Archive for September 5, 2008

Opening Sentences: Great Beginnings

There’s nothing quite like the first sentence in a book. After all, it’s the first. Numero Uno. Isn’t that what we all do, in bookstores and libraries? We scan the cover, read the flap, crack it open and read the first few lines, maybe a paragraph or two, and . . . DECIDE.

My all-time favorite opening sentence comes from E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, and I know it (almost) by heart:

“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

How do you NOT read the next sentence? An ax! Daddy? I’m alarmed, almost as much as Fern. Where IS he going with that ax?

Here’s some other first lines, taken almost at random. The list is not exhaustive or well-researched. I’d love to see more contributions in the comments section:

The day Shiloh come, we’re having us a big Sunday dinner. (Shiloh, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor)

Again, wow. Those words, “come” (not “came”) and “us” signaling a rural voice and setting, a voice we’ll grow to love, to root for, a voice that will pull us all the way through.

Brian Robeson stared out the window of the small plane at the endless green nothern wilderness below. (Hatchet, Gary Paulsen)

Nothing fancy here. But again: setting, character, and foreshadowing in one simple sentence. A grammatical aside: I love the lack of commas in that description of the endless green nothern wilderness.

Here’s some more I like. I’ll save my writerly observations for, I hope, a later discussion:

Under a chill, gray sky, two riders jogged across the turf. (The High King, Lloyd Alexander)

Miyax pushed back the hood of her sealskin parka and looked at the Arctic sun. (Julie of the Wolves, Jean Craighead George)

It was almost December, and Jonas was beginning to be frightened. (The Giver, Lois Lowry)

Bradley Chalkers sat at his desk in the back of the room — last seat, last row. (There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom, Louis Sacher)

On a warm October night in Chicago, three deliveries were made in the same neighborhood. (Chasing Vermeer, Blue Balliett)

My name is India Opal Buloni, and last summer my daddy, the preacher, sent me to the store for a box of macaroni-and-cheese, some white rice, and two tomatoes and I came back with a dog. (Because of Winn-Dixie, Kate DiCamillo)

A long time ago, when all the grandfathers and grandmothers of today were little boys and little girls or very small babies, or perhaps not even born, Pa and Ma and Mary and Laura and Baby Carrie left their little house in the Big Woods of Wisconsin. (Little House on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder)

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling — ever heard of it?)

Personally, I’ve never written a great first line — too hard, I guess — though I like the one that began Ghost Cat and Other Spooky Tales:

“Aaaaaaccck!” Mother screamed.

The book I’m revising now, Bystander (Feiwel & Friends, Fall, 2009), begins — as of now — this way:

The first time Eric Hayes ever saw him, David Hallenback was running, if you could call it that, running in a halting, choppy-stepped, stumpy-legged shamble, slowing down to look back over his shoulder, stumbling forward, pausing to catch his breath, then lurching forward again.

It is my hope that this post leads to some kind of discussion, responses, comments. So please — readers, teachers, students, librarians, dogs who can type — what’s your favorite opening sentence? Maybe we can grow this into something. Create a list. Vote. Any students out there?

What makes a great first sentence, anyway?

Fan Mail Wednesday #11

Wednesday again? My God, where do they come from?! It’s like the savage hordes coming over the hill, but instead of sword-wielding huns it’s, um, hump days. Well, let’s see what’s in the old mailbox, shall we?

Full disclosure, this is an abbreviated, slightly edited version of an email I received today:

I have been a Little League President for the past eight years. My son and I read your book, Six Innings, together for summer reading . He actually read without my nagging! He loved it! He so related to Colin’s and the benchwarmer’s feelings. In fact, at a league meeting last night I encouraged all the managers to read along with their boys. Thank you again for putting in words the experiences that are so meaningful to all players.

I replied:

I appreciate the kind words. Like you, I’ve been very involved with Little League for the past ten years or so (I’m currently BURIED with “Fall Ball” details). You know, I remember the first signing I did for this book. I assumed that I’d be seeing all sorts of baseball-crazy boys — the star athletes — and it surprised me at first when a lot of the boys looking for signatures were clearly not star players. They were, of course, the readers. Or, as I thought to myself, they were the boys who maybe loved the game, even if the game didn’t love them back. I think it’s so important to remember those kids. The ones who struggle to catch a ball or make a hit. We tend to focus too much on All-Stars and the so-called best players. That’s why I focused on a typical team, rather than a team of All-Stars in, say, the Little League World Series. I wanted all types. I’m glad that I had Patrick Wong on that team, the boy who wasn’t a star, full of doubt and worry; and glad, too, that when he made a play it was a simple one. He didn’t suddenly hit a grand slam. He hit a foul ball. He worked out a walk. He caught a grounder (and, yes, struck out twice and made an error, too). But he contributed in his way.

