Let’s take a look at openings to various middle grade novels. How do contemporary storytellers hook young readers?
The year I turned twelve, I learned how to lie.Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk
Many middle grade books are about twelve-year-olds, as this is widely considered the liminal age between childhood and adulthood. Fictional characters mature a lot between the ages of twelve and thirteen.
Lying is also a huge theme in middle grade fiction, but more than average in this particular book. We spend our entire childhoods learning not to lie, then, suddenly, we must all absorb the reality that a certain amount of lying is necessary, actually.
Coraline discovered the door a little while after they moved into the house.Coraline by Neil Gaiman
When Gaiman introduces us to the door in the first sentence he tells us this will be a portal fantasy. It is also a moving house story, and grounds us in time: The move has just happened. And the main character’s name is Coraline.
There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Disembodied hands are a horror trope. Darkness is important in horror as well. The first sentence tells us: This is a middle grade horror.
The British Airways Airbus A318 had been kept in a holding pattern before it landed at Heathrow.Nightshade by Anthony Horowitz
Honestly, this opening feels no different from the opening to an adult thriller. It contains the level of detail of a Michael Crichton novel. A plane in a holding pattern is nothing to write home about in real life, but as an opening to a novel? Something’s about to go wrong.
When the doorbell rings at three in the morning, it’s never good news.Stormbreaker by Anthony Horowitz
Sometimes writers open stories with a universal truth, or sometimes with a truism.
Universal Truth: A truth is considered to be universal when it applies to all places and times, logically transcending the state of the tangible and physical universe around us. Stories which open with universal truths sometimes hook into the main ideas (theme) of the story, but we don’t realise that until later. The main point of the opening sentence: To encourage readers to read sentence two.
Truism: A statement that is obviously true and says nothing new or interesting. These need to be subverted to be interesting, probably in the next sentence.
Night came quickly to Skeleton Key.Skeleton Key by Anthony Horowitz
Sounds like the opening to a Stephen King novel. The place name intrigues. Darkness also intrigues because monsters may lurk in it. An ‘earlier than expected’ darkness suggests winter, perhaps in a dystopian sense.
The Amazon jungle. Fifteen years ago. It had taken them five days to make the journey, cutting their way through the dense, suffocating undergrowth, fighting through the very air, which hung heavy, moist and still.Eagle Strike by Anthony Horowitz
I am a reader who really appreciates when authors ground me in place and time right away. Sometimes when writers do this, they insert as a title, but I have a bit of banner blindness (I literally don’t notice Internet advertising, for instance). I’d been working somewhere almost four years before realising that the above-the-margin space at the top of the weekly staff bulletin was utilised to put VERY IMPORTANT INFORMATION. Everyone else seemed to have worked this out except for me.
All this to say, if you open like Anthony Horowitz does here, with the place and time as part of the story, you’ll avoid confusing people with banner blindness (or chapter heading blindness, as we might call it).
These work like dialogue tags of ‘said’ — readers don’t even notice them, which is great. The real first sentence begins, “It had taken them five days…”
My dad fell in love with Mum while eating a pie. Her parents owned a bakery on the coast and when she wasn’t studying at uni, she worked behind the counter.Penguin Bloom (Young Readers’ Edition) by Shaun Grant, Chris Kunz, Harry Cripps
It’s unusual for a middle grade novel to open with a paragraph about the child’s parents rather than the child themselves. It makes more sense to learn that this book has been adapted for young readers from a biographical movie of the same name (2020) rated PG.
I could be anywhere. Shadows from flickering tree branches dance across the bed and the floor is littered with a mountain of junk parts.Metal Fish, Falling Snow by Cath Moore
The first sentence tells us our viewpoint character has just woken up in a strange place without using those exact words. The second sentence gives us personification of shadows. This place seems alive, and therefore ominous.
The moon is patient. High in the sky, she waxes and wanes.Dragon City by Katie Tsang and Kevin Tsang
With mention of the moon, we know this is going to be magical fantasy, especially since the moon is personified with ‘she’.
Great. You’re here. I might as well get this whole messed-up story off my chest.Best Nerds Forever by Chris Grabenstein (for the James Patterson franchise)
When first person intradiegetic narrators tell a story, there’s (usually) an unspoken reason for writing: To get something off one’s chest or to come to some realisation in the process of retelling. Sometimes writers are very specific about this reason on the page, and in this case, in the opening line. The colloquial adjective ‘messed-up’ turns an otherwise prosaic opening into something intriguing. The hook is ‘messed-up’.
‘I can’t wear that!’ wailed Perry, when his mother pulled his costume out of the suitcase.
‘It’s what Roman boys used to wear,’ she insisted, dropping it over his head.The Boy Who Stepped Through Time by Anna Ciddor
Pearl Cole lived in a bookshop.
When most people said that, they meant that they spent so much time at the library, the theatre, or their workplaces that they felt as if they lived there. But for Pearl this was not the case.The Grandest Bookshop In The World by Amelia Mellor
The summer sun shone brightly through the window of Witch Cottage. Sitting at the table were Gem, Ghost Henry and their friend Amira, who was holding a baby dragon tightly between her hands.Little Gem and the Mysterious Letters by Anna Zobel
My name is Joy Applebloom, and I am ten years old. My family used to move around. A lot.Love from Joy by Jenny Valentine
You have arrived for a better life at the New House in the New Land. It has been a long journey, the first time you’ve ever been on an aeroplane.A Glasshouse of Stars by Shirley Marr
Hannah Plum was standing in ankle-deep snow trying to do up the last button on her labradoodle’s doggy jacket.Plum and Woo: The Suspicious Scarf by Lisa Silberry
A Pop! of magic echoed in the woods. The sound bounced from tree to tree as a girl with one eye and two plump, hairy fairies landed ungracefully on the ground.Witched! The Spellbinding Life of Cora Bell by Rebecca McRitchie
‘What do you think?’ Granddad looked up with a twinkle in his eye. ‘Any ideas?’
