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Notes from a Children's Librarian: Catchy Beginnings

Great books with great starts.

book Cover Lost in the Backyard

Our Children's Librarian columnist, Julie Booker, brings us a new view from the stacks every month.


Hey! You! Want to help kids build great hooks into their stories?

The language curriculum for Grades 3–6 touches on the use of a strong opening, or "lead." Presented here is a smorgasbord of techniques, along with examples from novels and a few picture books.

Strategy #1: Start with an action

In these books, the author hooks us with a memorable action.

Lost in the Backyard, by Alison Hughes, begins, “I am lying alone in the dark forest, dying.”

About the book: Flynn hates the outdoors. Always has. He barely pays attention in his Outdoor Ed class. He has no interest in doing a book report on Lost in the Barrens. He doesn’t understand why anybody would want to go hiking or camping. But when he gets lost in the wilderness behind his parents’ friends’ house, it’s surprising what he remembers—e.g., insulate your clothes with leaves, eat snow to stay hydrated, build a shelter, eat lichen—and how hopelessly inept he is at survival techniques.


Book Cover Jacob's Landing

Jacob's Landing, by Daphne Greer, kicks off with, “I, Jacob Mosher, am sentenced to two months and a day with Captain Crazy and his sidekick, Pearl."

About the book: Coping with the recent death of his father, twelve-year-old Jacob Mosher is sent to spend the summer with his aging, estranged (and strange!) grandparents in rural Newport Landing, Nova Scotia. Reluctantly, he trades the security of his foster mum in “Upper Canada” for a blind grandfather, Frank, who dresses like a sea captain and conducts flag-raising ceremonies, and a quirky grandmother, Pearl, who sometimes forgets her dentures and has Jacob running in circles. Jacob has two short months to figure out how to deal with his ailing grandfather, the surging Avon River tides, and the family secret that’s haunting his newfound grandparents. He didn’t expect so much danger and mystery to be lurking in tiny Newport Landing.


Book Cover Show and Tell

Or the picture book, Show and Tell, by Robert Munsch, illustrated by Michael Martchenko, which starts, “One day Benjamin wanted to take something really neat for Show and Tell at school and he decided to take his new baby sister.”

About the book: Ben wants to take something really neat to school for show and tell. What could be neater than his new baby sister? But his sister doesn’t want to co-operate. She cries in his backpack. She cries at the teacher. She cries at the principal, who decides she must be sick. When they call in a doctor, she cries harder. Ben knows just the right person to call to help—his mom!

Strategy #2: Start with a sound

The following books start with a sound.

Book Cover The last Wild Place

In The Last Wild Place, by Rosa Jordan, “Chip awoke to a loud thump.”

About the book: Chip Martin is growing up-and finding the adjustment to be a challenge. With his mother preoccupied by a new romance with an old friend, and his own best friend Luther barely speaking to him, Chip feels friendless and alone. One day, in the marshy woods behind the Old Place, an abandoned farm near his home Chip discovers something unbelievable—a family of Florida panthers that has been driven out of their home in the Everglades and dangerously close to human settlement. Alarmed when he hears that the last few acres of the woods are to be cleared to make way for a meatpacking plant, Chip concocts a plan to protect the panthers. He eventually learns that he has more friends than he thought, and they all want the same thing-to find a safe home for the wild animals. And if they're lucky, a safe place for themselves, too.


Book Cover Snap

Or the picture book, Snap! by Hazel Hutchins, illustrated by Dusan Petricic, leads with, “Evan had a brand new set of crayons, perfect in every way until...SNAP!”

About the book: What could be more perfect than a brand new set of crayons? Evan can’t wait to use them, until Snap!, the brown one breaks in two. Then one by one, the others break, get crushed, are blown away, or simply disappear. How can he possibly draw when there’s no green, purple, or even black?

Evan feels like throwing things, but instead, he scribbles using all the bits and pieces that are left. But what’s this? Where yellow and blue cross, there’s green, and when blue and red get all mixed up, it creates just the right purple to draw monsters. Soon, all he’s left with are tiny stubs of red, yellow, and blue, but Evan discovers that even with just a few crayons, he can create new and exciting art. His imagination is the only tool he needs.

