"Keep scribbling! Something will happen." Frank McCourt

Friday, August 13, 2010

First Chapters and Children’s Books

Recently, my daughter bought her first home. Why do I care? Because now I will live with her and she can take care of me. Kidding. Sort of. It means that she will now have room to store her childhood memories and books that I had been storing for her.

During one of her sorting days, she handed me a child's book and said, “You should read this. It’s really good. It’s scary. She also wrote The Dollhouse Murders.”

Her big eyes grew bigger.

The book? Christina’s Ghost by Betty Ren Wright for grades 3-6. Since my daughter read at a 6th grade level in 2nd grade (yes, I’m bragging), it probably did scare her, hopefully in a thrilling way.

Of course, I wanted to investigate this 1985 children’s book.  As with all writing, I wanted to find its secrets. This is what I found in chapter one.

There is a first line hook.

“Chrissy’s going to throw up again!” Jenny shrieked the news. What child isn’t interested in bodily functions? Either children laugh or are disgusted or both when bodily functions go wrong. Either way, the first line is urgent and begs the questions:

  • Who’s Chrissy?
  • Why is she throwing up?
  • And who is Jenny?
There are characters introduced.

We meet Chrissy the MC, Jenny her sister, Uncle Ralph, and Aunt Grace. We hear mention of Grandma, Mom, and Dad, the Blackwells, and a dog.

  • We learn about Chrissy that she’s a “tomboy”, gets car sick, feels unwanted, and bites her nails.
  • We get the feeling that Chrissy participates in her own life doesn’t just observe.
  • We learn snippets about the other characters too.
There is conflict.

Conflict begins in the first lines when we see that Chrissy has to ride in a car (resulting in car sickness) with a grumpy uncle. We also see that Chrissy has no control over her immediate circumstances as her plans are changed, in a moments notice, and she must stay with her uncle apart from her sister until their parents return.

There is  setting.

The setting, in the first chapter, is the road to grandma’s house, grandma’s house before Chrissy sets out on another three hour road trip with Uncle Ralph.

However, the haunted house isn’t part of the first chapter setting.

There is dialogue.

  • There is "kid talk" between two sisters.
  • There is sister to sister arguing.
  • The uncle’s dialogue is filled with impatience with Chrissy.
  • There is quarreling between the uncle and the aunt (much like the younger siblings).
As I read the first chapter of Christina's Ghost,  I realized crucial information was carefully placed to draw in a child reader and to keep he or she reading. Isn't that what it's all about...the capture?

15 comments:

  1. The capture is important, you have just a short time to grab the interest and leave them wanting more.

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  2. Absolutely -- the point is to capture and enchant as soon as possible, to keep those pages turning.

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  3. We can learn a lot about children's books. They do simply what we must do in our novels.

    CD

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  4. The capture is it. Once you're captured you have to read until the very end to get every detail.

    Mason
    Thoughts in Progress

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  5. I'm sure I've read this when I was little, but I can't remember. But you're right about the gross bodily functions in kids' books. Boys especially seem riveted by things like boogers and farts, lol!

    Every writer can learn a lot from children's novels and stories. Unlike for some adult novels, there's no room for lollygagging in a kids novel. You've gotta get right to point or kids won't stick around!

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  6. Since there's fewer words, a writer needs to captivate faster. I wonder what would happen if we all looked at our work in that manner.

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  7. It's all about the big hook. You have to remember how short a child's attention span is.

    We used to laugh at school 'round the lunch table that our conversations always seemed to include some form of bodily fluid.

    God bless and have a marvelous weekend!!!

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  8. That reminds me, I still have a lot of books at my mothers house, plus some other things. It's kind of hard to get it to California from Tennessee without going to great expense. And she's not complaining about it-- she's got lot's of room.

    Lee
    Tossing It Out

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  9. I love to read and write. Growing up I had my nose in a book constantly, and I could walk through the house, get something from the fridge and make it back to my room without ever having lifted my eyes from the pages! Ha.

    When I was a teenager, the book that I loved so much was "Fifteen", by Beverly Cleary. I suggest reading that if you haven't, no matter what your age. As a matter of fact I lent it to a cousin growing up, in which they later "lost" it. I think they kept it because they loved it too. Just being honest! Ha. I recently bought a copy of it through Barnes & Noble and even at 40 years old...still I love this book.
    Also, Nancy Drew Mysteries. No matter the fact that Nancy always solved the mysteries I liked reading about where it would take place, what Nancy and her friends were wearing, and the dangers...and what would happen next.
    Good Memories!

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  10. Congrats to your daughter on her first house! I'm sure it was fun for her to go through all her keepsakes.

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  11. Oo. I like that, the capture. Great breakdown of a successful first chapter.

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  12. That is a very good opening line, especially for a kids book. Thanks for itemizing the first chapter. This is how a book should be written.

    Stephen Tremp

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  13. I thought that when my daughter bought a home she would be more than happy to take all of her kid/college stuff with her. Didn't happen, and I'm kinda glad. She married and moved a few times, losing keepsakes along the way. She's thankful that I still have her "old memories". Good and informative post!

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  14. That really is a great line for hooking our young readers! I can totally see my girls wanting to keep going!

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  15. Kids' books are among the best of what writing has to offer. Betty Ren Wright is one of the best writers out there.

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