Hook Your Reader At Hello

The new year has gotten off to a slow start for me, but I’m finally back with a series of blog posts on how to hook your reader from those first few lines.

I’ve read all kinds of “rules” about first lines, first paragraphs, and first pages. And, not surprisingly, many contradict each other.

We hear a lot about how not to start your stories: no waking up in the morning, no dreams or nightmares, no looking in the mirror, no weather, no “My name is …”, no dialogue, etc. Sometimes these can work but not very often. (See Alvin Ho below. Identifying himself by name works because it tells us his ethnicity, which is important to both the list and the story. Would it work if his name were Alvin Smith? Probably not. Same with Phineas L. MacGuire, another unusual name for a kid.)

We also hear a lot of advice about starting in scene. Yet, I recently read somewhere that when writing in first person it’s best to start with narrative to get a feel for the main character’s voice. Seems like good advice. But, of course, it depends on the narrative.

Another common suggestion is to start with a big hook. This sometimes gets misinterpreted. A hook doesn’t have to be a death, a gunshot, a car accident, etc. Beginning this way can sometimes result in a lessening of tension as the chapter goes on, much like a balloon releasing air. In addition, since we haven’t been introduced to the main character yet, the emotion often doesn’t come across because we haven’t had a chance to develop empathy. Again, there are exceptions.

The two best pieces of advice I’ve heard about beginnings are this: let your readers know they are in capable hands and create enough interest that will make readers want to read on. So how do we do this?

A while ago, I did a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators workshop on starting strong. I spent several months in the bookstore and online looking at first lines. After a while, I noticed the beginnings that drew me in fell into specific categories. Since then I’ve become addicted to examining and analyzing first lines.

So, for the next several posts, I’ll talk about different techniques that PB, MG, and YA authors used to hook me right from the start. The first is one of my favorites: starting with a list. The list can be funny, sarcastic, informative, etc. But no matter what, it must draw the reader into the story. Also, notice in the examples below that whether there are three items or ten items, the humor, tension, or emotion escalates as the list goes on, and the final entry gives a bit of a punch and/or clue that lets you know what type of story you’re in for.

If you’ve written a book that starts with a list or know of any others that use the technique, feel free to add it in the comments section. In the meantime, here are twelve examples I love:







Diary of a Worm by Doreen Cronin

March 20
Mom says there are three things I should always remember:
1. The earth gives us everything we need.
2. When we dig tunnels, we help take care of the earth.
3. Never bother Daddy when he’s eating the newspaper.



Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things by Lenore Look

The first thing you should know about me is that my name is Alvin Ho.

I am afraid of many things.
Substitute teachers.








 Phineas L. MacGuire Gets Cooking by Frances O’Roark Dowell

My name is Phineas L. MacGuire. A few people call me Phineas, but most people call me Mac. Yesterday, when I was riding the bus to school, I came up with a bunch of cool things the L in my name could stand for. My list included:

1. Lithosphere (the outmost shell of a rocky planet)

2. Lunar Eclipse

3. Light-Year

4. Labrador Whisperer

Unfortunately, the L in my name does not stand for any of those things. It stands for Listerman, which was, like, my mom’s great-aunt Tulip’s last name or something. My mom is very big on family traditions, but even she’s not allowed to call me Listerman.








The Graham Cracker Plot by Shelley Tougas

Dear Judge Henry,

I will tell you three things right now.

Number one: I’m almost twelve years old. I do not want to go to prison, even it it’s a prison for kids.

Number two: Nobody calls me Aurora Dawn Bauer, not even my grandma, and she’s the most legal person I know. Everyone calls me Daisy.

Number three: Your face looks like squirrels flopped their tails where your eyebrows should be. I can’t tell if your eyes ever laugh, but you were all business when you told me to write this, and–



Rules by Cynthia Lord


Chew with your mouth closed

Say “thank you” when someone gives you a present (even if you don’t like it).

If someone says “hi,” you say “hi” back.

When you want to get out of answering something distract the questioner with another question.

Not everything worth keeping has to be useful.

If the bathroom door is closed, knock (especially if Catherine has a friend over)!

Sometimes people laugh when they like you. But sometimes they laugh to hurt you.

No toys in the fish tank.









Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper


I’m surrounded by thousands of words. Maybe millions.

Cathedral. Mayonnaise. Pomegranate.

Mississippi. Neapolitan. Hippopotamus.

Silky. Terrifying. Iridescent.

Tickle. Sneeze. Wish. Worry.



The Hero’s Guide to Being an Outlaw by Christopher Healy, Illus. by Todd Harris


Outlaws have too many feathers in their hats.

Outlaws are allergic to seafood.

Outlaws never forget to floss.

Oh, and outlaws are people who are hunted down because they are accused of terrible crimes.



If I Have a Wicked Stepmother, Where’s My Prince by Melissa Kantor

Cinderella                               Me

dead mother                        dead mother

wicked stepmother            wicked stepmother

evils stepsisters (2)            evil stepsisters (2)

friendless                              friendless



Deadly Cool by Gemma Halliday

There are three things you never want to find in your boyfriend’s locker: a sweaty jockstrap, a D minus on last week’s history test, and an empty condom wrapper.



Cracked Up To Be by Courtney Summers

Imagine four years
Four years, two suicides, one death, two rapes, two pregnancies (one abortion), three overdoses, countless drunken antics, pantsings, spilled food, theft, fights, broken limbs, turf wars—every day, a turf war—six months until graduation and no one gets a medal when they get out. But everything you do here counts.



Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

It’s the first morning of high school. I have seven new notebooks, a skirt I hate, and a stomachache.



Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins

Here is everything I know about France: Madeline and Amélie and Moulin Rouge. The Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe, although I have no idea what the function of either actually is. Napoleon, Marie Antoinette, and a lot of kings named Louis. I’m not sure what they did either, but I think it has something to do with the French Revolution, which has something to do with Bastille Day. The art museum is called the Louvre and it’s shaped like a pyramid and the Mona Lisa lives there along with that statue of the woman missing her arms. And there are cafés or bistros or whatever they call them on every street corner. And mimes. The food is supposed to be good, and the people drink a lot of wine and smoke a lot of cigarettes.


Raffle Winner and Kicking Writer’s Block

Raffle Winner

The winner of the raffle is Peggy Janousky! Peggy, email me and let me know which prize you’d like: the ten-page critique or the necklace pictured in the first blog post.

How I Got Past a Current Bout of Writer’s Block

I hit a snag in my WIP recently, a snag that took me days to get through. During that time, I washed the kitchen floor, ate leftover Skittles from Halloween (I don’t even like Skittles), made dinner at 11 a.m., and engaged in other avoidance behaviors that were even less productive (and sometimes more fattening) than the Skittles. I could not get past the quarter mark of the novel, even though, plot-wise, I knew what was supposed to happen. And then, somewhere between a cherry turnover and a rerun of Castle that I’d seen several times, it started to dawn on me: I didn’t know my secondary characters or other minor characters very well. Sure I’d given some of them names, and one of them had even appeared in the first chapter briefly. But who were they really? Even though my main character who had just walked into the room didn’t know them yet, I needed to know who they were right now. I suppose if I were an extreme “pantser” I could have muddled through the scene and rounded out the characters later, but that method wasn’t working for me. I was stuck.

This revelation took me on another avoidance journey but a more productive one. I began reading articles and leafing through some of my favorite novels to see how others had rounded out their secondary and walk-on characters. Here are some of the things I learned:

Even minor characters have motivations.

This definitely is a no-brainer, but figuring out external and internal goals of main characters is hard enough. So it’s easy to forget that everyone has a story—even the guy that’s standing over in the corner of the room. I’d done a lot of backstory work on my two main characters, but I hadn’t done any work on the rest of the players. Although some of this info might never make it into the chapter, or even the novel, I realized I needed to know what these characters wanted and what that would mean to my main characters.

Names can do a lot.

