Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Famous first words.

How to start a story?  The words you pick are important, and to prove it, let’s see if you can match up these famous first words with the story they’re taken from. 

I’ll let you know the answers in a few days, but I think you’ll be able to figure it out on your own.  ;-)

(By the way, I started out trying to pick only ten, but the list gradually bulged to 11, then 12, where I put my foot down and left it the way it is now.)

1 Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy. The Tale of Despereaux,
by Kate DiCamillo
2 Once upon a time there were four little Rabbits, and their names were - Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail, and Peter. The Jungle Book,
by Rudyard Kipling

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

The Very Hungry Caterpillar,
by Eric Carle
4 This story begins within the walls of a castle, with the birth of a mouse. The Phantom Tollbooth,
by Norton Juster
5 Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. The Tale of Peter Rabbit,
by Beatrix Potter.
6 These two very old people are the father and mother of Mr. Bucket. Murmel Murmel Murmel,
by Robert Munsch (got to throw in a Canadian!)
7 It was seven o’clock of a very warm evening in the Seeonee hills when Father Wolf woke up from his day’s rest, scratched himself, yawned, and spread out his paws one after the other to get rid of the sleepy feeling in their tips. Where the Wild Things Are,
by Maurice Sendak
8 There was once a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself—not just sometimes, but always. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,
by C.S. Lewis
9 Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. Charlotte’s Web,
by E.B. White
10 The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another his mother called him “WILD THING!” and Max said “I’LL EAT YOU UP!” so he was sent to bed without eating anything. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Sorceror’s Stone in the U.S.),
by J.K. Rowling
11 When Robin went out into her backyard, there was a big hole right in the middle of her sandbox. Winnie the Pooh,
by A. A. Milne
12 In the light of the moon, a little egg lay on a leaf. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,
by Roald Dahl

I can think of so many more great ones, but I will stop at 12.

image This probably isn’t that hard a test, because a great opening line, followed up with great writing and great characters, sticks in our memory… in many cases, forever.  So most of these matches should be obvious.

I’ve included this not just to trigger your memory of wonderful children’s-book opening lines, but because I think all these lines (in different ways) make a terrific point:  the story gets going RIGHT AWAY, right off the bat. 

As a children’s book author, you can’t fiddle about and take ten pages to introduce your characters and their daily life.  You have to start in with something exciting almost right away.  You have to get kids asking questions, like:

  • What?  A hole?  How did it get there?
  • Who is Winnie the Pooh and why is he bumping on the back of his head?
  • What’s Max going to do with no supper?
  • What the heck kind of wolves can tell time?
  • What IS papa doing with that axe?

It’s also interesting to see that the older a kids’ book is, generally the longer the author takes to warm up.  That’s true in adult writing as well.  Modern audiences are not known for their patience, and a long warm-up line like Kipling’s probably couldn’t make the cut in modern children’s writing (in some cases, Kipling’s writing seems more aimed at adults in any event). 

The older kid’s books also start out in a way that everybody tells you not to today.  I put two of them together to show it off deliberately:  “Once [upon a time] there were four _____ (children, rabbits) whose names were ________ (Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy; Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, Peter).”

Modern books of all kinds don’t generally introduce characters in this kind of up-front way. 

In a film course, I once learned that in old movies, a character at home might say, “I’m going to the store.”  Then, the director would show the character driving to the store, getting out and going inside to pick up some milk.  Today, if the scene is included at all, it’s about ten seconds – a guy tells someone he’s buying milk, and flash – he’s back home with the milk (unless something happens at the store that you need to show!).

So why did they make them clunky like that?  They had to!  Viewers 100 years ago would have found it confusing if the milk just appeared in the character’s hands.  And now that movies have been around for a while, we know the conventions and would find that sort of storytelling deathly dull.

imageDitto with children’s books.  It’s deathly dull to start out “This is Veronica and she is six years old.” 

What would your kids do if you showed them a new child and announced, “This is Veronica and she’s six years old”?  If they’re anything like mine, they would probably ignore her.

But what if you start with, “This is Veronica and she’s going bump bump bump down the stairs by the back of her head”?  “This is Veronica and she found a big strange hole in her sandbox.”  “This is Veronica and she’s heading out with an axe.” 

That last one, at least, might get them to look up from their book.

(Oh, yeah, did I mention that all 4 of my kids are big readers?  Wonder where they got that from!)

So these books are some of my favourites.  What opening lines or first words of kids’ books stand out in your memory???


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