Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Let's Look at Leads and a Giveaway

by Suzy Leopold

Time to learn about leads and opening lines of well-written stories.

The first lines of a story use the just right words to give a reader a quick peek at the character[s], setting, and story line.

The opening lines must hook a reader. The lead is filled with power to keep the reader turning the page. Coax the reader to continue reading.

A writer must spend time crafting a compelling opening to support all of the hard work of planning, researching, writing, and rewriting a manuscript. These first words help to shape a story.

"The lead must do real work."
--Wiliam Zinsser

How can a writer bring color and cadence to one's story idea through a carefully crafted opening line? 
My students and I begin by examining mentor texts. Recently published books are studied and analyzed. Students are encouraged to read like a writer.
"If I don't like the opening sentences, I put the book back 
[on the shelf]--even if I like another book by that author."
--Peter, 5th grader

As an educator, I need to support students in understanding the lead sentence--the opening sentence, and how it must compel the reader to continue.

Together let's take a look at three nonfiction picture books.
Written by
 Sandra Moore
Illustrated by Kazumi Wilds

Author Sandra Moore begins with these two sentences with a POV from a bonsai tree:

"I was born nearly four hundred years ago on the island of Miyajima. As I pushed up through the dirt, I saw my reflection in the mountain lake."

Written by Julie Leung
Illustrated by Chris Sasaki
Does this opening line, written by Julie Leung, capture your interest?

"Before he became an artist named Tyrus Wong, he was a boy named Wong Geng Yeo who traveled with his father across a vast ocean to America, clutching a bundle of papers in his hand."
Written by Miranda Paul
Illustrated by John Parra

This opening line, by Miranda Paul, includes two sentences and a page turn.

"For thousands of years, people have loved stories about heroes.

Mythical heroes, historical heroes, and
even . . . "

All three of these leads use the element of "show, don't tell". Each book depicts sensory images. Color and cadence are used in the opening lines. Do you note specific nouns and strong verbs? 

Additionally, I note the three authors' voices included many of the Five Ws. The illustrator, too, incorporated images to support the opening lines.

Through pictures:
an inanimate object
Through words, “As I pushed up through the dirt, . . .” Through pictures: a tiny seedling pushed its way through the soil Through words,
“. . . nearly four hundred years ago . . .”
Through words:
“ . . . on the island of Miyajima.” Through pictures: In a forest
Through pictures: a tiny seedling with a big story

Through words, “. . . an artist named
Tyrus Wong . . . Through pictures:
Father & son aboard a ship
Through words, “ . . . an artist named Tyrus Wong, . . .” Through pictures:
Immigrant, Tyrus & his father
Through pictures:
People aboard a ship from years ago. 

Through words: . . . “Across a vast ocean to America,
 . . . “
Through pictures:
Immigrants aboard a ship from years ago 
Through pictures & words: An implied theme of immigration to seek better opportunities
Through pictures: heroes Through words, “. . . people have loved stories about heroes.”
Through pictures: heroes
Through words, 
For thousands of years,. . .”
Through pictures: An implied location of everywhere. Through words: “. . . Throughout the years, people have loved stories about heroes.”
An opening line may:
  • Begin with a question.
  • Start with a fascinating fact.
  • Share an enticing andecdote.
  • State a quote.
  • Dive immediately into action.
  • Start off with a conversation that includes dialogue.
  • Depict a memorable image.
Spend time developing a compelling lead, to make every sentence that follows live up to the lead's power. 

Keep the reader wondering, inquisitive, and wanting more.

In the comments below share and write a compelling first line from a nonfiction book to be eligible to win a hand-crafted bookmark painted with watercolors. If you follow the instructions, I'll put your name in a hat and draw two winners. U. S. mail only.

I will announce the lucky winners on the next GROG Blog, March 25th. Good luck. 

1. Write the lead that compelled you to read further. 
2. Include the the title of the book, the author, the illustrator, and the publication date 
3. Remember to include your name and email address.
Post script thoughts: During this time, with many schools closed, I note many generous folks sharing read alouds, story time, activities, drawing tips, writing lessons, and more online. Thank you bloggers, authors, illustrators, etc. for encouraging children to avoid "The Spring Slide". 

Want more information? Click on Avoid the Spring Slide to find a list of links. I will continue to update the post with more resources overtime.

May our children continue to learn, grow, stay engaged and be healthy. 


  1. Hi Garden Girl, leads and the 1st 50 words are so key to keeping readers, setting the tone, and grabbing an agent/editor's eye. "When summer came, Eugenie's mother took her to swim at the beach in Atlantic City. Stuffing sticky gum into there ears to keep the water out, Eugenie dove down...down...down..." SHARK LADY by Jess Keating

    1. Such an intriguing opening line as Jess Keating describes Eugenie and Mom stuffing gum in their ears.

      Jess Keating’s author website is included on my “Avoid the Spring Slide” list of resources.

      Thank you, Kathy.

      ๐ŸŒปPrairie Garden Girl

  2. Hi Suzy. Here is one from Dancing Through Fields of Color by Elizabeth Brown Illus. by Aimee Sicuro (2019) At a time when girls were taught to sit still, learn their manners, and color inside the lines, Helen Frankenthaler colored her reds, blues, and yellows any which way she chose. Helen never wanted to follow the rules.