When the time isn’t right to go into backstory or motivation on a minor character, there are other ways to tell who they are in just a few words. In Liar & Spy, Rebecca Stead gives us vivid portraits of several characters in the first two chapters through naming. First, her main character, Georges, tells us that his name is pronounced George, but the “S” is silent. This causes some kids to call him Gorgeous, which he says he doesn’t mind. With just that description, we learn so much about both Georges and the secondary character, Dallas Llewellyn, who calls Georges Gorgeous. (And isn’t Dallas a great name for a bully?) We also learn a lot about another secondary character, P.E. teacher Ms. Warner. She calls Georges “G” because she’s trying to help him out by making the name “G” stick. That also tells us a great deal about her character and her relationship with Georges. In addition, we’re given insight regarding secondary character, “Bob English Who Draws,” when we’re told that their fourth grade math teacher gave Robert English the name because he was always “zoning out and doodling,” and the nickname stuck. So, character names are, of course, important, but it can be equally important to tell the reader what the characters call each other and why.

Go against type.

Even with very minor characters, it’s important not to stereotype. Robyn Schneider does a great job with this in The Beginning of Everything. The main character, an injured, former athlete who has to hobble to the front row of the assembly because he can’t climb the bleachers, describes the others there as “all teachers and this one goth girl in a wheelchair who insisted she was a witch.” By going against the stereotype of the poor girl in a wheelchair, Schneider not only gives us a vivid picture of the character, but also tells us a lot about the narrator describing her. He doesn’t want to be seen as a stereotype either.

Give your secondary character a skill, preferably one that’s unexpected.

I’m currently reading Jandy Nelson’s fabulous I’ll Give You the Sun. And I was surprised when a secondary character, who didn’t seem to be the athletic type at all, suddenly started throwing rocks like a professional athlete. It gave one of the protagonists (and me) a whole new perspective on the character. This particular character is also an astronomy enthusiast, which makes for great conversations between him and one of the main characters.

Give your secondary character a defining characteristic.

You can do this with a physical description, a habit, or a pattern of speech. But it’s harder than it seems. I’ve read articles about how many secondary characters in novels have red hair. Yes, it can set them apart from the other characters, but it’s become so common, it’s hardly a defining characteristic anymore. Same with such habits as picking cuticles and biting lips. You’d think teens everywhere would have bloody fingers and lips with all the cuticle picking and lip biting that goes on in YA novels. Strive for unique details. Study actors on TV. On The Blacklist, James Spader does this weird thing with his tongue when he’s giving someone an ultimatum. It’s a brilliant quirk that distinguishes him from everyone else. You also want to avoid using trendy and overused words like “hotilicious” to distinguish your character’s dialog. When it comes to speech patterns, look at sentence structure. Does your character only speak in simple, noun-verb-object sentences? Or does he ramble on? Does she avoid contractions? Does he talk in sentence fragments only? How can your character’s speech make her memorable?

I’m off now to put all this into practice. If you have any suggestions on how you’ve rounded out your secondary characters and other minor characters, feel free to share. I’d love to hear about them.


Remember, the names of commenters and subscribers will be thrown into a virtual hat for a chance to win a free ten-page critique or bookish necklace. In honor of election time, comment early and often :)

#7 Borrow From Movies, Plays, or Other Books

This is somewhat like #6 but involves taking your inspiration from even more existing stories. I’m always amazed when an author is able to take a movie, play, or book and change it up so much that it’s entirely different from its source material.

Here are some great books that have been inspired by other stories. (Amazing how influential the Bard continues to be after all these years.) All of these authors followed Ezra Pound’s dictum to “make it new” and created highly original works.


That’s Good! That’s Bad! by Margery Cuyler, illustrated by David Catrow:
Good News, Bad News by Jeff Mack:

The conceit in these two books is similar to that of a book called Fortunately by Remy Charlip. In all of the books, something bad happens on one page and then something good happens as a result. And the pattern continues. Each of these books is different, and each displays its own cleverness. Cuyler’s book inspired three sequels: That’s Good! That’s Bad! In the Grand Canyon, That’s Good! That’s Bad! In Washington, D.C., and That’s Good! That’s Bad! On Santa’s Journey. The last two were illustrated by Michael Garland.

The Dumb Bunnies series by Dav Pilkey:

In this hilarious series, the bunnies do dumb things like watching the toilet bowl instead of the Super Bowl. This bunny family seems to have taken its cue from The Stupids series by Harry G. Allard Jr., illustrated by James Marshall, which was made into a movie, starring Tom Arnold.


