Posts Tagged volcanoes

STEM Tuesday– Tectonics: Volcanoes, Ring of fire– Writing Tips & Resources

How to Start a Story

What’s one of the hardest parts of writing? Writing very first paragraph (like this one)! The first paragraph of any piece of writing, also called the “lead,” has to accomplish a lot. It must give the reader an idea of what the piece is about. And it must pique the reader’s interest and encourage them to keep reading. How do writers do it?

To find out, I studied the openings in several books from this month’s book list.

Start with a Question

Did you notice I used this technique to begin this blog post? It’s the same technique Kathleen M. Reilly uses to open her book, FAULT LINES & TECTONIC PLATES:

“Did you know that the surface of the planet Earth is similar to one enormous puzzle? A puzzle is made up of anywhere from a few pieces to thousands of pieces. And each piece has a very specific shape that allows it to fit perfectly against another piece of the puzzle, right?

Take a close look at the shape of the continents on our planet. If you study them very carefully, you’ll see that they kind of look like puzzle pieces. …”

What else do you notice about Reilly’s beginning? She uses second-person point of view (you) to address the reader directly. That makes you feel like you’re part of the story. She also introduces the analogy of the puzzle, which she builds on subsequent paragraphs. It helps her explain plate tectonics in a reader-friendly way.

But are questions the only way to start a story? Nope. Read on.

Start with a Scene

In THE BIG ONE, Elizabeth Rusch starts her story this way: “At first you don’t notice the shaking. You think a bus or truck is rumbling by. But the trembling doesn’t start. A few seconds later, paintings and photos on the wall swing slightly. Glasses and dishes rattle. Thud. Bang! Objects all around you – cellphones, water bottles, books – slide off surfaces and clatter to the ground. …”

What do you notice about this opening?

Just like Reilly, Rusch has used second-person POV to put the reader in the story. But she’s gone even farther. She’s put the reader in the middle of the action – an earthquake! She’s used details from the five senses to help us see, feel, and hear what it would be like to experience an earthquake as it happens. And the action is unfolding minute-by-minute, like a television or movie. It’s a captivating opening for sure.

Make It Personal

Johanna Wagstaffe starts with a personal recollection in FAULT LINES: “When I was four years old, I lived with my family in Tokyo, Japan. I remember seeing the polite nods and warm smiles in the crowded subways, riding on the back of my mother’s bicycle through the alleys of the city, and wishing we could visit the five-story Sanrio store. I also remember the regular earthquake drills in our kindergarten class. We would scramble to get under the desks and then line up and march outside. It seemed like a fun game at the time, but there was a seriousness about it.

I first felt the ground move one day when I was playing at home after school. …”

Wagstaffe goes on to relate her first-hand experience of an earthquake.

What is your response to this opening?

Like Rusch, Wagstaffe paints a scene filled with vivid details, but instead of having us imagine ourselves in the middle of the action, four-year-old Wagstaffe is the main character. And she’s the main character and a character in real trouble – an earthquake. What will happen to her? We have to keep reading.

Your Turn

Grab several nonfiction books and study the first paragraph of each. How does the story start? Has the author used one of the techniques we’ve discussed or something different? Did the opening give you an idea of what the book is about and get you excited to read more? Why or why not?

Whenever you’re stuck, remember all these options for openings. Test some out and see what works.

More great posts about story beginnings:

Kirsten Williams Larson author

Kirsten W. Larson


Kirsten used to work with rocket scientists at NASA. Now she writes books for curious kids. She is the author of  WOOD, WIRE, WINGS: EMMA LILIAN TODD INVENTS AN AIRPLANE, illustrated by Tracy Subisak (Calkins Creek), an NSTA Best STEM BOOK, A TRUE WONDER: The Comic Book Hero Who Changed Everything, illustrated by Katy Wu (Clarion), which earned two starred reviews, and the forthcoming, THE FIRE OF STARS: The Life and Brilliance of the Woman Who Discovered What Stars Are Made Of, illustrated by Katherine Roy (Chronicle, Spring 2022), as well as 25 nonfiction books for the school and library market. Find her at or on Twitter and Instagram @KirstenWLarson.

STEM Tuesday — Natural Disasters — Author Interview with Amy Cherrix

Welcome to STEM Tuesday: Author Interview & Book Giveaway, a repeating feature for the fourth Tuesday of every month. Go Science-Tech-Engineering-Math!

Today we’re interviewing Amy Cherrix, author of EYE OF THE STORM: NASA, Drones, and the Race to Crack the Hurricane Code.

Mary Kay Carson: Tell us a bit about Eye of the Storm and how you came to write it.

Download a Discussion & Activity Guide for the book.

