Some authors like to open their books with verbal fireworks designed to grab attention. Others hook the reader with bold hints of what is to come. These are tried and true methods and there’s no reason not to appreciate them.
But there’s nothing quite like a simple and seemingly mundane declarative sentence to open a book. I love it when an author opens with a sentence that has no spectacular or shocking content on the surface, doesn’t hint strongly of any underlying mystery, seems to contain no real action or urgency, but yet…entices me to keep reading.
Not everyone can pull it off. A book that starts with a sentence like, “The sky was blue,” would not entice me to keep reading. Sure, it is simple and declarative. But it isn’t interesting. No, to be interesting, a sentence must have some sort of secret ingredient, something that reaches out from the seemingly mundane and gives the reader a subtle elbow in the ribs as if to indicate that attention must be paid.
It’s an even greater challenge to open with such sentences in literature written for kids. Kids are busy. They have lives to lead, trees to climb, bikes to ride, Lego sets to build, soccer practices to attend. They don’t have time for boring sentences. Nevertheless, there are countless examples of authors writing marvelously mundane opening sentences for kids. Here’s one example:
“On a warm October night in Chicago, three deliveries were made in the same neighborhood.”
What could be more boring than a sentence about deliveries? And yet, we are left wondering…what kind of deliveries? Packages, letters, babies, what? Delivered by whom? In a truck or on foot? And why does it matter? In short, it is a mundane sentence with only a half-finished thought, a sentence that is pregnant with possibility and has the subtle effect of forcing the reader to continue reading. Another example:
“When the city of Ember was just built and not yet inhabited, the chief builder and the assistant builder, both of them weary, sat down to speak of the future.”
The City of Ember
You get the idea. This, essentially, is a sentence describing a city planning meeting. Anyone who has ever visited a meeting involving the planning department knows one thing: it isn’t exciting. Why, then, do I want to keep reading? There is some sort of secret ingredient in that sentences. What is it?