For a magician, beginnings can be the hardest part of performing. There’s a fine line between seeming rushed and appearing to be too deliberate. I once saw the start of a magic show that took the magician nearly ten minutes before he performed his first trick. By the time he did, the spectators weren’t sure what they were watching and some had even walked out.
The same thing is true in our writing. Beginning a book can be particularly difficult. Imagine then, the challenges of beginning a series. In additional to getting a reader engaged in the story in their hands, you must also find a way to peak and hold their interest over the course of multiple books. Does it sound difficult? It is. But it is possible. This month, we’ll look at the first books of two popular series to see how was can create characters, settings, and circumstances that will keep readers coming back for more. First up, a secret club for those who love mysteries.
Book #1 of P. J. McMahon’s Freaky Joe Club is “The Mystery of the Swimming Gorilla”. Illustrated by John Manders, the book begins with Conor (codename The Condor) awaiting his friends’ arrival so that he can share a secret with them. What’s the secret? We have to wait to find out, but that secret keeps us engaged as first Jack, then Timmy, arrive.
The hardest part of starting can sometimes be learning about the characters and the setting in enough detail to interest us without seeming encyclopedic. McMahon handles this well, interweaving details about Conor and his friends in the suspense of finding out what the mystery is. When it’s finally revealed (mostly), the trio immediately set off the solve the mystery of Jack’s missing bike. We continue to learn more about the kids, and their community, as they work to solve the mystery. This keeps exposition to a minimum and keeps the story moving forward. On its own, “The Mystery of the Swimming Gorilla” is entertaining and engaging. The best part, though, is what really lends this to a series. We are never given the answer to the question “who is Freaky Joe”? Readers will have to read on in the series to find out if the question is ever answered.
For kids, change can be one of the hardest aspects of life. It’s no secret that young readers often gravitate towards books that address issues that they are interested in or worried about. It’s no surprise then, that the "Greetings From Somewhere" series has found such a following. Written by Harper Paris and illustrated by Marcos Calo, the first book in the series is “The Mystery of the Gold Coin”. It is the story of Ethan and Ella Briar who must search for a lost gold coin given to Ethan by their grandfather. But they have an even bigger problem. Their mother has accepted a job as a travel writer for the local newspaper. This means the family will be moving so that she can travel the world. Ethan and Ella are devastated.
The characters, and the long-term problem they face, are presented in the first chapter. The gold coin doesn’t appear in the story until chapter 3 and doesn’t disappear until chapter 4. How does the author keep the reader’s attention? By showing the kids reaction to the change, and their attempts to deal with it. By the time the kids go off in search of the coin, we’ve come to empathize with their situation, and even worry about whether they’ll find the missing coin in the hour they have left before it’s time to leave. By the end of the book, we’ve seen Ethan and Ella come to terms with their situation and now we want to see them succeed in their next adventure, which comes in the next book.
One common thread between these two books is the unknown. In the case of the “Mystery of the Swimming Gorilla” the unknown comes in the form of the mysterious Freaky Joe. In the case of the "Mystery of the Gold Coin", it’s the future happiness of Ethan and Ella as they leave their friends behind and start on a new adventure. In both cases, the reader will want to read on to find out how these characters fare.
Well, that’s all for this month. Happy writing and have a magical month.