Lit Kid: in the beginning

It feels like the right thing to do to start with a post on beginnings – in this case, how to begin a children’s book.

Long long ago (there’s one already), I remember a class at school where the teacher was trying to get us to identify how stories start. Here’s what we came up with:

Once upon a time…

Once there was…

A long time ago…

It’s OK to have repeated ways to tell stories: in fact, it’s a way to draw in your audience.

“Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.”

There is a certain magic in this phrase – not just the question followed by the statement (nice and musical that, good cadence to start the story on a definite note). It’s also in the rhythm of the second sentence, the contrasting straight syllables after the longer ‘comfortably’.

Those of a certain generation will remember “Jackanory”, the TV series on BBC that brought many into acquaintance with new books, authors – and fine actors reading them. But did you know that Jackanory is also part of a rhyme to start a story?

“I’ll tell you a story

About Jack A Nory

And now my story’s begun…”

You can read the rest of the rhyme here.

With children’s stories designed to be read aloud, there is much more scope for beginnings that are really incantations:

“In a dark dark town there was a dark dark street

In a dark dark street there was a dark dark house…”

You can read the rest of the rhyme (from the beginning of Funnybones) here – and even see some visuals.

Part of what I enjoy about this one is the contrast that follows. Yes, it is a book about a family of skeletons, but the mood is light, and the beginning helps us with it too. We move quickly from the spell-like verse to the lighter prose that introduces the characters of the piece.

There are of course the books where the title and the opening are the same: so requesting the book is practically the same as starting the story itself. (This tends to be fairly irresistible to those who need very little encouragement to read aloud. Ahem.)

In this category I am thinking of Mr Magnolia, Manfred the Baddie (who very much deserves a separate post), and no doubt many others.

Lest we forget the potential suggested by the title of this post, we also have the magisterial:

In the beginning

God created the heavens and the earth.”

It’s such a good beginning, we find it again in a new guise, meant surely to remind us of the earlier usage:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

Novels often take a different tack. If the author wants us jumping us into the middle of the action (a trick I want to pick up on in another post), the opening sentence in particular has to effect this trick for us:

It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

There are many other novel openings I enjoy (and I’m sure they’ll get their own post too, along with short story openings, which often have to pack even more of a punch). But the trick can apply to children’s books too.

One of my favourites is Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are – not just because it’s Sendak (see earlier waxing lyrical on the author), not just because it’s a classic tale, but because of the quirky sentence order of the opening:

The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of oneĀ 


and another…

Maybe it appeals to my inner Germanist, where the main thrust of the sentence doesn’t just have to come at the start, but can appear much later. And in any case, though his mother goes on to call him “WILD THING!”, the focus is, of course, on Max.

I have a certain fondness too for the opening of The Wind in the Willows:

“The Mole had been working very hard all morning, spring-cleaning his little home.”

I love the economy of this. In one sentence, we learn of the main character who forms our audience perspective (for are we not rather like Mole, in awe of the bravery of others (like Rat) or the audacity of others still (like Toad)?).

We also learn quickly what the time of the story is; that Mole, although an animal character, is set to share many characteristics with human life. And, like Mole, we would happily say “Hang spring cleaning!” if we may escape our chores, discover new friends – and our own bravery along the way.

Our audience (if we are the reader) is likely to sit longer than one sentence – unlike newspaper readers, who may quickly skip to something else if the headline doesn’t draw them in. We are, after all, often the one holding the pages to begin with.

But a good opening, with words to swirl around the tongue, that tells us that an adventure is on the way:

In the beginning of years, when the world was so new and all…

Who would not sink into the story at that point?

It is the opening of the curtains, the lowering of the lights. We know that the characters will soon be on stage: and that their story is for our ear alone.