Hook ’em with the First Sentence

The hook. Without it, a story can fall terribly flat. The more compelling the first sentence of your story, the more likely your readers are to keep reading. The sweet spot for picture books today is around 300 words, which means you better hook readers from sentence #1.

There’s no standard formula for a hook, but there are different ways to focus it to better grab attention: setting, story problem, in the middle of the action, etc. In fact, Ann Whitford Paul shows this in her book Writing Picture Books. She rewrites the first sentence of The Three Little Pigs many times, honing in on one of nine focuses each time.

One way to exercise your hooking muscle is to study first sentences. Below I’ve analyzed some PB openings that have hooked me like a hungry fish:

The Bear Ate Your Sandwich by Julia Sarcone-Roach
“By now I think you know what happened to your sandwich.”

Two reasons: the story problem is clear and it’s a provocative statement, as Ann Whitford Paul would say. I immediately want to know why the sandwich is gone and where it went! And who’s the narrator?

I Don’t Want to Be a Frog! written by Dev Petty, illustrated by Mike Boldt
“I don’t want to be a frog!”

The first line of this PB is technically on the cover and title page. This one focuses mood, opinion, and story problem, all without cracking the spine. When I saw this one on the shelves, I thought, tell me why you don’t want to be a frog!

Another Brother by Matthew Cordell
“For four glorious years, Davy had Mom and Dad all to himself.”

The mood got me in this one, particularly the use of the word “glorious” and the phrase “all to himself.” And the first half of the sentence implies that Davy is not so lucky anymore, and I want to know why.

The Recess Queen written by Alexis O’neill, illustrated by Laura Huliska-Beith
“Mean Jean was recess queen and nobody said any different.”

Again, mood and story problem. I love the sass of “and nobody said any different.” Bonus points for rhyme as well. Words that string together well usually encourage me to keep reading.

Bernice Gets Carried Away by Hannah E. Harrison
“It was a horrible, dreary day and it suited Bernice’s mood just fine.”

Time and mood. Though the story problem hasn’t been revealed completely, I want to know why it’s a dreary day and why it suits Bernice.

Mrs. Biddlebox written by Linda Smith, illustrated by Marla Frazee
“On a knotty little hill,
In a dreary little funk,
Mrs. Biddlebox rolled over
On the wrong side of her bunk.”

Many different reasons why this one hooks me: setting, mood, story problem, middle of the action. Double bonus points for rhyme and meter, too. It’s a beautiful stanza (and a beautiful book)!

By studying and analyzing PB openings, you’ll expand your hooking horizons. But don’t stop there! Rewrite your hooks and focus on different elements each time. You may find a more compelling way to intrigue and surprise readers.

Which books have hooked you from sentence #1 and why?

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