Because I’m starting to write a new book of my own, I’m particularly interested in beginnings at the moment. This week I decided take a closer look at the first paragraphs of ten middle-grade fantasies I’ve read recently. I wanted to check out two things. First, how many of these books had beginnings I consider intriguing? Which would I have continued reading if I wasn’t on a mission to dissect middle-grade fantasies to improve my own writing? Second, I wanted to get a feel for whether or not books live up—or down—to the promise of the first pages. How often did I like books with ho-hum openings? How often did books with clever beginnings feel like a letdown farther on?
What follows this isn’t scientific analysis, just personal opinion. I don’t think even my most analytical scientist-friends would have an easy time figuring out something like this scientifically; there’d be too much variability in what people think of the beginnings of books and what they think about the books overall.
When evaluating the beginnings of these books, I discounted the prologues, if any. Three of the ten books had official prologues; that is, sections labeled “Prologue.” One book, The Lightning Thief, had a sneaky little well-written half page that was actually a prologue but wasn’t labeled as such: a closet prologue, so to speak. I was generous and counted that as the actual beginning of the book, even though it wasn’t fooling me, not even for a minute.
One of the three out-of -the-closet prologues was truly execrable, in my opinion, and seemed to be there only to tie together a funky structure. Here’s the beginning of it, from The Ruins of Gorlan: “Morgarath, Lord of the Mountains of Rain and Night, former Baron of Gorlan in the Kingdom of Araluen, looked out over his bleak, rainswept domain and, for perhaps the thousandth time, cursed.” Seriously? Yikes. The other two prologues were well written, but I discounted them anyway and skipped right to the main dish.
I had an overwhelmingly positive reaction to the openings of six of the ten novels. First paragraphs and first pages of books as varied as Liesel and Po, Saavy, Benjamin Franklinstein Meets the Fright Brothers, A Tale Dark and Grimm, The Lightning Thief, and My Very UnFairy Tale Life all hooked me. They did it by raising questions in my mind, tickling my sense of humor, reeling me in with a great voice, or doing more than one of these at the same time. In my opinion, only one of these books, My Very UnFairytale Life, failed to fully live up to the promise of its first pages. It wasn’t bad; it just wasn’t as good as the other books with intriguing beginnings. To summarize, if these books are representative, I’d have to say that good first pages usually mean a good book.
But do less-than-stellar first paragraphs or even un-thrilling first pages mean a mediocre book? Maybe not. The openings of four of the ten books elicited a lukewarm or less-than-lukewarm reaction from me, but I read on, and ended up liking three of the four (all but The Ruins of Gorlan). I liked one of them so much I read it twice. That wonderfully funny book, The Wee Free Men, was the only one that had a beginning that would have stopped me cold if I didn’t have another reason for reading the book. Here’s how it opens: “Some things start before other things. It was a summer shower but didn’t appear to know it, and it was pouring rain as fast as a winter storm. Miss Perspicacia Tick sat in what little shelter a raggedy hedge could give her and explored the universe. She didn’t notice the rain. Witches dried out quickly.” My reaction was: Huh? And I only got more confused when I learned that Ms. P wasn’t really a main character. However, this was an utterly fantastic, laugh-out-loud book by a writer who could keyboard circles around the rest of the best. Just goes to show, you never can tell.
So what are my conclusions? As a reader, I learned that good first pages mean odds are better than even that the rest of the book rocks, too. But non-hook openings—especially old-fashioned first chapters that slowly introduce you to a character and his or her surroundings—are not necessarily a sign of yawns to come. So I’ll be keeping the faith and giving writers a chapter or two of grace before putting the book down and switching on NetFlix.
As an unpublished writer, though, I’m afraid the lesson is that only awesome first pages will cut the mustard. I better aim for great voice, intriguing questions, and if possible, a smile or two. Terry Pratchett can afford to give a puzzling first chapter to a secondary character. His thousands of loyal fans will forge on. Most of the rest of—including me—don’t have that luxury.
A book-by-book breakdown of opening pages follows.
Positive reaction – intrigued, definitely keep reading
“On the third night after the day her father died, Liesel saw the ghost.”
–Lauren Oliver, Liesel and Po
My reaction: Whose ghost was it? Her father’s? If not, then whose? What was the encounter like, and what happened next? Keep reading.
“When my brother Fish turned thirteen, we moved to the deepest part of inland because of the hurricane and, of course, the fact that he’d caused it.”
