Reading Great Books to Learn Writing Great Hooks

At our Kids’ Writing Workshop on Friday, June 16th, we learned about writing engaging beginnings. I combed through the upper middle grade books at our library and looked through all of my favorites, seeing if the first line was something I would hold up as an example of a great “hook.”

We read some great opening lines and talked about what makes each of them work so well. We grouped books into five categories:

1. Give the Reader a Sense of Urgency and Danger (Adventure, Thriller)

The house is falling in.
The house is falling in and Danny is falling, knees and elbows crumpling onto the floor, and an earsplitting crash is tearing through the air—that’s surely the roof, breaking in two, about to come pelting down on top of him.

The Book of Storms by Ruth Hatfield

2. Tug on the Reader’s Heart Strings (Sympathy, often for poverty or loss, often sad)

It was fun at first, playing house.
I made all my own meals. Crackers and cheese, three times a day.
Love, Aubrey by Suzanne LaFleur

Wilhelmina knew that there were some houses that had glass in every window and locks on the doors.
The farmhouse in which she lived was not one of them.

Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms by Katherine Rundell

3. Make the Reader Scratch His Head (Humor, Strangeness, Mystery)

On the morning I was scheduled to die, a large barefoot man with a bushy red beard waddled past my house. The thirty-degree temperature didn’t seem to bother him, but he must have had a lousy breakfast, because he let out a burp as loud as a tuba.
Belching barefoot giants who look like Vikings are not normal in Belleville, Indiana. But I didn’t really get a chance to see the guy closely.
At that moment, I, Jack McKinley, was under attack in my own bedroom. By a flying reptile.
The Colossus Rises by Peter Lerangis

How five crows managed to lift a twenty-pound baby boy into the air was beyond Prue, but that was certainly the least of her worries. In fact, if she were to list her worries right then and there as she sat spellbound on the park bench and watched her little brother, Mac, carried aloft in the talons of these five black crows, puzzling out just how this feat was being done would likely come in dead last. First on the list: Her baby brother, her responsibility, was being abducted by birds. A close second: What did they plan on doing with him?
Wildwood by Colin Meloy

4. Speak to the Reader Like a Trusted Friend (Narrative voice, Show the reader who you are)

We only have a few hours, so listen carefully.
If you’re hearing this story, you’re already in danger. Sadie and I might be your only chance.
The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan

My name is Charlie Joe Jackson, and I hate reading. And if you’re reading this book, you hate reading, too.
In fact, you do whatever you can to avoid reading, and the fact that you’re holding a book in your hand right now is kind of shocking.
I know exactly how you feel; I’m one of you.
Just remember: you are not alone. We’ll get through this together.
Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to Not Reading by Tommy Greenwald

All I’ve ever wanted is for Juli Baker to leave me alone. For her to back off—you know, just give me some space.
Flipped by Wendelin Van Draanen

5. Set the Scene (Not Just The Setting! Tie it to plot, themes, meaning of book)

There is no lake at Camp Green Lake. There once was a very large lake here, the largest lake in Texas. That was over a hundred years ago. Now it is just a dry, flat wasteland.
Holes by Louis Sachar

The fjord is freezing over. I watch it from the edge of the cliff near our hall, and each day the ice claims more of the narrow winding of ocean. It squeezes out the waves and the blue-black water, while it squeezes us in. Just as Father intended it to. Winter is here to wall us up, to bury us in snow and keep us safe.
Icefall by Matthew J. Kirby

After we read these excerpts and talked about each writing style, I read selections from five other middle grade books and asked the kids which category each one would fall under. They were very good at identifying each one!

The Tiara on the Terrace by Kristen Kittscher
Crispin: The Cross of Lead by Avi
Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate
The Name of This Book is Secret by Pseudonymous Bosch
A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd

The kids really got into this exercise. I love it when I see kids realize there are principles and theories that they can apply to their own writing.

Then we did an activity: the kids had to write two different openings to a story, and their peers voted on which one they liked better by holding up “A” or “B.” I find that the method of having everyone vote on their favorite version is a kind and encouraging way of giving kids feedback on which piece was the most effective. The kids read their pieces aloud. We all guessed what kind of opening they wrote (1, 2, 3, 4 or 5) and then we voted which ones we liked best.

Their stories were so cool!

The thing I like about this is that everyone can see that different people respond to different things. It’s all very subjective, and that’s how writing is.

I encouraged everyone to read The Tiara on the Terrace or The Wig in the Window by Kristen Kittscher, because she’s going to be our guest instructor for our next workshop! She’ll be here on Friday, August 25 from 4:30 – 5:30 pm. Sign ups will be available starting August 1st.

I told the kids that I would have a prize for whoever asked Kristen the best question, and they rushed to grab the library copies of her books!

AnnMarie Kolakowski

I'm a youth services librarian working in the Children's Room at the Pasadena Central Library. I purchase juvenile nonfiction books for all sites, juvenile Spanish books for all sites, and juvenile DVDs for the Central Library. I do a lot of programs with school-age kids, including Lucha Libros, writing workshops, and STEAM/science programs. I also do 16 weeks of Infant/Toddler Storytimes each year. I love what I do, working with kids of all ages to inspire them to learn and use their curiosity and imaginations. Outside of my work at the library, I am also the author of a book on creative writing activities for kids.

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