The Fourth Stall by Chris Rylander:

This is the first of a fun series about a middle-school boy who fixes other kids’ problems. The book is described as a Godfather-like tale of crime and betrayal. And if you compare the covers of Rylander’s books with Mario Puzo’s you’ll see a similarity. It’s a pretty genius concept.

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead:

This is one of my favorite books of all time. While the story itself doesn’t bear too much similarity to A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, the intertexuality makes it seem as if the two stories are talking to each other within the novel.


Prom and Prejudice by Elizabeth Eulberg:
Prada and Prejudice by Mandy Hubbard:

These are only two of the many YA novels based on Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. And not surprisingly, readers have loved these books.

Romiette and Julio by Sharon Draper:
When You Were Mine by Rebecca Serle:
Juliet Immortal by Stacey Jay:

YA authors have given Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet, several spins. Draper has her characters meet in an Internet chat room and gives the tale a happy ending.

Serle tells a contemporary story in which a not-so-nice Juliet breaks up the relationship between Rob and Rosaline. I love the tagline on the cover: What if the greatest love story ever told was the wrong one?

Jay turns the classic story into a paranormal tale in which Romeo kills Juliet to ensure his own mortality, not realizing, she too will become immortal. Jay also wrote a sequel called Romeo Redeemed.

Shut Out by Kody Keplinger:

This one’s a funny retelling of the Greek play Lysistrata, by Aristophanes, about women withholding sex from men until they stop fighting. Keplinger’s version takes place in high school, and the fighting involves football teams.

A Midsummer’s Nightmare by Kody Keplinger:

Keplinger does it great again with a new take on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Ten by Gretchen McNeill:

McNeill gives Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None a teen twist in this suspenseful novel.

Life After Theft by Aprilynne Pike:
Pike takes The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy, a work far less known than Shakespeare’s and Austen’s and gives it her own spin.

#8 Fictionalize Real-Life Stories and Events

Here’s where spending your time reading random articles on the Internet can actually work for you, instead of against you. Like Law & Order SVU, these stories were ripped from the headlines.

10 Little Rubber Ducks by Eric Carle:
Ocean Commotion: Caught in the Currents by Janeen Mason:

Both of these books were inspired by a 1992 event in which a cargo ship dropped a container of toys, including lots of rubber ducks, into the Pacific. I’d seen this article in the newspaper and cut it out but never did anything with the idea. But I’m glad Carle and Mason did.

Pluto Visits Earth by Steve Metzger, illustrated by Jared Lee:

This one came out shortly after Jupiter was declared not to be a planet anymore. In the book, Pluto is angry that he’s been demoted and comes to earth to reclaim planetary status. Recently some scientists have said Jupiter should be a planet after all. I smell a sequel ☺.


The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate:

This award-winning book was based on a real-life story about a gorilla that has grown up in a cage at a mall. Applegate’s picture book based on the same story was just released.


Kiss Me Kill Me by Lauren Henderson:
Who I Kissed by Janet Gurtler:

(Spoiler Ahead!) Both of these novels bear resemblance to a news article in which a teen with a peanut allergy died after kissing her boyfriend. In Henderson’s novel (the first of her Scarlett Wakefield series) a girl leaves school after a boy collapses dead after their kiss. She later gets a note telling her it may not have been an accident. In Gurtler’s novel, the main character becomes a school pariah when she accidentally kills a boy after kissing him.

Audrey, Wait! by Robin Benway:
Indigo Blues by Danielle Joseph:

Both books take their cue from a real-life incident in the news about the Plain White Tees and their song, “Hey There, Delilah.” The singer/songwriter crooned about a girl he’d met somewhere, and although she wasn’t an ex-girlfriend as in the two fabulous novels mentioned, the attention was equally unwanted by the girl.

After by Amy Efaw:

This acclaimed novel was no doubt inspired by several unfortunate news stories in which teens, who didn’t know they were pregnant, suddenly went into labor and abandoned their babies in the trash.

#9 Tap Into the Zeitgeist

Ask yourself: what are people talking about? What’s in the forefront of the American imagination and will be for a while? Social issues like child abduction and child slavery? Diseases such eating disorders, drug addiction, cutting, bipolar disorder? And how about technology: what part does that play? All these books seem to have been sparked by the intellectual, moral, and cultural climate of our era.


