Day 23: First Lines of Picture Books, or “The Greatest American Hero” Opening Theme Song

Today’s Caldecott Medal Winner is The Little House–not to be confused with the television show. By the way, I refused to allow my babysitter to watch “Little House on the Prairie” when I was a kid. I eventually caved. My apologies for the resistance in the first place. (We’re on Facebook.) What a great show!

The book, The Little House is yet another Caldecott Medal winner (1943) that demonstrates the classic, older, endearing way of starting a picture book. Geography. 

The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton

“Once upon a time there was a Little House way out in the country.” That’s the first line. As I’ve posted previously, a lot different than “This hat is not mine.” (This is Not My Hat by  Jon Klassen, winner of the 2013 Caldecott Medal).

When it comes to writing, “Once upon a time…” and first lines of location and geography were what many writers were regularly read from childhood books. “Once upon a time…” and first lines of location and geography are simply ingrained in us.

What’s a writer to do? “Once upon a time…” and first lines of location and geography don’t necessarily sell. Okay, if they still sell, they certainly don’t necessarily and often garner the sought-after and desirable attention of a new agent, editor or publisher.

Here’s one idea: Write “Once upon a time…” and first lines of location and geography if you need to write them. Write “Once upon a time…” and first lines of location and geography if you need them to get your creative juices squeezed. Then edit them out when you get to the heart of your story. Just cross them out. Voila!

Sometimes I think of that classic, burned-in-my brain opening scene from Little House on the Prairie. You know, the one where the youngest Ingall stumbles and falls (safely) on the hill? (No matter how many times I’ve seen it, there is ne’er an evil Nellie Oleson or even a Mrs. Oleson in sight. It’s just the beginning of the show–music and all. They’re in the “heart” of the show, right? What would the show be without them? That’s what I mean…)

Nowadays, opening scenes to shows–the intros are shorter, if they exist at all. Often a teaser vies for your attention before the opening credits and title flash onto the screen for only seconds. Okay, forget about the classic opening and clapping to the show, Friends. Or don’t forget if it’s a happy memory for you…

Sometimes Mark and I have been know to stroll down memory lane of the YouTube and play classic openers to our childhood shows, like Cheers, Silver Spoons and the like. Do we really want shows to go back to that? No way, Jose! It is a nostalgic, fun trip though.


No, nowadays, we want the teaser from Modern Family to bring us right into the show and make us forget we’re watching the beginning until all of a sudden they screech to a temporary halt at a punch line, cue the quick theme music, and flip the Modern Family sign one of the kids is holding. Almost every time, I think, “They GOT me again. I forgot I was watching the beginning…” They got my attention and made me forget about the other shows out there and that I’m holding the clicker to press at my first finger-jerk-curious-what’s-on-that-other-channel inclination. The producers and directors did their jobs. 

Our job as writers is to write a first line that doesn’t put on the snooze button for agents and editors. No, I know, I know–our real job is to write phenomenal picture book text for children–stories that stimulate their imaginations, curiosity and frankly, their caregivers’ credit cards. Let’s say,though, that agents and editors are the gatekeepers for those young readers and their parents’ and teachers’ best intentions. Agents and editors read hundreds of cover letters and first lines of stories every week. Maybe our cover letters and manuscripts can match one another! Maybe agents and editors might even forget they’re reading a pitch and just wanna get to know us and our stories better! We can dream, and we can write draft after draft of cover letters and stories. We try.


Then maybe one day, we’ll actually be singing the words, “Look at what’s happened to me, I can’t believe it myself. Suddenly I’m up on top of the world…. “* and not, “It should have been somebody else…” You’ll have earned it. You’ll have a contract. Your story has a chance to reach its audience. Congrats!

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