Pluto is filled with a photo, a room packed with adults waving American flags and cheering. The text is all about setting the scene. Author Mary Kay Carson could have chosen just about any detail:
- the phones clicking pictures
- the type of stick the flags were attached to
- the hair styles of the individuals
But instead she picked details that accentuated her subject matter:
- a nine-sided mission patch
- a robotic spacecraft
- a dwarf planet
She selected characters such as Bill Nye, the Science Guy, whose inclusion emphasized the magnitude of the occasion. And, she chose a quote (“Now we’re finally going to find out what really…”) that focused a spotlight on the mood in the room – a mood of anticipation. Thanks to the author’s skill, the text oozes that mood and lures me into flipping that page.
When you open Impact, you’ll be gazing deep into the starry sky. Like Carson, Rusch puts us right into a scene. From the text, we get concrete information like the date and location (a Russian city) but we get much more. People are “bundled up tightly;” they “crunched their way through the snow.” When I read “At 9:20 a.m.” – not “That morning” or “Sometime that day” – my readering radar goes off because that specificity is a clue that something is about to happen.
In the next bit, the words: “a strange bright point” followed by mysterious smoky trails tell us just enough to imply impending action. Not yet willing to give away the action, Rusch then artfully turns our attention to a class of fourth graders. Who’s the intended audience of this book? Fourth graders. Brilliant. Only then, when the scene is set, the anticipation built, and the relatable characters introduced, only then does the author unleash the action. “Duck and cover!” Eager to know what happens to these kids, we flip the page.
Using the Unexpected
Team Moon begins with a full-page, labeled image of the flight path of Apollo 11. Because the path is not nearly as straight forward as I had anticipated, my finger immediately starts tracing the white and then the blue lines and purple arrows. That image is coupled with a simple intro “The Dream . . . ” and a teaser “And the Challenge . . .” which has me charging forward to learn more.
The next page is not at all what I had expected, either. There is no traditional introductory sentence, no watered down overview of the lesson we are about to receive, no generalizations what-so-ever. Instead there is an unexpected photograph (black and white, a crowd of men huddled around a tv set), lots of specific verbs (dominate, transmit, clicked), and language that gushes with enthusiasm (flat-out miracle, wonder of wonders, flush with anticipation).
Applying These Lessons
Close reading of these introductions has me reflecting on my own writing. Could I make use of more specific verbs? How can I build the anticipation? Which of the many characters in a science story will be the best hook for my target audience? I’m grateful for mentor texts such as these.
By Heather L. Montgomery
Heather L. Montgomery writes for kids who are WILD about animals. She reads and writes while high in a tree, standing in a stream, or perched on a mountaintop boulder. www.HeatherLMontgomery.com
The Out Of Left Field files this month focus on nonfiction kidlit resources. Readers and teachers, if you have any interesting resources to share, please leave them in a comment below.
https://www.nonfictionminute.org/ The Nonfiction minute offers a searchable archive of 400-word essays written and read by nonfiction kidlit authors. Each is accompanied by lesson suggestions.
https://www.melissa-stewart.com/sciclubhouse/teachhome/teach_home.html Nonfiction author Melissa Stewart offers fabulous nonfiction reading resources, nonfiction writing resources, revision timelines and more. Don’t miss her blog!
https://www.geekwrapped.com/science-books-for-kids 100 great science books for kids!