The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordicai Gerstein:

This Caldecott-winning picture book is about Frenchman Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the two towers of the World Trade Center. Published two years after 9/11, the story had great significance for our era.

Chicken Dance by Tammi Sauer, illustrated by Dan Santat:

This very funny picture book and its sequel, Bawk and Roll, no doubt took inspiration from the popularity of contemporary reality shows like “American Idol.”


As If Being 12¾ Isn’t Bad Enough, My Mother Is Running For President by Donna Gephart:

Published at the beginning of 2008, when it was conceivable that we could have a female president, Gephart’s award-winning novel tapped into that possibility. This book is still highly relevant in our contemporary political climate.

Death By Toilet Paper by Donna Gephart:

In her newest novel, Gephart taps into cultural issues of our era once again. This one addresses issues of the current economy with humor and heart.

Wonder by R. J. Palacio:

Bullying has been on everyone’s mind for quite a while. While not necessarily written as an anti-bullying book, this best-selling novel is all about promoting kindness to each other.


Sold by Patricia McCormick:

This National Book Award finalist is about a poor thirteen-year-old girl in Nepal being sold into slavery and prostitution, an unfortunate reality of our times.

Crank by Ellen Hopkins:

Hopkins writes wildly popular novels in verse. This one’s about meth addiction. Subsequent novels deal with such issues as prostitution, depression, abuse, etc.

Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson:

Anderson, a best-selling and award-winning author, often writes about contemporary issues of our era. This one is about eating disorders.

Kiss of Broken Glass by Madeleine Kuderick:

This lyrical novel, written in verse, is about an addiction to cutting.

Gimme a Call by Sarah Mlynowski:
The Future of Us by Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler:

The constant technological advances of our era continue to inspire writers. Mlynowski’s book is about a girl who drops her cell in a fountain and starts talking to her future self. Asher and Mackler write about a girl and boy who use an AOL CD and discover themselves on Facebook fifteen years into the future.

#10 X meets Y: Combine Two Popular and/or Unlikely Books, Movies, Ideas, Places, Etc.

When teaching, I’ve had students make two separate lists of various TV shows, movies, plays, places, etc. I then have them combine one from Column A and one from Column B. You should see the ideas they come up with.


Dinosaurs Love Underpants by Claire Freedman and Ben Cort:

Two things extremely popular with the picture book set are dinosaurs and underpants. Wish I’d thought of this!

Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type by Doreen Cronin, illustrated by Betsy Lewin:

Farm animals meet collective bargaining in this enduring picture book. This one’s a first in a series about these belligerent bovines.

Creepy Carrots by Aaron Reynolds, illustrated by Peter Brown:

I think you could describe this as Peter Rabbit meets Night of the Living Dead. Love it!

Dragons Love Tacos by Adam Rubin, illustrated by Daniel Salmieri:

Take dragons, a popular picture book subject, combine them with tacos and salsa, and you’ve got one hot picture book.

Cowboy Christmas by Rob Sanders, illustrated by John Manders:

Combining cowboys with Christmas cacti makes for a great holiday book.


The Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan:

This series is often described as Classical Mythology meets Harry Potter.

Glory Be by Augusta Scattergood:

One reviewer described this award-winning novel as The Help meets To Kill a Mockingbird.


I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You by Ally Carter:

This novel and the rest of the beloved Gallagher Girls series could be described as Girls Boarding School novel meets CIA.

Beauty Queen by Libba Bray:

This funny send-up combines the Miss America Pageant with the TV show Lost.

Well, that’s it for the ten ways to generate ideas series. I hope they sparked a story concept for you!


Still looking for an idea for NANOWRIMO or just want to brainstorm your next book? Here are four additional ideas. (See the first two in previous posts.) I promise to get the next four up over the weekend.

If you know more examples of these techniques (including your own book) or if you have other favorite ways to brainstorm, please write in the comments section before October 31, 2014. You’ll be thrown into a raffle to win a free critique of the first ten pages of your novel or picture book (ten pages or less) or a necklace that says, The Word is Waiting to Hear Your Story.

So you don’t miss any posts or chances to win a critique, sign up to receive the blog in your email. See the sign-me-up box to the right.