Strategy #3: Open with a story question

In these books, the opening sets up a question in the reader’s mind.

Book Cover Sliding Home

Sliding Home, by Joyce Grant, captivates with: “Miguel had a big problem. It was standing ninety feet away from him.”

About the book: Miguel hasn't missed his native El Salvador since arriving in Canada with his mother and sister. But with his father still in El Salvador running their bakery, and gangs shaking down the old neighbourhood, life still isn't easy for Miguel. Holding down multiple jobs leaves him with little time for his beloved game of baseball—while happy-go-lucky Sebastian, Miguel's teammate on the Blues of Toronto's Christie Pits Park, spends his free time becoming a faster and better player.

When his father's situation becomes critical, Miguel becomes desperate to bring him to Canada. But he can't even afford to join the Blues on a road game—how can his family possibly pay his father's way? A solution comes from Sebastian, who proposes a big baseball fundraiser. As the Blues learn about the hard realities some new Canadian kids face, Miguel and his family learn to trust their neighbours and teammates.


Book Cover Looking for X

Similarly, Looking for X, by Deborah Ellis, draws us in: “My mom used to be a stripper.” (Followed by, “She quit when I came along.”)

About the book: In this urban adventure story, Khyber, a smart, bold, eleven-year-old girl from a poor neighbourhood, sets out to find her friend X, a mysterious homeless woman who has gone missing.

The desperate search takes Khyber on a long, all-night odyssey that proves to be wilder than any adventure she has ever imagined.


Book Cover Schooled

Schooled, by Gordon Korman, launches with, “I was thirteen the first time I saw a police officer up close. He was arresting me for driving without a licence.”

About the book: Capricorn (Cap) Anderson has never watched television. He's never tasted a pizza. Never heard of a wedgie. Since he was little, his only experience has been living on a farm commune and being home-schooled by his hippie grandmother, Rain. But when Rain falls out of a tree while picking plums and has to stay in the hospital, Cap is forced to move in with a guidance counsellor and her cranky teen daughter and attend the local middle school.

While Cap knows a lot about tie-dying and Zen Buddhism, no education could prepare him for the politics of public school. Right from the beginning, Cap's weirdness makes him a moving target at Claverage Middle School (dubbed C-Average by the students). He has long, ungroomed hair; wears hemp clothes; and practises tai chi on the lawn. Once Zack Powers, big man on campus, spots Cap, he can't wait to introduce him to the age-old tradition at C-Average: the biggest nerd is nominated for class president-and wins.


Book Cover OCDaniel

OCDaniel, by Wesley King, starts with, “I first realized I was crazy on a Tuesday.”

About the book: From the author of Incredible Space Raiders from Space! comes a brand-new coming-of-age story about a boy whose life revolves around hiding his obsessive compulsive disorder—until he gets a mysterious note that changes everything.

Daniel is the back-up punter for the Erie Hills Elephants. Which really means he’s the water boy. He spends football practice perfectly arranging water cups—and hoping no one notices. Actually, he spends most of his time hoping no one notices his strange habits—he calls them Zaps: avoiding writing the number four, for example, or flipping a light switch on and off dozens of times over. He hopes no one notices that he’s crazy, especially his best friend Max, and Raya, the prettiest girl in school. His life gets weirder when another girl at school, who is unkindly nicknamed Psycho Sara, notices him for the first time. She doesn’t just notice him: she seems to peer through him.

Then Daniel gets a note: “I need your help,” it says, signed, Fellow Star child—whatever that means. And suddenly Daniel, a total no one at school, is swept up in a mystery that might change everything for him.

With great voice and grand adventure, this book is about feeling different and finding those who understand.


Book Cover The Goat

In The Goat, by Anne Fleming, the opener is: “Once there was a mountain goat who lived in New York City.”