My best,
James Preller

Come to Sunnyside!

I’ve been fortunate enough to participate in “Children’s Book Day” at Washington Irving’s Sunnyside twice over the the past several years. I encourage any children’s book lover to come spend the afternoon with more than 60 children’s book authors and illustrators in the beautiful riverfront setting of Sunnyside, about one mile south of the Tappan Zee Bridge in New York. Put together by the dynamic duo of Susan Brandes and Beth Vetare-Civitello, The 11th Annual Children’s Book Day is a festival for young readers, families, and friends, who can meet authors and illustrators, get books signed, spend too much money, listen to music, watch performances, or just stroll the historic grounds.

The date is Sunday, September 28th, from 11:00 – 5:00. For more information, as my friend Greg Ruth would say, click furiously here!

This year’s authors and illustrators will include: Nick Bruel, author/illustrator of Bad Kitty; Gail Carson Levine, author of Ever; Raul Colon, illustrator of Play Ball; Jean Craighead George, Julie of the Wolves; James Howe, Bunnicula; plus Jerry Pinkney, Tor Seidler, Hudson Talbott, Peter Sis, Jules Feiffer, Jean Van Leeuwen, Ed Young, Dan Greenburg, Tony Abbott, Susan Jeffers, Bruce Degan, Todd Strasser, G. Brian Karas, and many, many more

By the way, Beth and Susan guarantee beautiful weather. No, I don’t know how they do it, either.

New Website: Ellen Miles

Everybody, move over. My friend, Ellen Miles, the author of “The Puppy Place” series and “Taylor-Made Tales,” has just joined the blogosphere. Her new site is brilliant — fresh, alive, and very kid-friendly (just like Ellen!). Please take a moment to check it out. Ellen is especially interested in hearing from her readers. Her site even has games!

My second-grade daughter, Maggie, has read and enjoyed many of Ellen’s books. As she should, because Ellen does a remarkable job. If you know a dog-lover, be sure to check out Ellen’s “Puppy Place” books.

I met Ellen long ago, in 1985 I think, when we both worked at Scholastic. I was a junior copywriter working on the SeeSaw Book Club, living in Brooklyn and making $12,500 a year, while Ellen was an editorial assistant working under Jean Feiwel. We’ve been friends ever since, quietly and not-so-quietly rooting for each other from the sidelines. Ellen is a great woman, awesomely cool, and a talented writer who has dedicated her adult life to children’s books. She’s already accomplished great things, and I’m certain that the best is yet to come.

The Writing Process: Humble Beginnings

Now that school is here, I hope to write some pieces that more directly speak to students who might be interested in writing. I previously mentioned a new book I’m thinking about, as opposed to, um, actually working on, though I suppose they are one and the same. You can’t exactly write without thinking (and believe me, I’ve tried, doesn’t work).

So, anyway. I have an idea for a character who gets into trouble at school. The book is about this kid, and, in part, the surprising relationship he builds with the school principal. But how and why does this boy get into trouble? What does he do? What kind of hilarious escapades can I conjure? Then one notion hit me over the weekend: He smuggles a goldfish into school!

I love that idea. I can WORK with that idea. That is: There are possibilities that appeal to my (bent, twisted) sensibilities. So then begins the series of questions: How does he do it? Why? What goes wrong (because something must go wrong)? I’ve already daydreamed over a host of options — involving a thermos, soup broth, and a swallowed goldfish — but I know I’m not there yet. I’ve got to learn more about tropical fish, and probably make a visit to my local fish store (Davey Jones’ Locker on Delaware Avenue). Maybe they’ve got some ideas; research like that always helps, talking to experts always helps.

Yet I did “hear” a line of dialogue, a principal bemoaning something like, “Because of your actions today, an innocent goldfish is dead.”

I wonder if any of that will make it into the book? I wonder if this kid has got a name?