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First Words

First words, first looks, everything that creates a first impression is in play when you pick up a book for the first time. The importance of a book’s opening line is never more clear than in any book written to lure a teen or capture a middle-grader’s attention. I re-discovered the value of openings the other day. Drifting through Barnes and Noble with a latte in hand, I came upon a table full of books for kids. Although I know when I was at Borders we always had the classics out to meet the summer reading programs, I don’t remember the table being so full of new titles. After choosing several and reading their openings, I decided some time spent on the first words of a novel and their impact upon the reader might be of interest and provoke some thought about your own writing. As you read these openings, think about the first impressions you craft. What exactly are you doing with the words you choose? What effect do you want to create? Are you successful?

Olive’s Ocean, a Newberry Honor Book by Kevin Henkes has a tightly written opening that pulls the reader through the book’s set up in barely over a page and invokes a mystery. The opening paragraph in chapter two answers the mystery and introduces a second. And the race is on.
Chapter One

“’Are you Martha Boyle?’
Martha nodded.
‘You don’t know me,’ said the woman at the door. ‘Olive Barstow was my daughter. I was her mother.’
Martha heard herself gasp. A small, barely audible gasp.”

We are immediately pulled in and linked to Martha’s emotional response. In the next few paragraphs we discover that Olive’s mother found a locket in her daughter’s journal and wants to give it to Martha.

The question raised is why? Why is Martha acting like she is? Why does Olive’s mother think the locket should go to Martha?
Chapter Two.

“Olive Barstow was dead. She’d been hit by a car on Monroe Street while riding her bicycle. That was all Martha knew.”

Question raised; question answered. Now we have another big question to add to the pot and a second mystery: Why did Martha receive the locket? Henkes spends the rest of the novel answering that question.

In Shredderman: Attack of the Tagger by Wendelin Van Draanen, the first sentence says it all.

“Bubba Bixby was born big and mean, full of teeth and ready to bite.”

Here, the voice and a succinct picture of Bubba plant our reader-feet solidly into the story and leave us with little time to do anything but hang on and go for the ride. Why does this first sentence work? What are the various elements that are melded together to make a powerful opening statement?

I’ll leave you with your thoughts ’till next time.

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