Friday, September 20th, 2019

Get the Hook!

No, I’m not talking about pirate captains, or fishing.  But I am talking about capturing something – and that is the interest of your reader.

As always, with the necessary economy of words in a picture book, the ‘hook’ needs to happen on the first page – ideally in the first sentence or two.  You have only this much time to draw your reader in, to engage them in the story, in the drama unfolding.  Time was, we could begin with “Once upon a time…” (or “Once there was…” or any variation thereof), and weave a world for the reader before establishing the characters, plot and conflict.  Not any more.  Now, we must begin with a bang – with an action that immediately suggests the issue at hand and the character grappling with it. Only in this way can we expect our modern young reader with a thousand and one things competing for his interest to want to read more.

Here are a few examples of what I consider to be great hooks in picture books – great opening lines that establish character and conflict and hook the reader from the get-go. See if you can recognize their source (answers below).

More importantly, see if you can sense why their ‘hook’ is successful:

  1. Art class was over, but Vashti sat glued to her chair. Her paper was empty.
  2. Oh, good. It’s you.
  3. This is my room, before I made it fancy.
  4. One day, Lilly’s teacher, Mr. Slinger, announced to the class that he was going to marry Ms. Shotwell, the school nurse.
  5. The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another his mother called him “WILD THING!”
  6. David’s Mommy always said, “Oh, David!”
  7. Amos McGee was an early riser.
  8. What do you have there?
  9. One day, Olivia was riding a camel in Egypt.
  10. Who am I?


  1. The Dot, Peter H. Reynolds.
  2. Don’t Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late, Mo Willems
  3. Fancy Nancy, Jane O’Connor
  4. Lilly’s Big Day, Kevin Henkes
  5. Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak
  6. Oh, David! David Shannon
  7. A Sick Day for Amos McGee, Phillip C. Stead
  8. It’s a Book, Lane Smith
  9. Olivia and the Missing Toy, Ian Falconer
  10. I Stink! Kate McMullan


4 Responses to “Get the Hook!”
  1. Beth says:

    This is such an important point to drive home to people like me who grew up in a much less distraction-filled world (and, it occurs to me to add, in a world where publishers had much more leeway in what they published; costs were, I assume, lower; there was more freedom to take the time to tell a story in a more leisurely way). As writers, we do have so much to compete with these days, and I need to remember that when I’m writing. As I read and re-read the examples you gave, I could feel the questions welling up within me. Why? Why was Vashti’s paper still empty? … Oh good, it’s you — who is it? You’re right, it makes me want to turn the page and find out the answers, find out what’s going on. And, accordingly, I’m asking myself if the reader of, for example, my Jamie book will have similar questions popping into his or her head, making them want to keep reading. Hmmm…

    By the way, my “score” for the number of opening lines I recognized was abysmal, which is leading to a trip to the library (more than one branch, actually) this afternoon, as well as to the bookstore. (There are only five copies of A Sick Day for Amos McGee in the library system of the entire province, and none of them is in my city! However, the big-box bookstore has one copy. It will soon be mine.)

  2. Patricia Tilton says:

    Enjoyed the discussion capturing the interest of the reader with one sentence. Good examples. Some I knew. Each one is a page turner. Oh, to have that talent to grab reader’s attention with a bang. A lot of work and practice. Have two openings for a story. One engages the reader with action and the problem in the first sentenced and I was concerned it may be too premature. Will take another look — it was my favorite opening anyway. Thanks!

    I’ve made entries on your other posts, but realized they didn’t take because I didn’t use my last name. Have enjoyed all of your elaborations on Jane Yolen’s points.

  3. Diane says:

    Another very interesting topic. One I too need to take heed of, coming from the “once upon a time….” childhood. As for the number of opening lines I recognised…..yes, well, we won’t go there shall we!

  4. Beth says:

    I made my way through many of the books you listed, looking at the hook lines, seeing what worked for me and why. It was an excellent exercise. I’ve now written a blog post about hook lines and their care and feeding, which can be found here:

    Thank you for the way you take these points of Jane Yolen’s and elaborate on them. I am thoroughly enjoying this series, and (not surprisingly) learning so much!

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