#3 What’s the Worst that Could Happen?

The title speaks for itself. Think of a worst-case scenario and run with it. Movies do it all the time with films like Planet of the Apes, Godzilla, Deep Impact, and every other movie where an asteroid is headed toward us. This is also your basic dystopia situation, but there are other worst-case scenarios besides a totalitarian future. Check these out below.


Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst, illustrated by Ray Cruz:

With a movie in theaters now and a sequel to the picture book just out, Viorst’s enduring story proves both kids and adults can relate to other people in terrible, horrible situations. There’s no asteroid heading toward Alexander, but for a kid, a day where everything goes wrong can be just as bad.

Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale by Mo Willems:

If you’ve ever driven miles out of your way to figure out where a child has left a raggedy teddy bear or a well-worn doll, you know how awful it is for a kid (and the adult driving) to lose that favorite toy.


The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins:

Need I say more?

The Maze Runner by James Dashner:

Like The Hunger Games, this book has also spun into a wildly popular series of books and movies. It’s about a boy who wakes up in a strange place with other kids. They don’t know how they got there—or how to get out.

Trapped by Michael Northrop:

When a snowstorm hits, seven kids get trapped in school for a week. As problems escalate, so does the suspense in this fast-paced novel.

Among the Hidden by Margaret Peterson Haddix:

In a society where couples can have only two children, Luke is a third child who must live in hiding. This is the first in the very popular Shadow Children series.


Unwind by Neal Shusterman:

When a child is between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, a parent may choose to retroactively get rid of that child through a process called “unwinding.” This book is the first in an acclaimed and thought-provoking series.

Delirium by Lauren Oliver:

This is the first of a trilogy about a future where love is a disease. And at eighteen, you must take the cure. Oliver, who is both prolific and insightful, definitely knows her YA audience!

Stuck in Neutral by Terry Trueman:

The narrator is completely disabled—can’t move or speak—and thinks his father is planning on killing him. Trueman also wrote Cruise Control, a companion novel to this Printz Honor book.

If I Stay by Gayle Forman:

A girl hovering between life and death after a car accident must decide whether to live or die. This well-loved book was recently made into a movie. Forman has also written a companion novel to this one called Where She Went.

#4 Look at the Irrational Fears and Phobias of People Around You

Google irrational fears and you’ll get lots of ideas. But if you have trouble sleeping at night, maybe you better not. Classic examples include Jaws (maybe not so irrational), Snakes on a Plane, Chucky, and lots of other horror movies.

Kids and teens have their own specific irrational fears. (So do adults. When I took a break from writing this blog post, I found a millipede in my study. I killed it and then imagined all its fellow millipedes coming after me in my sleep.)

Take a look at these great books, but do it at your own risk.


The Tub People by Pam Conrad, illustrated by Richard Egielski:

I love this series about plastic Tub People. The first is about how the youngest almost goes down the drain, but is saved. Have you ever known children who were afraid that would happen to them?

The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark by Jill Tomlinson, illustrated by Paul Howard
and The Dark by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Jon Klassen:

These are two examples of how authors used the common fear of the dark to create excellent and original books.

Go Away Big Green Monster by Ed Emberley:

My kids loved this empowering book that taps into another common fear that toddlers have: all kinds of monsters.

The Watermelon Seed by Greg Pizzoli:

When a crocodile swallows a watermelon seed, he imagines horrible things happening to him. Don’t tell me this never happened to you when you were a kid. No? Really? Just me?


Running Out of Time by Margaret Peterson Haddix:

This one presents a common fear about doubting your own perception. Do you really know what you think you know? (Spoiler alert!) In this intriguing novel, a girl believes she’s living a normal life in 1840, but it’s really 1996 outside her town.

The Dollhouse Murders by Betty Ren Wright:

Dolls that move around by themselves. Anyone creeped out by old dolls will love this one.


The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary Pearson:

This book and the rest in the series tap into the fear that everyone close to you might be lying about something. The books raise important questions about biomedical ethics and what makes us human.

The Face on the Milk Carton by Caroline B. Cooney:

This popular series, which was also made into a movie, brings to light a common adolescent fear regarding identity. Are you the person you think you are?