Bella stared at Granddad’s workbench. As usual, it was covered in springs and screws and something-or-others of all shapes and sizes.Bella and the Voyaging House by Meg McKinlay
Dusty was eleven when they found the snow pony.The Snow Pony by Alison Lester
When I was little, a kid pointed at me on the playground and shouted, “Her arms fell off!” then ran away screaming in terror to his mom, who had to cuddle him on her lap and rub his head for like ten minutes to get him to calm down.Insignificant Events In The Life Of A Cactus by Dusti Bowling
Everything I say is important. Or at least, that’s what my mum tells me.The Boy Who Made Everyone Laugh by Helen Rutter
Sunday Moon had a lot on her mind that stinking hot February afternoon. And it wasn’t just because she was standing on her head.Save the Joeys by Samone Amba
The Screeches and squawks of a dozen birds bounced off the walls of the tunnel. Just out of reach of their sharp, nipping beaks, the family hurtled along in a ragged line, trying to escape.Edie and the Box of Flits by Kate Wilkinson
Oh boy! Oh boy! Oh boy!Dinosaur Disaster! Dog Diaries by Steven Butler (James Patterson)
You’ve picked up this book in your five fingery-digits at just the right moment, my person-pal.
Mum was at work, Connor was in his room and I was dropping rocks down the storm drain at the end of our street.Rainfish by Andrew Paterson
When Malian woke up and looked out her window, the dog was there. Just as she had dreamed it would be.Rez Dogs by Joseph Bruchac
Matthew Zajac lay in his bed in his room at the top of the stairs. He was surrounded by library books: Magnetic North, Into the Ice, Journey to the Farthest North, and Animals of the Arctic.The Song of Lewis Carmichael by Sofie Laguna
When you live by the sea, you can smell summer storms brewing. The tide sucks in the water, whispering out a salty sigh that churns up the scent of approaching rain.The Rosewood Chronicles: Princess at Heart by Connie Glynn
17th JulyThe Lightning Catcher by Clare Weze
I’m not sure how you’re meant to start journals, but here goes: We moved to Folding Ford in April and now it’s July, and maybe it’s because we’re new here, but to me it’s completely obvious that this village is cracked.
Gizmo was a city dog. A prince of the urban jungle.New Hounds: The Puppy Problem by Laura James
Braidwood, New South Wales, June 1874
A Mystery Passenger
It was raining frogs the afternoon Ma Grimsby sidled up to Paw in the chilly Cobb & Co coachyard as he and Jem waited for the passengers to board the night mail coach to Goulburn.Night Ride Into Danger by Jackie French
Monday, April 30Flight of the Puffin by Ann Braden
This is going to be the best sunrise ever. I slather on more orange paint, catching the drips with my paintbrush and mixing them into the hot pink.
August is still the summertime. So why do we have to go back to school?Finding Junie Kim by Ellen Oh
‘The full moon rose over us,’ Layla sang, while she carefully joined two pieces of metal together in the broiling, cramped welding bay. The air was hot and humid, not even the whisper of a breeze disturbing the still summer afternoon.Listen, Layla by Yassmin Abdel-Magied
There is absolutely no storybook magic in our family. We don’t have a granddad who can fly, or an uncle who is busy somewhere building a time machine, or parents who are world-famous wizards-in-hiding.A Girl Called Joy by Jenny Valentine
‘You have two choices, Laurie. You can either get some food out of the bines to take to the party or you can get back into the car and sulk.’Beauty and the Bin by Joanne O’Connell
When people ask about my family, I always say that Josh is my twin brother. It’s easier that way. It saves a whole load of explaining.Proud of Me by Sarah Hagger-Holt
The tiger padded through the night. Joe Maloney smelt it, the hot, sour breath, the stench of its pelt.Secret Heart by David Almond
Here’s a question. How would you like it if somebody in your house — your Uncle Ernie, for instance — decided to turn it into a fish-canning factory?The Boy Who Swam With Piranhas by David Almond
I found him in the garage on a Sunday afternoon.Skellig by David Almond
They thought we had disappeared, and they were wrong. They thought we were dead, and they were wrong.Kit’s Wilderness by David Almond
Rayna was confidently leading them in the wrong direction.Ice Wolves by Amie Kaufman
It was the middle of winter and the middle of the Great Depression when Kenny Sinclair set out to find a job.Wolf On The Fold by Judith Clarke
Before she felt even the first twinge in her belly, the she-wolf set out to find a remote birthing den.Wolves of the Beyond: Lone Wolf by Kathryn Lasky
PROLOGUES VS FIRST CHAPTERS
A half-moon glowed on smooth granite boulders, turning them silver.Warriors Into The Wild by Erin Hunter
Is there a difference between first sentences that tend to open prologues and first sentences that tend to open Chapter One? The opening of Warriors Into The Wild above is the first sentence of the prologue. Now let’s take a look at the first sentence of Chapter One:
It was very dark. Rusty could sense something was near.
These two openings to the same book exemplify a broad and general difference: Prologues are frequently more dream-like, working with mythos, whereas first chapters plunge the reader into chronos; in other words, from mythic, fairytale time to realworld, concrete, measurable time. Prologues frequently focus on the setting rather than on what a particular character is doing, which again works to make a story feel universal, like it could be happening to the reader as much as to any given main character.