Among the many books I’m drawing from for lessons is Ann Whitford Paul’s Writing Picture Books. She talks about the “story question” of a book, an idea I think of as the character’s need and theme bundled up together. Getting the reader involved with the character’s need is imperative from the get go, otherwise why will she turn the page? So, how do you do that? What’s the hook?
At the 2014 NESCBWI conference, Jo Knowles presented a fantastic workshop on baiting the hook, “Let’s Go On a Journey.” She proposed a series of questions that every book opening should answer:
- Who is the main character?
- What do you know about him/her? How?
- What is happening?
- Is there a conflict? What is it?
- What is the overall emotion conveyed?
- Would you keep reading? Why/why not?
Up & Down features two characters (the Boy and the Penguin) established in Lost & Found (Philomel, 2005). Lost & Found can be described as “a wonderful story about the meaning of loneliness and the importance of friendship.” Up & Down continues that theme by looking at the importance of individual growth within a relationship.
It opens with a spread that establishes the relationship between the Boy and the Penguin with the text:
“Once there were two friends…”
The second spread continues:
“who always did everything together. Until the day the penguin decided there was something important he wanted to do by himself…”
The third spread takes the reader inside the head of the Penguin so that she can see his dream:
Run that opening through the magic of Jo’s Questions and you’ll see they’re all answered. And unless you’re the Grinch, pre heart-expansion, you want to read on. Now, in a middle-grade novel you’re more likely to hit these points within the first two pages. The brevity of text and the interplay with the pictures allows Jeffers to breathe space into the opening. And yet, there’s a ton of story in there that reveals the tone, the protagonist, the need, and addresses Anne Whitford Paul’s “story question.”
Now it’s your turn. Pull a book off the shelf, and give it a close read. How does it compare? Make notes. Next, take a look at your draft and do the same. You might find the opening needs a little revision love–I know mine did.