“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
“Out to the hoghouse,” replied Mrs. Arable. “Some pigs were born last night.”
“I don’t see why he needs an ax,” continued Fern, who was only eight.
As you probably know, the above excerpt is the opening of E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, a classic in children’s literature. When I was a child, it was one of my favorite books. When I read the first page and realized those cute little piglets could be in danger, I kept reading. Fern’s concern about a threat to the piglets is established right away, and I had to find out if and how Fern could stop this horror from occurring. I was hooked. The same goes for picture books I love. I’m compelled to read past the first page in picture books whose openings create a strong curiosity about a situation:
On a cold afternoon, in a cold little town,
where everywhere you looked was either the white of snow
or the black of soot from chimneys,
Annabelle found a box filled with yard of every color.
In these first lines of Mac Barnett’s Extra Yarn (illustrated by Jon Klassen), I was pulled in by my wonder of how this colorful yarn was going to affect the plain little town.
Although both these examples of opening lines grabbed me quickly, others may need to read further to know a book is a keeper. In novels, authors have some time to lure the reader in. A writer of longer works can take a few paragraphs to set the tone, or even a few pages to a chapter or so to bait the reader into the character’s voice or world. But in picture books, you have the first page. You’ve got to hook ‘em fast and come out swinging. It’s vital to the life of your story. Be it picture books or novels, if the author doesn’t capture the reader early on, the chance of losing the reader increases. A lot.
But what elements make a strong hook? What is it that pulls the reader in? To help you with examining your openings, I am going to give you an assignment. Don’t worry. There’s no exam at the end. I’ll use the honor system!
- Focusing on the category in which you write, list some of your favorite books.
- Next, list some books you never finished…ones that lost you in the first chapter or two. Or for picture books, choose ones that fell flat for you on the first page.
- Head to the library or bookstore (you probably own your favorites) and read the opening page or paragraphs.
- Note what grabbed you in your favorites. Study what seized your attention. Was it the voice? The immediate world building? Strong senses the opening elicited in you? A unique premise? A creation of curiosity?
- What was lacking in those books you never finished? Analyze where and why the openings of those unfinished books lost your interest.
- Finally, examine the opening of your work in progress. Does it contain elements that will compel the reader to turn the page? Or does it fall short of the mark?
This exercise can help clarify what makes a strong hook and what doesn’t. Study the first pages of other works to help make your book’s opening the strongest and sharpest hook it can be. Then reel ‘em in!