#5 Tell the Story From an Unusual or Original Point of View

These books often promote critical thinking and discussion by offering readers the opportunity to see life from another perspective. One popular example is the movie Forrest Gump.

Sometimes these types of stories are told from unreliable narrators. Some famous examples include Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov and Turn of the Screw by Henry James.

These wonderful books below offer unique narrators, sometimes unreliable, sometimes just plain fun.


That New Animal by Emily Jenkins, illustrated by Pierre Pratt:

One of my all-time favorite picture books tells a classic sibling rivalry story, but from the point of view of the household dog.

The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka, illustrated by Lane Smith:

A popular tale, told from the point of view of the wolf. Love this!

I Stink! by Kate and Jim McMullan:

This award-winning book is told from the point of view of a garbage truck. Who would have thought?


Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper:

This fifth-grade narrator can’t walk, speak, or write but still has a rich interior life as evidenced by her narration of the story. Draper’s acclaimed novel highlights the disparity between mind and body for those with similar disabilities.

Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine:

Because of her Aspergers, this narrator has an unusual perspective on the death of her brother in a school shooting. This National Book Award winner is sure to give readers insight into classmates who are differently abled.


Breathing Underwater by Alex Flinn:

Books about abuse are usually told from the victim’s point of view. This highly acclaimed book about dating abuse broke new ground by telling the story from the point of view of the abuser.

Inexcusable by Chris Lynch:

Similarly, this book, a National Book Award finalist, tells about date rape from the point of view of the rapist.

#6 Borrow from Myths, Fairy Tales, Songs, and Urban Legends

There is no end to the possibilities open when using existing sources as inspiration. The tale of Cinderella has generated an industry all its own. And, amazingly, many authors continue to give the fairy tale a fresh take. Look at how these exceptionally creative authors have been inspired by other sources.


Waking Beauty and Falling for Rapunzel by Leah Wilcox, both illustrated by Lydia Monks:

These two books are hilarious fractured fairy tales. The first is about a prince who ignores advice to kiss Sleeping Beauty and instead tries everything from jumping on her bed to shooting a cannon. In the second book, Rapunzel can’t hear what the prince is saying, so when he asks her for her curly locks, she throws out dirty socks.

Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs by Mo Willems:

The always-entertaining Willems changes things up when Goldilocks ventures into the house of three diabolical dinosaurs, one of whom is from Norway. Really, Norway.

One Cool Friend by Toni Buzzeo, illustrated by David Small:

I heard Toni Buzzeo speak at our Florida SCBWI conference and she told us the story was inspired by an urban legend she heard about a boy who steals a penguin on a school trip. After kids read this fabulous Caldecott Honor book, field trips will never be the same!


Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix:

In this fun and feminist take on Cinderella, Ella realizes life in the palace isn’t what its cracked up to be—especially if your crush is someone other than the prince.

The Percy Jackson and the Olympians series by Rick Riordan

In the first book, The Lightning Thief, Percy Jackson finds out he’s the son of Poseidon. This fresh spin on Greek mythology is the basis for a series of mega-popular books and movies.


Impossible by Nancy Werlin:

Inspired by the ballad “Scarborough Fair,” award-winning author, Nancy Werlin, created a best-selling fantasy novel about faeries and a family curse.

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han:

Who would have thought a song about former girlfriends, sung by Julio Iglesias and Willie Nelson, could inspire a YA novel? But the fabulously creative Jenny Han did it with this novel about a girl whose letters to the boys she’s loved accidentally get mailed.

Beastly by Alex Flinn:

Alex Flinn’s retellings of fairy tales have a huge and loyal following. This best-selling novel, told from the point of view of the beast in Beauty and the Beast, was made into a popular film.

Ash by Malinda Lo:

This one’s a highly creative take on the Cinderella story. It involves a same sex relationship twist.

Cinder by Marissa Meyer:

In this unique spin on Cinderella, Cinder is a cyborg. This book is the first in the hugely popular Lunar Chronicles series. Subsequent books also use fairy tales as source material.

Oh. My. Gods. by Tera Lynn Childs:

Take your typical contemporary new girl in school story and set it in Greece, where all her classmates, descendants of Greek gods, have special powers and you have the makings of a well-loved series with a fresh twist on mythology.