About the book:  When Kid accompanies her parents to New York City for a six-month stint of dog-sitting and home-schooling, she sees what looks like a tiny white cloud on the top of their apartment building.

Rumour says there’s a goat living on the roof, but how can that be?

As Kid soon discovers, a goat on the roof may be the least strange thing about her new home, whose residents are both strange and fascinating.

In the penthouse lives Joff Vanderlinden, the famous skateboarding fantasy writer, who happens to be blind. On the ninth floor are Doris and Jonathan, a retired couple trying to adapt to a new lifestyle after Jonathan’s stroke. Kenneth P. Gill, on the tenth, loves opera and tends to burble on nervously about his two hamsters—or are they guinea pigs? Then there’s Kid’s own high-maintenance mother, Lisa, who is rehearsing for an Off Broadway play and is sure it will be the world’s biggest flop.

Kid is painfully shy and too afraid to talk to new people at first, but she is happy to explore Manhattan, especially the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Central Park, where she meets Will, who is also home-schooled and under the constant watchful eye of his grandmother. As Kid and Will become friends, she learns that Will’s parents died in the Twin Towers. Will can’t look out windows, he is a practitioner of Spoonerism, and he is obsessed with the Ancient Egyptian Tomb of Perneb.

When Kid learns that the goat will bring good luck to whoever sees it, suddenly it becomes very important to know whether the goat on the roof is real. So Kid and Will set out to learn the truth, even if it means confronting their own fears.

Strategy #4: Lure readers in with a single word or phrase

Here, the author sets up an important word by itself and follows it up with more information.

Book Cover Saving Houdini

Saving Houdini, by Michael Redhill, begins: “Not me, not me, not me—“, spoken by a magic show audience member terrified of being chosen for the next trick.

About the book: Dashiel Woolf should be ecstatic for the chance to meet his hero, the Great Houdini, not long before the famous magician’s untimely death in 1926. But Dash is far more concerned about getting home—because home is 85 years in the future.

Sent back in time through a magic trick gone terribly wrong, Dash and his new friend, Walt—a known troublemaker—hatch a plan to return Dash to the present day. But if they are successful, they might prevent the Great Houdini from taking part in the event that ended his life, possibly changing history forever . . .

Strategy #5: Zoom in on the senses

Book Cover MiNRS 2

MiNRS 2, by Kevin Sylvester, grabs us with: “I can still feel my missing fingers. I can still hear my missing parents. My missing friends.”

About the book: Dive right back into the action on Perses in this thrilling sequel to the gritty, space adventure, MiNRS, which School Library Journal called “a solid survival story.”

They are coming to get you.

The children of Perses have been receiving this message on repeat from Earth for weeks. Christopher, Elena, and the other survivors of the attack on their space colony know two things: Their victory over the Landers will be short-lived and a new wave of attacks is imminent.

New Landers arrive sooner than expected. Led by the ruthless Kirk Thatcher, and armed with a new lethal kind of digger, they vow to hunt down and destroy everyone.

The kids have nowhere to go but underground. Again. But resources and patience are running low, and the struggle to keep everyone safe is complicated by all the infighting.

As Christopher bears the burden of leadership, he also has to decide whom he can trust. There are no easy answers. And with deadly consequences on the line, there is no room for mistakes.

Strategy #6: Open with strong statements

The following three picture books show the author stating a belief, thought or feeling.

book Cover From There to Here

From There to Here, by Laurel Croza and Matt James, lures us in with, “It’s different here, not the same as there.”

About the book: A little girl and her family have just moved across the country by train. Their new neighborhood in the city of Toronto is very different from their home in the Saskatchewan bush, and at first everything about “there” seems better than “here.”

The little girl’s dad has just finished building a dam across the Saskatchewan River, and his new project is to build a highway through Toronto. In Saskatchewan, he would come home for lunch every day, but now he doesn’t come until supper. The family used to love to look at the stars, and the northern lights dancing in the night sky. But in the city, all they can see is the glare from the streetlights. All the kids used to run and play together, but now older brother Doug has his own friends.

