Category Archives: Inspiration

Hook Your Readers at Hello: Part 3

In Part Three of my series about bang-up beginnings, these authors have all found ways of using other media to start off strong. Take a look these great books. And if you have any to add, the comments section awaits.








Dear Mrs. LaRue: Letters from Obedience School by Mark Teague



Citing a long list of behavioral problems, Snort City resident Gertrude R. LaRue yesterday enrolled her dog, Ike, in the Igor Brotweiler Canine Academy.










The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate


chest beat: repeated slapping of the chest with one or both hands in order to generate a loud sound (sometimes used by gorillas as a threat display to intimidate an opponent)

domain: territory

the Grunt: snorting, piglike noise made by gorilla parents to express annoyance










From Dramarama by E. Lockhart (ya)

Transcript of a microcassette recording:

Demi: Is it on?

Sadye: That red light is supposed to glow.

Demi: It is glowing.

Sadye: No, it’s not.

Demi: Yes, it is. You can’t see because of the angle.

Sadye: Stop it and check.

(thump thumpy thump, click click)

Demi: Ha-HA! Let the record show that I was right.










Tears of a Tiger by Sharon M. Draper


Nov. 8—Rober Washington, age 17, captain of the Hazlewood High School basketball team …










Hollywood Hustle (Son of the Mob, Book 2) by Gordon Korman


An old Mazda Protegé tools along the cable of highway into the brilliant sunrise. With rapid-fire blur of broken lines on the asphalt, the weight of New York–childhood, family, smog–recedes into history. Every fiber of this scene, every pixel, screams, “Freedom!”










Au Revoir, Crazy European Chick by Joe Schreiber

Explain how your experiences as a teenager significantly differ from those of your friends. Include comparisons. (University of Puget Sound)










The Boy Book: A Study of Habits and Behaviors by E. Lockhart

The Care and Ownership of Boobs

(a subject important to our study of the male humanoid animal because the boobs, if deployed properly, are like giant boy magnets attached to your chest.

Or smallish boy magnets. Or medium.

Depending on your endowment.

But boy magnets. That is the point.

They are magnets, we say. Magnets!)


Hook Your Reader at Hello: Part 2

Continuing my series on beginnings, here’s another way (below) to hook a reader from your first words. All of these books are great. And I love how these authors are able to convey voice, tone, and story with so few words.

Have you written a book that begins with any of these forms? If so, feel free to post about your own work or others in the comments section.










Memoirs of a Goldfish by Devin Scillian, illustrated by Tim Bowers 

Day One

I swam around my bowl

Day Two

I swam around my bowl. Twice.

Day Three

I swam around my bowl.

I thought about taking a nap.

But fish don’t sleep.

So I swam around my bowl.








I Wanna Iguana by Karen Kaufman Orloff, illustrated by David Catrow 

Dear Mom,

I know you don’t think I should have Mikey Gulligan’s baby iguana when he moves, but here’s why I should. If I don’t take it, he goes to Stinky and Stinky’s dog, Lurch, will eat it.

You don’t want that to happen, do you?


Your sensitive son,











Finding Ruby Starling by Karen Rivers

FROM: Ruth Quayle

TO: Ruby Starling

Dear Ruby Starling,

I know no one starts off email messages with “dear,” but this is more important then most email messages. It may even be The Most Important Email Message Of Our Time! ALL CAPS IMPORTANT!










Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman

 12th Day of September

I am commanded to write an account of my days: I am bit by fleas and plagued by family. That is all there is to say.










Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

    January 1

Dear Leo,

I love beginnings. If I were in charge of calendars, every day would be January 1.










Storky: How I Lost My Nickname and Won the Girl by D.L. Garfinkle

Sunday, August 29


1. Gina confesses she’s madly in love with me.

2. Dad teaches me to drive and buys me a Land Rover.

3. I’m the first freshman ever voted homecoming king.


1. Gina doesn’t totally blow me off.

2. Dad lets me sit in the front seat of his car.

3. I don’t get thrown into a Dumpster.










Give a Boy a Gun by Todd Strasser

Dear Mom,

By the time you read this, I’ll be gone. I just want you to know there’s nothing you could have done to stop this.










Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

August 25, 1991

Dear friend,

I am writing to you because she said you listen and understand and didn’t try to sleep with that person at that party even though you could have. Please don’t try to figure out who she is because then you might figure out who I am, and I really don’t want you to do that.










Kill You Last by Todd Strasser

A TEXT SHOWED UP … from Gabriel: Thx 4 inviting me 2 the party. W2 meet again? 121?

That caught me by surprise. I could only assume that the quick kiss I’d given him after the party had smoothed out the earlier rough spots. It was flattering to think that he still liked me, but then I thought about the warnings both Whit and Roman had given me about him. I was thinking about how to answer his text when an e-mail popped up: I like you, Shelby Sloan. If I have to kill you, I’ll kill you last.










This is What Happy Looks Like by Jennifer E. Smith 


Sent: Thursday, March 7, 2013 10:18 PM


Subject: (no subject)

Hey, we’re running pretty behind here. Any chance you could walk Wilbur for me tonight?


Sent: Thursday, March 7, 2013 10:33 PM


Subject: Re: (no subject)

I think you have the wrong e-mail address. But since I’m a dog owner too, and I don’t want poor Wilbur to be stranded, I thought I’d write back and let you know …



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.



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#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!