Posted by: jeannineatkins | February 13, 2008

Opening a Book, Opening a Door

Okay, my title sounds like one for a cheesy textbook, but I’m not willing, today, to edit it out. I like thinking about openings to other worlds, even if clichéd. How does an author gently push us to new places, get us to believe in a different kind of world? At the start of my children’s lit class, we looked at opening sentences and discussed which lured, charmed, or made us think: so what? Now we’ve read Charlotte’s Web with its famous first sentence: “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” We looked at how E.B. White moves us from an everyday farm family to, at the beginning of chapter three, a barn where talking animals take over the story. How do we get tricked into, or trip into, “the willing suspension of disbelief?” (Coleridge)

The more a door seems like real wood that I can touch and smell and hear the sound of knocking, the more apt I am to believe. White’s sturdy declarative sentences, the good common Anglo Saxon nouns, build a real place scented with hay, pitchforks, stored sleds, chicken feed, and manure. The familiar details make me trust, so that I can believe in the loneliness of a pig, the helpfulness of a snarky rat, and a wise spider who knocks out flies, wraps them up, drinks their blood, and is a gifted writer, too.

Then we read Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (everyone had to get over that there are no red slippers as there are in the MGM film; they’re silver!) and went from gray Kansas to green Oz and back, on a rollicking plot in which the house hurtles through the air by the fourth page. Talk about being whisked along from adventure to entrapment to rescue and that all over again. And Baum, genius of imagination, seemed like a nice guy, married to a feminist, (lots of discussion of Dorothy’s character, or if she had one, but those witch/matriarchs?) Baum got the name for Oz, apparently, by looking at his file cabinet and the bottom drawer was labeled O-Z.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz reads more like a fairy tale: we believe because we don’t get much chance not to. Things happen in a hurry the way they must before a restless audience (Baum was father to four boys). The stepmother picks up a mirror, gets a pithy message, and calls her servant to do in the beautiful teen. A girl dances with a prince, falls in love, loses a glass slipper, worries, and the prince and the shoe is found. Not many moment moments are given to details, but we accept the frame, the force of the plot, as a world we’ll live in for a while.

Next we’ll step through a wardrobe and into the snow.
What makes YOU believe in a world?



  1. What a wonderful post. I love that you picked two “older” books that start so fast. We hear so much about how “today’s” kids are trained by video games & movies to hate slow starts. Well, I think you just proved that getting things moving is good writing–in any era!
    When are you going to come out & teach your class in California? 🙂
    I can’t remember who, on my blog, recommended Patricia Reilly Giff’s books (maybe it was you?!). Since that post I’ve become a complete fan. I just popped open a few of her books from my shelf. She doesn’t “tell” you right off that you’ve gone into the past, or into what era, but there’s something about her voice that just lets you know it’s a different time/place. Often, it’s the first few lines of dialog–something slightly different about the speakers’ word choices or the phrasing they use. And her narrative voice is very like that dialog–there’s a lilting to it, a rhythm that makes you feel you’ve stepped back in time, when small worlds were made up of new immigrants. They speak, somehow, speak with a bit of the old and a bit of the new, all mixed together.
    Something to strive for, I think!

  2. Becky, yes, I guess restlessness has always been amongst us. I do love a fast opening… but it takes me so many drafts to get there.
    Wish I could come teach in Calif or you come and help out there. I would certainly want you to do Tolkien, though I’ve got a fantasy-loving honors student who I’m plotting to turn over that class to.

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