Bonnie Bader is editor-in-chief of Grosset & Dunlap and Price Stern Sloan, imprints of the Penguin Young Readers Group.
She acquires novelty books, chapter book series, and middle grade and YA paperback series (all genres).
Bonnie's introductory word at the beginning of the conference was "start," and that's what she's talking to us about: the beginnings of our work.
She started out as an editorial assistant, where her job was reading the slush pile. An editor said to her, "If you don't like the first line, reject it."
She'll read more than the first line, but really, if it has a great first line or first paragraph, she's going to want to keep reading.
Likewise, kids today are overstimulated: texting, watching TV, doing homework...all at the same time. Kids need to be hooked from the start.
An example of a mediocre first line, rewritten from a successful book:
Jane Doe was 10. She had reddish, brownish hair, freckles, and big glasses.
This is an interactive class, and Bonnie asked us to rewrite it. Give it a try (the first example volunteered turned poor Jane into the abandoned child of a prostitute--so you can let your imagination run wild). Read the first line of Lois Lowry's Anastasia Krupnik to learn the first line this was based on.
Another weak first line to rewrite:
My name is Sarah Jones and last summer, my father told me to go to the store to get some macaroni and cheese, some rice, and two tomatoes.
(The author of the first example in our session made the revised tomatoes "overripe," which Bonnie really liked. It's evocative and makes the character sympathetic.)
The real first line comes from Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo (where Opal goes to the store and comes home with a dog).
You want the first line to lead you into a story. As Bonnie used to tell her mystery writers, "end with a cliffhanger."
Bonnie likes shorter lines to really grab you. A long sentence exhausts you by the time you finish the first paragraph.
Dialogue can be a good way to start a book for a younger audience. You don't always have to do this. (Charlotte's Web does this well: "Where's Papa going with that ax?")
Other lines she likes:
"Sometimes it seems like all I ever do is lie." (The Princess Diary by Meg Cabot.)
"It's my first morning of high school. I have seven new notebooks, a skirt I hate, and a stomach ache." (Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson.)
"We went to the moon to have fun, but it turned out the moon totally sucked." (Feed by M.T. Anderson)
"When the doorbell rings at three in the morning, it's never good news." (Stormbreaker by Anthony Horowitz)
"When your teacher has to die, August isn't a bad time of year for it." (The Teacher's Funeral by Richard Peck)
"The sun sets in the west. Just about everyone knows that. But Sunset Towers faced east. Strange." (The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin)
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