–Ingrid Law, Savvy
My reaction: Wow, a kid started a hurricane? How? Why? Keep reading.
“It was a typical, sunny summer afternoon on Karloff Avenue. A woman was watering plants in her garden. A mailman was making his daily rounds. Two mothers with strollers chatted on the sidewalk. And high above them, balanced precariously on the chimney of the oldest house on the block, Benjamin Franklin was disco dancing while mooing like a cow.”
–Matthew McElligott and Larry Tuxbury, Benjamin Franklinstein Meets the Fright Brothers
My reaction: Oh, fun! Benjamin Franklin disco dancing on a roof in modern times? How? Why? Keep reading.
“Once upon a time, fairy tales were awesome. I know, I know. You don’t believe me. I don’t blame you. A little while ago, I wouldn’t have believed it myself. Little girls in red caps skipping around the forest? Awesome? I don’t think so. But then I started to read them. The real, Grimm ones. Very few little girls in red caps in those. Well, there’s one. But she gets eaten.”
–Adam Gidwitz, A Tale Dark and Grimm)
My reaction: Fantastic voice. Speaker likes violent action, so this isn’t going to be your average fairytale. Keep reading.
“Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood. If you’re reading this because you think you might be one, my advice is: close this book right now. Believe whatever lie your mom or dad told you about your birth, and try to lead a normal life. Being a half-blood is dangerous. It’s scary. Most of the time it gets you killed in painful, nasty ways. If you’re a normal kid, reading this because you think it’s fiction, great. Read on. I envy you for being able to believe that none of this ever happened.”
–Rick Riordan, The Lightning Thief
My reaction: OK, maybe not my thing, but I bet kids would eat this up. I’ll keep reading.
“You know all those stories that claim fairies cry sparkle tears and elves travel by rainbow? They’re lies. All lies. No one tells you the truth until it’s too late. And then all you can do is run like crazy while a herd of unicorns tries to kill you.”
– My Very UnFairy Tale Life, Anna Staniszewski
My reaction: Fun voice, murderous unicorns. Keep reading.
Lukewarm reaction – OK, I’ll keep reading
“I’m going to die of boredom here, Sabrina Grimm thought as she looked out the train window at Ferryport Landing, New York.” Then comes a description of the town, the weather, the kids, and how they’re on a train. Then one of the kids speaks: “Do they have bagels in Ferryport Landing, Ms. Smirt?”
–Michael Buckley, Prologue, The Fairytale Detectives
My reaction: Right, I liked that thing about the bagels. I’ll keep going for a few pages on the strength of that. (Turned out to be a really fun book.)
“Once upon a time, a girl named September grew very tired indeed of her parents’ house, where she washed the same pink-and-yellow teacups and matching gravy boats every day, slept on the same embroidered pillow, and played with the same small and amiable dog. Because she had been born in May, and because she had a mole on her left cheek, and because her feet were very large and ungainly, the Green Wind took pity on her and flew to her window one evening just after her twelfth birthday.”
–Catherynne M. Valente, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making)
My reaction: Reluctantly lukewarm, verging on less than lukewarm. OK, I’ll bite: What’s the Green Wind? What’s so important about May, the mole, and the feet? What happens to the little girl? I’ll keep reading because I’ve heard this is a good book.
“’Try to eat something, Will. Tomorrow’s a big day, after all.’
Jenny, blonde, pretty and cheerful, gestured towards Will’s barley touched plate and smiled encouragingly at him. Will made an attempt to return the smile but it was a dismal failure. He picked at the plate before him, piled high with his favourite foods. Tonight, his stomach knotted tight with tension and anticipation, he could hardly bring himself to swallow at all.”
–John Flanagan, Ranger’s Apprentice
My reaction: Meh. But this is the first book in one of my son’s favorite series, so I’ll keep going. (I am leaving out the excruciating prologue, which my son admits he also skipped.)
Less than lukewarm – I’ll read this because I trust the author based on previous work or because I’ve heard the book is good
“Some things start before other things. It was a summer shower but didn’t appear to know it, and it was pouring rain as fast as a winter storm. Miss Perpsicacia Tick sat in what little shelter a raggedy hedge could give her and explored the universe. She didn’t notice the rain. Witches dried out quickly.”
–Terry Pratchett, The Wee Free Men
My reaction: Huh? Keep reading because I read another book by this writer long ago and really liked his sense of humor. Maybe it will get better. (It did.)