Then one day there is a knock on the door. It is Anne, who lives kitty-corner and is also eight, going on nine, and suddenly living in Toronto takes on a whole new light.

Laurel Croza and Matt James have beautifully captured the voice and intense feelings of a young child who, in the midst of upheaval, finds hope in her new surroundings.


Book Cover Kate and Pippin

Kate and Pippin: An Unlikely Friendship, by Martin Springett, illustrated by Isobel Springett, starts, “Every little deer needs its mother to protect it from the dangers of the forest."

About the book: When Pippin, a fawn abandoned by her mother, cries out for help, she is found by author Isobel Springett. After carrying the tiny fawn back to her home, Isobel places Pippin next to Kate, a Great Dane who has never had puppies of her own.

What follows is a remarkable and unlikely friendship. Kate successfully raises Pippin to be an independent deer, and Pippin always returns from the forest to visit her best friend.

With simple text and stunning photographs, Kate and Pippin, and their one-of-a-kind friendship, come to life in an irresistible way!


Book Cover I Dark You Not to Yawn

Or, I Dare You Not to Yawn, by Helene Boudreau, illustrated by Serge Bloch, opens with, “Yawns are sneaky. They can creep up on you when you least expect them.”

About the book: A yawn can land you in your pj’s and under the covers before you can blink and say “Baa baa black sheep.” So clamp your mouth shut and look away from your sleepy dog, stay away from your cuddly blanket, and whatever you do, don’t think of baby orangutans stretching their long arms out for a snuggly hug. Otherwise, you might find your mouth opening wide and letting out a great big yawny yaaaaaawn—hey, you were supposed hold it in! A hilarious read-aloud that is so much fun, kids will beg for it again and again, whatever the consequences.


Book Cover Clutch

The novel, Clutch, by Heather Camlot, begins: “I think I'm going to throw up.”

About the book: It's 1946. A poor Jewish neighbourhood in Montreal where a few dollars equal a fortune, and no matter where you go, you'll find the best home cooking anywhere on earth. It's also a million miles away from the posh mansions on the other side of town. But a 12-year-old boy can hope.

Just across town something incredible is happening. Jackie Robinson is playing for the Montreal Royals. And he's going to change the world. If Jackie can do it, then so too can a poor Jewish kid from The Plateau.

Strategy #7: Start with intriguing dialogue

These authors use a brief conversation or dialogue to grab the reader’s attention and raise story questions.

Bok Cover Finding Winnie

Here’s the intro in the picture book, Finding Winnie, by Lindsay Mattick, illustrated by Sophie Blackall: “‘Could you tell me a story?’ asked Cole. ‘It's awfully late.’ It was long past dark, and time to be asleep. ‘What kind of story?’ ‘You know. A true story. One about a Bear.’”

About the book: During World War I, Captain Harry Colebourn, a Canadian veterinarian on his way to serve with cavalry units in Europe, rescued a bear cub in White River, Ontario. He named the bear Winnie, after his hometown of Winnipeg, and he took the bear to war.

Harry Colebourn's real-life great-granddaughter Lindsay Mattick recounts their incredible journey, from a northern Canadian town to a convoy across the ocean to an army base in England ... and finally to the London Zoo, where Winnie made a new friend: a boy named Christopher Robin.

Gentle yet haunting illustrations by acclaimed illustrator Sophie Blackall bring the wartime era to life, and are complemented by photographs and ephemera from the Colebourn family archives.

Strategy #8: As an actual question

Here, the author asks a question or series of questions.

Book Cover Travels With My Family

Travels with my Family, by Marie-Louise Gay and David Homel, leads with, “When you hear the word 'vacation,' what do you think of? Beaches and warm water, nice hotels with swimming pools? Giant waterslides and amusement parks and miniature golf? Maybe even Disneyland? Me, too.”  

