Tag Archives: Rosanne Parry

Start with a Bang–Or Not: Story Openings

     “Begin with a bang!” Is the advice I’ve heard as a writer over and over from the very beginning.
     “Kids attention spans are short.”
    “Grab them from the very first line and don’t let them go!”
     It seems like sound advice. Certainly there are clear advantages to beginning a book with a scene of physical action, high suspense or emotional intensity. It establishes what’s at stake at once and sets up an expectation for a fast paced, high energy plot. It can create an element of mystery or suspense. It can highlight a distinctive voice

 

     A splashy opening is lots of fun to write and who doesn’t love a gripper of an opening line? And yet in my own writing I’ve come across a few limitations to the big bang beginning. For example, If the reader doesn’t identify with the MC right off the bat, the stakes you create won’t matter to your reader. Also there is a danger that the reader
 may not know who the MC is and feel sympathy for and loyalty to a character you don’t intend them to. A power house opening can feel manipulative & jarring at best and over-wrought & silly at worst. And sometimes a very intense first scene sets an expectation that’s nearly impossible to top.

     So what’s a writer to do? I have always been drawn to a high action beginning, but more and more often I’ve found myself editing out my zippy opening paragraphs or moving them a page or two into the story.
As I often do in a quandary I turn to the books of authors I admire, to stories I’ve found moving. In a quick search on novel beginnings. I chose 12 books, 10 of which were published in the last 15 years. They were all award winners and strong sellers. To my complete shock only one of the 12 had an action opening. Number the Stars by Lois Lowry begins with the main character and her friend racing home from school only to be stopped and questioned by a Nazi soldier. Two others had action scenes that started within the first 3 pages, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson and Heart of a Samurai by Margie Preus. And in the case of Speak the it’s a scene of great emotional intensity rather than one of action in the classic sense.
But by far my sample of best selling and award winning books did not begin with action. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie begins with an explanation of encephalitis, and its repercussions in the life of the narrator Junior. The first scene that has anything resembling action is actually a moment of incredible emotional power in which Junior’s father shoots Junior’s dog because they can’t afford to take him to the vet. The scene occurs on page 9. Holes by Louis Sachar maybe the most popular MG novel ever to win the Newberry, but it does not begin with action either. Stanley doesn’t start digging a hole until page 26.
So what are those authors doing in those precious first pages?

In every book I looked at they were introducing me to a character so unique and compelling that I cared about what happened when the high stakes action finally came into play. They opened not with a bang but with a voice–a choice well worth emulating.
So here’s my reading challenge for the week. Pick up 5 of the books you’ve read in the last year that you admired the most. Go look at the opening scene and analyze what you see there? You might be surprised. I’d love to hear about your favorite opening scenes in comments below.

 

Wet and Windy: Books about Boats and the Water

“The owl and the pussycat went to sea in a beautiful pea green boat…” Ogden Nash

My husband and I have been rather fixated on boats lately; we’ve spent the past several weeks shopping for what is very likely our last step up, to a 30-foot sailboat. It’s not big as sailboats go, but it’s big to us.

Since we met more than 30 years ago, we’ve spent much of our time on or near the water, first in a homebuilt kayak he brought into the relationship, then a series of other small boats. About 14 years ago, he asked if he was being hasty by investing in a “real” sailboat. Hasty? You’ve got to be kidding. Just get the darned thing! He did. We’ve been enjoying real sailboats since.

There is something about the water. I grew up in arid central Oregon wandering the banks of rivers that became trickles in some places in summer. We lived six hours from the coast. When I was a middle grader, my family moved East, and I had my first view of an ocean.

It’s been a love affair ever since, between me and the water. When I met my husband, that love affair extended to boats.

It’s about more than transportation, as Ratty and Mole demonstrate in The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame. “Messing about in boats” is a lifestyle that for us includes wandering the docks of any coastal town we visit, from Greece to Monterey to Halifax. It also includes binoculars for spotting sea birds (and whales!), water shoes for tide-pooling, and every wildlife and plant guide we can carry.

Pacific Intertidal Life: A Guide to the Organisms of Rocky Reefs and Tidepools of the Pacific Coast, by Ron Russo and Pam Olhausen fits in a pocket. We also carry laminated sea bird and saltwater fish guides, the better to explore the many layers of the ecosystem around us.

And we read books about boats, about people who use the water as livelihood, about people who weather storms and find courage in facing the unknown.

My Dad introduced me to the allure of the sea-going story when I was 9 or 10 by sharing some of his childhood favorites, like Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson, and Captains Courageous, by Rudyard Kipling.

Over the years, I’ve found others as well, like Avi’s The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, a swashbuckling story of murder and the integrity of a young girl.

The Wanderer, by Sharon Creech, told through the travel logs of two young sailors, stuck with me a long time.

