November 15, 2018
Every picture book must begin somewhere and those opening lines are surprisingly important. For one thing, buyers on Amazon who use the "Look Inside" feature to browse the book often only see that first page. And browsers checking out the book at a bookstore often read the first page and flip through the rest, looking at the pictures. So those opening lines can mean the difference between making a sale and not. With that in mind, let's look at some opening lines. In every one of these cases, we're looking at book where the author and illustrator are different people since that’s the situation most of our readers are in.
The Opening Lines Set the Tone and Pace
Consider this opening from The Lonely Mailman by Susanna Isern (illustrated by Daniel Montero Galan):
Every morning, just as the sun is rising, the old mailman leaves his house with a bag full of letters. He climbs onto his bicycle, and sets off on his way.
With that as the first page, we know immediately that the focus is going to be on this mailman and that we're going to see him in action, but we also recognize that the tone of this book is going to be more serious and the pacing will be slower. How do we know that? The author writes very directly, but allows the sentences to stretch in length, which leads to a slower pace. Also, the author doesn't employ rhymes, rollicking rhythm, or sound effects, all of which can be used to give a lighter, humorous feel. To see the difference, let's compare this with a book that also follows movement but with a very different tone. In this next book, the short sentences and rollicking rhythm are useful for giving a sense of movement and bounce to the story. The author also employs sounds and rhyme to add to that bright, lively tone.
This is from Little Blue Truck by Alice Schertle (illustrated by Jill McElmurry):
Horn went "Beep!" Engine purred. Friendliest sounds you ever heard.
Opening Lines Can Introduce a Character
With any character driven picture book, it's important to let us meet the main character right away and do it in a way to give us a sense of this character. Consider Firenze's Light by Jessica Collaco, illustrated by Angela Li. This book lets us see a likeable main character who will learn through the book to appreciate who she is. Notice how the author uses the pacing of sentence length to make the opening lively:
[page one] Firenze likes dancing. Firenze likes books. But there is one thing Firenze does not like...
[page two] Firenze does not like her light. "It's always shining at the WRONG TIME!"
Notice how the author doesn't want us to see Firenze as a character who is prone to fussing about things, so the story starts with positives before we meet Firenze's problem.
Let's look at an even riskier choice with a similar character who isn't quite happy with himself. The risky choice in this next example is using dialogue only as the opener. This can make it difficult for the illustrator to make different images for the pages when you've only given voices. Let's look at the opening for I Don't Want to be a Frog by Dev Petty (illustrated by Mike Boldt):
[page one] I want to be a cat.
You can't be a cat.
[page two] Why not?
[page three] Because you're a frog.
The author opens this way both to let us hear the main character speak and because of the potential humor in juxtaposing a frog with a cat. Of all the things you might imagine a frog wanting to be, a cat seems fairly unexpected. And the unexpected can be funny. However the illustrator was stuck with multiple pages of two characters talking. He chose to deal with this by making the frogs very humorous and expressive in design and by moving them to different locations.
Let's meet one more main character that uses dialogue, though this time the main character talks directly to the reader. This is from The Bad Seed by Jory John (illustrated by Pete Oswald):
[page one] I'm a bad seed.
[page two] A baaaaaaaaaaad seed.
[page three] Oh yeah. It's true. The other seeds, they look at me, and they say, That seed is SO bad!
Again, the author is taking a risk, believing that the illustrator can meet that risk since the first two pages are of exactly the same thing, the bad seed talking. The author chose to use this opening because the bad seed has such an entertaining voice, which is important for a strongly character driven story. And in this case, the concept of a tough-talking sunflower seed does give the illustrator some challenge, which he rises to admirably. Plus, drawing an onery sunflower seed had to be fun.
Opening Lines Can Help Readers Connect
Some picture books explore common childhood experiences, and it can be helpful to throw the reader right into the experience from the beginning. Let's look at Hector the Collector by Emily Beeny (illustrated by Stephanie Graegin):
It all began with an acorn. It was smooth and brown with a rough, knobbly cap, and Hector found it in a crack in the sidewalk on the way to school.
Notice again that the author is going to tell a more serious story, despite it being about collecting acorns. This opening uses a long sentence with lots of specific sensory words in it. The premise of this book looks at something children often do, collect. And this slow, serious tone mirrors the quiet, rather serious nature of the main character. But though the book rejoices in making each acorn special for Hector, it doesn't forget that we need a plot. Hector needs to encounter a problem. And he needs challenge. So Hector has to deal with his classmates discovering his collection and reacting with derision. Can Hector still love his collection when his classmates have made him feel bad about it? Notice also that the author does something generally we shy away from, focusing on visual details of the acorn. The reason it works here is because it is so important that we see why Hector was enchanted by each acorn, since they’re relatively common objects, so the text lets us really savor the acorn.
Let's look at another common childhood experience, being considered noisy. We'll look at two books about the same topic. These books are both less serious than Hector the Collector, but are still quite different even though they focus on a similar theme (mainly that listening is as important as speaking). So first we'll look at Quiet Please, Owen McPhee by Trudy Ludwig (illustrated by Patrice Barton):
Owen McPhee doesn't just like to talk. He loves to talk, morning, noon, and night. Even Hannah, his loyal hound dog, gets more than an earful of what Owen has to say.
Notice the use of contrast and escalation in the opening lines. From like to love, and on to showing how constant the talking is. This, plus the potential for showing the exhausted hound dog, offers humorous options to the illustrator for the opening. Throughout the book, the illustrator uses speech bubbles to give us constant commentary from Owen––well, at least until everything changes! Let's look at another book that uses the speech bubble in the same way, Wordy Birdy by Tammi Sauer, illustrated by Dave Mottram:
Meet Wordy Birdy. Wordy Birdy has lots to say. It starts the moment she wakes up. See?
This opening is very brief, and uses the character's name to humorous affect. It also speaks directly to the reader, asking the reader to judge if Wordy Birdy is really so wordy.
Opening Lines Can Introduce the Theme
This is a tricky use of opening lines and requires some skill, but in a very serious book, it's not uncommon. For example, in Nonni's Moon by Julia Inserro (illustrated by Lucy Smith) we open with a bit of dialogue between mother and child that tells the theme in one sentence, though the whole book will expand on the theme to make it more hopeful for the listening child.
It was bedtime. The moon was up and Beanie's mom was tucking her in. "I miss Nonni," said Beanie.
"Me too," said Mom. "It's hard living far away from people we love."
Another book that puts us straight into the theme is The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by Rafael Lopez. In this book, the author explores the difficulty of being different and again gives the child hope and enlightenment. She does it by opening with a simple fact that will be true for every reader: "There will be times when you walk into a room and no one there is quite like you."
So as you begin your picture book, ask yourself what your opening lines do for you:
- Do they reveal the tone and pacing?
- Do they engage the reader with a common childhood experience?
- Do they let us here the voice of the main character?
- Do they use humor to grab attention?
- What do your first words do?
Jan Fields is a full-time, freelance author and an Institute of Children's Literature Instructor. Would you like to have your own instructor teaching you on a one-on-one basis? Show us a sample of your work here.