About the book: Family vacations are supposed to be something to look forward to. Unless, that is, your parents have a habit of turning every outing into a risky proposition—by accident, of course. So instead of dream vacations to Disney World and motels with swimming pools, these parents are always looking for that out-of-the-way destination where other tourists don't go. Their adventures involve eating grasshoppers in Mexico, forgetting the tide schedule while collecting sand dollars off the coast of Georgia, and mistaking alligators for logs in the middle of Okefenokee Swamp.

Travels with My Family is told from the point of view of a long-suffering big brother who must fulfill many roles in this eccentric family: keep little brother out of trouble, humor artist Mom, and discourage Dad from pulling out the road map to search for yet another off-the-beaten-track destination.

Strategy #9: Let setting draw readers in

Book Cover Anne of Green Gables

Anne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomery, illustrates the power of one long (150 word) descriptive sentence, starting with: “Mrs. Rachel Lynde lived just where the Avonlea main road dipped down into a little hollow, fringed with alders and ladies' eardrops and traversed by a brook that had its source away back in the woods of the old Cuthbert place....”

About the book: When Marilla Cuthbert and her brother, Matthew, decide to adopt a child from a distant orphanage, they don't get quite what they bargained for. The child who awaits them at the tiny Bright River train station is not the strapping young boy they'd imagined—someone to help Matthew work the fields of their small farm—but rather a freckle-faced, redheaded girl named Anne (with an e, if you please).

Matthew and Marilla may not be sure about Anne, but Anne takes one look at Prince Edward Island's red clay roads and the Cuthberts' snug white farmhouse with its distinctive green gables and decides that she's home at last. But will she be able to convince Marilla and Matthew to let her stay?

Armed with only a battered carpetbag and a boundless imagination, Anne charms her way into the Cuthberts' hearts—and into the hearts of readers as well. She truly is, in the words of Mark Twain, "the dearest and most lovable child in fiction since the immortal Alice."


Book Cover Pablo Finds a Treasure

The picture book, Pablo Finds a Treasure, by Andree Poulin, illustrated by Isabelle Malenfant, opens with, “The sun’s first light pierces the sky. Vultures circle above the shantytown. Sofia wakes her little brother up.”

About the book: A poignant, simply-told story that shows the resourcefulness of poverty-stricken children around the world.

Pablo and his sister spend every day at "Treasure Mountain", the local dump. There, they rummage through the mounds of garbage looking for items that their mother can sell in order to provide food for the family. Occasionally, they find a "real" treasure like some still-edible food, or a picture book, which Pablo delights in, even though he can't read. The work is exhausting, and sometimes not very lucrative, but the worst thing they have to contend with is Filthy-Face, a brutish bully who steals the finds of all the children. But one day, Pablo discovers a real treasure. Will he be able to keep it from falling into the hands of Filthy-Face? Simply written with highly expressive illustrations, this book brings home the reality of poverty around the world.


Book Cover Camels Can Make You Homesick

A book that demonstrates a multitude of these techniques is Nazneen Sadie’s short fiction collection, Camels Can Make You Homesick and Other Stories. The first story alone hits three with the opener—a character practicing a Bharatanatyam dance routine: ‘“Ta.” Jaya stamped her right foot.”

About the book: Growing up can be difficult and confusing for anyone—especially if you're growing up in two cultures at the same time.

The five stories in this book examine both the harmonies and dissonances of growing up Canadian and East Indian: young Zorana takes her first trip to Pakistan and rides on a camel; Raj Dhillon spends a night alone learning wilderness survival skills; Amit takes a trip to McDonald's with his Bengali-born grandmother; Jaya perseveres in a performance of Indian classical dancing even after a classmate has tried to wreck her costume; and Shanaz visits an understanding neighbour who helps her see the beautiful aspects of her Muslim heritage.

The kids in Camels Can Make You Homesick are both ordinary and extraordinary, and are always interesting to read about as they cope with the challenge of growing up Canadian and South Asian at the same time.


On her first day as teacher-librarian, Julie Booker was asked by a five-year-old if that was her real name. She's felt at home in libraries since her inaugural job as a Page in the Toronto Public Library. She is the author of Up Up Up, a book of short stories published by House of Anansi Press.

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