Beginnings – Part I

Beginnings are vital to stories. Some people state, “You need to hook your reader immediately!” If that feels too predatory consider the phrase, “You need to quickly engage your reader by making them curious AND making them care.”  If there is no question at the beginning of our story how can we expect readers to care enough to read till they find the answer or solution.

Novelists are told this vital act of engagement must occur in the first paragraph. Or, at least within the first page. As picture book writers we have even less time and fewer words. As always, we can learn from the best.

GILA MONSTERS MEET YOU AT THE AIRPORT by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat. Illus by Byron Barton. Macmillan, 1980.

I live at 165 East 95th Street, New York City,

And I’m going to stay here forever.

My mother and father are moving. Out West.

They say I have to go, too.

They say I can’t stay here forever.

Illus. by Byron Barton

SMOKY NIGHT by Eve Bunting. Illus. by David Diaz. Harcourt, 1994.

Mama and I stand well back from our widow, looking down.

I’m holding Jasmine, my cat. We don’t have our lights on

though it’s almost dark.

People are rioting in the street below.

Illus. by David Diaz


IMAGINE HARRY by Kate Klise. Illus. by M. Sarah Klise. Harcourt, 2007.

Little Rabbit had some very nice friends.

But he had only one best friend: Harry.

Some of the other animals called

Little Rabbit’s best friend Imagine Harry.

But Little Rabbit just called him Harry.

Each of these beginnings manages to set both scene and conflict within very few words. We know within seconds that a child is resisting his family’s move, that there is frightening violence outside a child’s door, and that Little Rabbit’s friends are mocking him.

As authors/storytellers it is important that we engage our young audience immediately. We don’t get to stand along side editors, agents or readers promising: “Just a bit more and it will get exciting” or “Just keep reading and you’ll see where I’m going.” Before we submit a new picture book story let’s challenge ourselves by asking: “Is there anything I could do to leap into the story more quickly or spark the tension?” Is the clock ticking? What does my protagonist want? And, what is what is causing the tension?

Next time: Some alternative ways to jump-start a picture book story.