Amy Cherrix: Eye of the Storm is the story of an elite group of NASA meteorologists and the Hurricane Severe Storm Sentinel mission (HS3). These scientists and engineers re-purposed military drones to conduct high-altitude hurricane research. This Global Hawk drone was built for use in dry climates. Global Hawk is so delicate, it cannot take off during so much as a light rain shower, yet it can fly safely high above hurricanes–the most violent storms in nature’s arsenal. How’s that for irony? The drone is loaded with remote control science instruments that measure humidity, air pressure, temperature, and more. The Global Hawk’s pilot flies the aircraft using a computer mouse and keyboard from a control room on the ground that is hundreds, or thousands, of miles away from the aircraft.

I stumbled onto this incredible story while engaging in my favorite Saturday morning activity. I love to pour a big cup of coffee and surf the website (an activity I highly recommend to science enthusiasts and story writers). When I read about the HS3 mission, I knew I had a great book idea on my hands. I sent emails to the mission’s principal investigators and within an hour, replies from NASA were pouring into my inbox. NASA is a public agency and its scientists love to share their work. I accepted a generous invitation from the mission’s principal investigator, Dr. Scott Braun, and visited NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on the coast of Virginia to observe the mission. I interviewed drone pilots, engineers, meteorologists, and mechanics. Every single person was deeply invested in the mission’s success. It was inspiring.

MKC: Anything you’d like to share about the time you spent with researchers while writing this book?

Amy: The scariest part of writing this book was not knowing if the team would have a hurricane to study while I was visiting Wallops Flight Facility. What would I write about if nothing happened while I was there? But sometimes, things just work out for the best.  Hurricane Edouard formed soon after my arrival and was the best storm the HS3 team had studied to date! It was an ideal sample, staying far out to sea, not threatening land, and it spun for days. They were thrilled and it was an unexpected honor to be present at such a high-point of the mission.

MKC: Why do you choose to write STEM books?

Amy: I write STEM stories because I have always been insatiably curious about science and the natural world. When human beings try to overcome the forces of nature—whether it’s gravity, or the weather—challenges abound. Scientists confront these impossible challenges everyday. That’s their job. I’m fascinated by that kind of determination, patience, and persistence.

Amy Cherrix is the acclaimed author of In the Shadow of the Moon: America, Russia, and the Hidden History of the Space Race, as well as two middle-grade nonfiction books in the award-winning Scientists in the Field series: Backyard Bears: Conservation, Habitat Changes, and the Rise of Urban Wildlife and Eye of the Storm. Her newest STEM picture book is Animal Architects (9/7/21), from Beach Lane Books/Simon & Schuster.

MKC: For readers who loved The Eye of the Storm, what other middle-grade books would you suggest?

Amy: I highly recommend every book in Houghton Mifflin’s Scientists in the Field series, of which Eye of the Storm, is a part. There’s something for everyone; thrilling stories about science in the fields of geology, biology, seismology, meteorology, genetics; just about any branch of science you can imagine. These books show young readers that science is much more than a white coat and a laboratory. Science is adventure!

MKC: Could you share where you are right now on a current project and how you’re approaching it?

Amy: I’m working on a new STEM picture book series for Beach Lane Books called Amazing Animals. I just finished the first book in the series that publishes on September 7, 2021 called Animal Architects, illustrated by Chris Sasaki. Many animals, both on land and in the sea, build amazing structures to help them trap food, attract mates, or hide from predators. From undersea cities of coral, to a mother penguin’s palace of pebbles, the natural world is a construction zone. I spent months reading books, watching nature videos, taking notes, and studying photographs to collect their stories. The second book, Animal Superpowers, publishes in fall 2022. I approached Animal Architects with a spirit of wonder. I wanted to inspire readers’ curiosity. To do that, I created a list of the various structures animals and insects build. Then I imagined what questions young readers might ask of nature’s builders. The answers I found surprised me at every turn. For example, before writing this book, I’d never given termites a second thought. But I learned that some species of termites build giant, naturally air-conditioned towers. How cool is that? These tiny insects work together as a colony to build a home that helps them survive as a group. We can learn a lot from nature. I hope this new series inspires young readers to ask their own questions about the natural world, and consider what actions they can take to protect our planet and its creatures.

Win a FREE copy of EYE OF THE STORM!

Enter the giveaway by leaving a comment below. The randomly-chosen winner will be contacted via email and asked to provide a mailing address (within the U.S. only) to receive the book.

Good luck!

Your host is Mary Kay Carson, author of Wildlife Ranger Action Guide, The Tornado ScientistAlexander Graham Bell for Kids, Mission to Pluto, and other nonfiction books for kids. @marykaycarson