Boston Jane: An Adventure, the first in Jennifer Holm’s “Boston Jane” series, has the main character, refined young Jane Peck, traveling aboard ship from Philadelphia to a new life in the Northwest.

Our own Rosanne Parry’s Turn of the Tide delivers the excitement and magical allure of sailing as well as the dangers of ignoring the power of our environment. I was really taken with another water-related story line in this contemporary novel, and that was learning more about the Columbia River bar pilots who navigate this unique waterway in the United States. These professionals are trained specifically to navigate the Columbia’s treacherous bars and tricky currents.

Touch Blue, by Cynthia Lord, is an obvious choice, set as it is on an island. This gentle and heartwarming book is filled with the essence of what I love most about the water, and the special attachment one can form for living a life near it.

For older middle grade readers (or grownups), Clare Vanderpool’s Printz-Award winning Navigating Early is a beautiful read for just the right kid, and those who love archaic language and history might also enjoy Joshua Slocum’s Sailing Alone Around the World, a favorite among sailors everywhere.

My Mixed Up Files friends shared many other titles with me, and goodness, how my own TBR list has grown! Here are some they mentioned:

Windcatcher, by Avi

Beyond the Bright Sea, by Lauren Wolk

Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, by Gary D. Schmidt

Flutter, by Erin Moulton

Heart of a Samurai and The Bamboo Sword, by Margi Preus

I’ve got one on hold and the rest in my library wish list now.

Do you have a favorite book about sailing, boats, or the sea? I’d love to add even more to my list.

 

Middle Grade Books For Military Appreciation Month

May is National Military Appreciation Month, a time for all of us to reflect upon the historical impact of the military, and honor those who served or are currently serving in the armed forces. Here are fiction titles for middle grade readers with an interest in stories that relate to the U.S. military (both past and present) and want to explore the lives of children who have family members serving.

Heart of a Shepherd by Rosanne Parry
When Brother’s dad is shipped off to Iraq, along with the rest of his reserve unit, Brother must help his grandparents keep the ranch going. He’s determined to maintain it just as his father left it, in the hope that doing so will ensure his father’s safe return. (From MUF contributor Rosanne Parry.) 

 

 

 

Max: Best Friend. Hero. Marine. by Jennifer Li Shotz
A moving story about Justin, whose older brother Kyle is killed in Afghanistan, leaving behind not only a grieving family, but a traumatized military canine named Max. When Max and Justin meet, the heartbroken boy and the troubled dog may be able to help each other as they grapple with their loss—if they’re able to learn to trust each other. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt 

Sixth grader Ally may be smart, but things aren’t easy for her. Her military dad has been deployed overseas and she’s struggling in school because of a undiagnosed learning disability. But with a new teacher and a supportive group of buddies, Ally may have a chance to come out of her shell and find her own, unique way.  

Code Talker: A Novel about the Navajo Marines by Joseph Bruchac
A fictional story inspired by true events of the incredible Navajo code talkers of World War II, whose unbreakable code, using their native language, saved countless American lives. In this older middle grade/early YA story, readers meet sixteen-year-old Ned, a Navajo teen who becomes a code talker.

 

Operation Yes by Sara Lewis Holmes
On the highly disciplined Air Force base, sixth-grade teacher Ms. Loupe sure is different–from her unique style to her interest in improv and theater games. But her students come to love her, and when Ms. Loupe’s brother goes missing in Afghanistan, the kids and and the community come together to support her.

 

 

Peace, Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson
Lonnie and Lili are siblings who are in separate foster homes after their parents died in a fire. Both are in loving homes, but Lonnie wants to be sure the siblings stay in touch, so he writes his little sister a series of letter to remember each other and their lives together. In them, we learn about Lonnie’s life, and the issues raised when Lonnie’s foster brother is injured in the war and returns to live at home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


(Younger elementary and early MG readers will appreciate Woodson’s picture book, Coming oComing on Home Soonn Home Soon, during World War II. It tells the story of Ada Ruth, who stays behind with her grandmother when Ada Ruth’s mother leaves for Chicago, one of the many women filling jobs left empty by the men who went off to fight in the war.)  

 

 

 

 

You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen by Carole Boston Weatherford and Jeffery Boston Weatherford
Thirty three poems about the famous Tuskegee Airmen, the World War II American fighter pilots. Racism meant their bravery and accomplishments were woefully underappreciated for far too long after the war.

 

 

Lily’s Crossing by Patricia Reilly Giff
It’s 1944, and Lily is spending the summer with her grandmother in Rockaway, New York. When Lily’s father is drafted and Lily’s best friend moves away, Lily finds herself sad and alone. That is, until she meets a Hungarian refugee her own age named Albert, and the two bond in this realistic and age-appropriate portrayal of what life during World War II. Lily's Crossing