    1. An excellent opening line written by an excellent author. Certainly sets the reader up for wanting more and asking why Helen did not to follow the rules.

      Thank you, Janet, for contributing to this post today and for being a loyal GROG follower throughout the years.

      ๐ŸŒป Suzy

  3. Hi Suzy. I love this post. Actually, I always learn something new when I read the GROG blog. This book will not qualify because it was published in 2014 but I use IVAN, The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall written by Katherine Applegate and illustrated by G. Brian Karas to explain to students how important the opening line and illustration can be "In leafy calm, in gentle arms, a gorilla's life began." thanks for your post.

    1. And thank you, Elizabeth, for learning and growing with me and my fellow GROGgers.

      Ivan! Yes! As the title states, Ivan’s story is remarkable. The author’s remarkable (there’s that adjective—again!) opening lines sets the reader up for wanting more.

      This 2014 published book will always be remarkable (time for the thesaurus! ๐Ÿ˜†).

      P. S. Your name will be included in the drawing.

  4. Balderdash!: John Newberry and the Boisterous Birth o Children's Books by Michele Markel, Illus by Nancy Carpenter (2017) -- In those day of powdered wigs and petticoats, England was brimming with books. Books of pirates and monsters and miniature people. Tales of travels and quests and shipwrecks and crimes. At the fairs, in the market stalls, in the bookshop windows were hundreds of wonderful books. BUT NOT FOR CHILDREN.

  5. Another fantastic picture book biography that pulls the reader in and wanting to turn the page.

    Thank you, Kim, for contributing to the conversation.


  6. Great assignment for this week: look at first words of books we love.

    1. Thank you, Sue.

      Somewhat challenging times to stay focused on reading, writing, and creating.

      However, I must choose happy!

  7. I LOVE the first line in Pokko and the Drum by Matthew Forsythe (Simon Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books, 2019). Man, I don't have a copy on hand to get it exactly right, but it cracks me up every time I read it! Something like, "Giving Pokko a drum was not the first mistake her parents made." I know that is wrong, but that's the gist. You KNOW trouble is coming. LOL Still laughing...

    1. Thank you, Angie, for introducing me to a new fiction title, POKKO AND THE DRUM.

      I found the opening line by Matthew Forsythe online. ”The biggest mistake Pokko’s parents ever made was giving her a drum. They had mistakes before.”


  8. Hi Suzy :) Those first lines do the grabbing. Here is one of my favs: MANFISH, A STORY OF JACQUES COUSTEAU, written by Jennifer Berne, illustrated by Eric Puybaret (Chronicle Books 2008). Bubbles rising through the silence of the sea, silvery beads of breath from a man deep, deep down in a strange and shimmering ocean land of swaying plants and fantastic creatures.

    1. Hi, Cute Charlotte!

      This title is new to me. I look forward to reading this title recommendation.

      I noted the opening line that you shared in a “Look Inside” feature. The font and the style of the first page supports the intrigue for the reader.

      The reprint edition indicates 2015. Fantastic!

      Thank you for sharing this must read book!

  9. I love how you show us the 5Ws used in these mentor texts! Bravo!

    1. Your comment about the 5Ws is appreciated, Tina. I’m quite certain your students are familiar with the 5Ws.

  10. Great topic, Suzy. I liked that you focus on nonfiction--that isn't done often enough.

    1. I agree, Julie. I’m noting a growth in the kidlit market for many outstanding nonfiction picture books for kids—from board books for littles to older readers.

      Many of my high school colleagues share nonfiction pbs with students to support various historical periods, biographies, and science concepts.

      More NF picture books are needed.


  11. Great post, Suzy! Thanks for the great ideas.

    1. Thank you, Chris, for the many great books you write for children.

  12. Thank you. A wonderful article. I love how your broke down the opening questions for the examples. So helpful.

    1. I’m pleased to know this post is helpful to you, David.

      Thank you for your continued support of the GROG Blog.

      All the best with your writing.


  13. This was always true with my son. He'd pick up a book, read the first page, and then put it down if he wasn't interested. Our school librarian would encourage kids to "take a book walk" through various spots of the book, to see if a book was of interest. She tried to get them to not let the first page govern whether they wanted to read it, but she was fighting an uphill battle. So those first few words are key. Most importantly, I think they need to raise an interesting question in a kid's mind, making them want to know more. Great post, using the 5Ws!

    1. Jilanne! Yes, as an educator, students are encouraged to take a “book walk” as your son’s librarian encouraged.

      When I supported the needs of first graders through a Reading Recovery®️ program, the kids “walked” through a new unfamiliar book to set them up for success

      As you know, the opening lines must hook the reader.

      I’m pleased you found value of identifying the with the 5Ws. Do hope this is helpful to you with your writing.


    2. Oops! Missing punctuation and an extra unneeded word. ๐Ÿ˜Š

  14. So excited for my win! Thank you, Suzy. Thank you GROG! I look forward to each week's post :)