A picture book is an equivalent of a movie in 32 pages, 12-14 spreads. It needs to start somewhere significant, build up the tension, resolve the conflict and come to an unexpected climax and end with a reassuring touch.
It needs to tell the story in as few words as possible. The illustrations do tell rest of the story. However it is so unlike a chapter book for the emergent reader or the novel you write for a generation that has grown up reading Harry Potter.
There is no time to set the scene, the mood or the preface of what is to come. There is no space to show the characters all lined up, the universe in which the story happens or the rules of the universe.
Therefore the first sentence becomes very important. Looking through some of the older picture books, first lines are not always on a page-turn. But they still carry a bigger responsibility than the subsequent lines.
Like in every form of art or machinery, every part have to do their bit, all components of the picture book have a role to play in making the story memorable, repeatable, readable night after night to a young child who listens to it as if he or she is listening to it for the first time.
In my opinion, the first line needs to do a lot more than the other ones. Let’s examine some great picture books to see how the opening sentences do this.
Introducing the Character
Some opening sentences introduce the character and the setting of the character, giving no hint about what the story is about. But the images that accompany the words, the choice of words can give you hints – on what is about to transpire.
Read these words from Valerie Thomas and Korky Paul’s “Winnie the Witch”.
Winnie the Witch lived in a black house in the forest.
The images show a sinister black house. The rest of the words take their cue from the adjective Black in the first sentence. You still don’t know what the witch is going to do. But you know that black holds the key to unlock this story and make it fly on the broom.
Anthony Browne tries a similar technique in his Piggybook.
Mr. Piggott lived with his two sons, Simon and Patrick, in a nice house with a nice garden, and a nice car in the nice garage.
He introduces the characters and the emphasis on the word nice, tells the reader to expect something absolutely not nice as we turn the pages. Mr. Piggot and the Piggybook has some significance too. But we do not know what that is.
Will we turn the page to find out? You bet, I would.
I thought only ghost stories introduce suspense in the opening sentence. But these writers have introduced a wonderful suspense leading to wonderful things and sometimes not with their opening sentences.
They don’t give much away. Their first sentences do tell you who the character is. But the lines do not tell you what is about to come. They lull you into a reassuring comfort that everything is alright at this moment. But you turn the page and you are jerked into something fun, imaginative or even sinister.
In Beware of the Storybook Wolves, Lauren Child starts her first sentence with a scene familiar to most kids.
Every night Herb’s mother would read him a bedtime story.
Nothing wrong with that. That sounds absolutely wonderful that she has the time to do it. The lines that follow take you down this garden path too. Herb knows books can be scary. She is prepared for that. She loves those stories. But her mother always takes the scary books back with her. They are never left in the room.
And you know what happens then… like in any good story, the protagonist has to face the one thing he or she feared.
In a complete change of style and tone, Polly Dunbar in the award-winning Penguin, uses a similar technique.
Ben ripped open his present.
The accompanying images and the rest of the page too, are as benign as this. But we know Ben goes through a series of frustrating attempts to make his presents talk. If you don’t know what the present was, read the title again.
But read the opening sentence again. It is simple. Ben has got a present and like any self-respecting child, the present has to be ripped open. If you actually pick on the tape, bring out your scissors and do not make a mess of the wrapping, then you are declared adult. What is the fun in not ripping present wrappings? Where is the fun in folding wrappers in neat piles?
Ripping his present open, Ben encounters a problem that no one would have anticipated. The first page leads you into a child’s world of stubborn tantrums, all in good spirits, unlike the storybook wolves.
Begin an Adventure
Every adventure has got to begin somewhere. Adventures need triggers. Something that hints at the events to come. When you read these lines, you know that you are going to find the protagonist set off on a journey of fun, chaos and more.
The adventure can be simply in the high street or it can be in castles, dungeons and even in outer-space. The important thing is to start the story off, with that clue. To tell the reader to hang on to the book as there is rollicking fun about to come.
Here are two contrasting books – one from the great John Burnigham and the other from a very recent success – Kristina Stephenson.
The Shopping Basket – John Burnigham
“Pop down to the shop for me, will you Steven, and buy six eggs, five bananas, four apples, three oranges for the baby, two doughnuts and a packet of crisps for your tea.”
Sir Charlie Stinky Socks and the Tale of the Terrible Secret – Kristina Stephenson
Once upon a time there was a terrible secret hidden in a well, a well so deep, with walls so steep, the secret would never get out.
When you get a shopping list that long for a boy – you know something is bound to happen. Are the eggs going to hatch? What will happen to the bananas? Will Steven remember his shopping list?
And then you find out it is a lot more than that. It is about being bullied on the way home. It is about being stuck up by bears, kangaroos and monkeys. It is about dealing with trouble and cleverly managing it. Depending on the age-group of the reader, you can get different things from it. Even mathematics.
And then read about Charlie Stinky Socks. The proclamation of a secret. Not any ordinary secret. A terrible secret. And it is hidden in a well. It can’t get out. Can it? Of course it is going to get out. What hero worth his salt would leave the secret alone?
So how do I write my own first sentences? Well, that would depend on the story. You have to be faithful to your own story. These are various techniques I have managed to infer. I am really not sure if the writer or the writer-illustrator meant to do it. But as a reader, as an examiner of picture books, I think the opening lines have done a good job
- Introducing the character
- Introducing suspense
- Hinting on the adventure about to follow
Opening sentences can do a lot more. Keeping in mind then when you write the first few sentences, not all might be in the first page or the first spread, the author has to make the first sentence do a bit more work than the subsequent ones.
The first sentence also has a moral responsibility to deliver. If you hint at adventure, please do give me an adventure. Do not let down the reader. That’s cheating. If you show me images of dinosaurs like in “How do Dinosaurs Say Good Night?” by Jane Yolen – I am expecting dinosaurs after the first sentence
How does Dinosaur say good night when Papa comes to turn off the light?
I am also expecting bed-time rituals. The first sentence also hints to me that it is going to rhyme. And the listener is ready for a rhythm. For a wonderful world of dinosaurs saying good night. Can you make the listener say good night on time too? That of course is your problem.