Mary Cummings
Agent for Kids Books

Making a Good Start

The opening pages in a manuscript – including the opening sentences – are an invitation to a reader to enter the story. Let’s assume that your reader is an agent. This agent may be tired, frazzled, semi-distracted and have a sore back or bleary eyes at the moment of encountering your story. But your reader also has at least some element of hope that your work will be something marvelous.

Your task is to charm, seduce, delight and surprise. You have precious little time and space in which to create enough magic to gain the reader’s assent to continue. (This of course is true at both the manuscript stage and for the completed book being considered by your child reader). 

I recall my reaction to Karen’s Briner’s opening of her middle-grade novel, SNOWIZE & SNITCH: Highly Effective Defective Detectives (Holiday House). I was immediately enveloped in the setting and a moment in time, sitting under a tree with a girl named Ever, who was being spoken to by a crow. 

When I opened the email with J. Theron Elkins’ YOU ARE THE PEA, AND I AM THE CARROT (Abrams), I became instantly captivated by the warmth and intimacy in this story of companions who belong together. 

In David Cundy’s ANIMALS SPELL LOVE (David R. Godine), it was the elegance of his illustrations as well as the world-expanding spelling of “love” in sixteen languages that entranced.  

In Joy Keller’s MONSTER TRUCKS (Godwin Books/Henry Holt), it was the pairing of monsters with big trucks: two things kids adore, which had not been combined in any other children’s book. And, of course, not only was the concept clever and original, but the writing was excellent.

In Angela Dalton's RUBY'S REUNION DAY DINNER (HarperCollins), it was the glorious, sensual imagery of food being prepared and enticing aromas filling a kitchen, with such wonderful lines as "the room quakes with laughter" as a family gathers to make a soul food dinner for their Reunion Day. She had me with the opening phrases: "Grocery bags rustle, pots and pans clatter..."

The opening stanzas of Maggie Rudd's I'LL HOLD YOUR HAND (FSG) totally charmed me:

I’ll hold your hand  

on the night you arrive

when the whole world comes alive. 

When you're learning to crawl

and you stumble and fall, 

I'll hold your hand.

I'll hold your hand 

when new things are scary

or monsters too hairy. 

Space constraints dictate that I move on from successful examples to discussion of opening pages that I see all too often and which quickly get deleted. 

For novels: Don’t start with a line of dialogue. You may think it adds energy but it’s a cliché. But don’t just write description on your opening page: we do need dialogue. Don’t do a long prologue. Give only small pieces of backstory. Don’t have the character waking up from a dream, or waking up to mom’s call that he’ll be late for school. Don’t have her in a pitch black room on a cement floor gasping, bleeding, tortured and swearing all in one sentence. Don’t state the kid’s age or use a device like looking in a mirror to describe hair color, facial features, etc. Avoid the cliché of a green-eyed, mysterious hot boy. Give some hint of the direction and flavor of the story and its central character.

For picture books: Agents see loads of rhyming picture books, and loads of manuscripts in a narration style not suited to the picture book format.
Many people want to write in rhyme. Some assume that’s the only and right way to do a picture book. It’s not. (Look at the article on this site specifically on rhyme).

Here’s a gray area that’s hard to define, but important. In general, the narration style associated with oral storytelling isn’t suited to picture books. The good news is that it often works as a short story for a children’s magazine. If your manuscript contains phrases like “one day a boy woke up and …” or “once there was …” or “then they decided to …,” or “I don’t know,” said Dad pensively. “We’ll have to see what happens when …” -- it’s probably a short story. 

A few more tips. Do some research to know if your idea is original or fills some kind of niche. There are far too many submissions that come my way with a character who is in some way “different,” and the market for them is pretty tight. Dragons and monsters are a tough sell, but sometimes workable. Be aware of standard pagination and word length norms in picture books. Ask yourself: will a child enjoy hearing or reading this multiple times? Is there a refrain or repeated image she will delight in anticipating? Is it fun to read aloud? Consider also: do the words suggest variety in action, characters, plot etc. to support a lively visual flow?
And finally, although the first few sentences and first page are of crucial importance, make sure that the entire manuscript is also really well done. 


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