Monday, June 23, 2008

Effective openings in MG and YA part 3

Saffy's Angels
by Hilary McKay

Because I grew up reading books by British authors (I grew up in Malaysia, ex-colony of Britain), I thought my fondness of Saffy’s Angels was due to the nostalgic factor. But a second reading recently convinced me that nostalgia has only very little to do with it; it’s the writing, it's all about the writing.

The opening goes like this:

When Saffron was eight, and had at last learned to read, she hunted slowly through the color chart pinned up on the kitchen wall.

One of the things Les Edgerton in Hooked strongly recommends is crafting an opening sentence that captures the main issue of the story. Easy to say, but how do you present a whole story in a sentence? That's where it is essential to know what your story is about. I've been looking at story openings lately, and find that it can be done, although not always.

Hilary McKay has definitely done it here. We may not know it yet: we’re wondering why Saffron learned to read at such a (relatively) late age, and why she is searching through a color wheel, of all things. But we keep reading.

Turns out the color wheel does hold the key to Saffron’s life and over the course of the story, the innocent fact that her name isn’t on the color chart leads her to a secret, which in turns leads her to unusual events, and eventually to her coming to realization about who she is.

I also love the subtle hints about several of the characters within the first page. Here is a loaded bit of dialogue:

“If there is one thing your mother was good at,” Bill Casson, the children’s father, would say, “it was choosing names for you children.”

Just when you’re boiling mad on behalf of his wife at that bit of patronizing junk, the author goes on with this:

Eve, the children’s mother, would always look pleased.


Two short sentences, and we know who Bill and Eve Casson are. Brilliant.

But the characters aren't all about brokenness. We also meet Indigo, a boy sitting in front of the hearth, covered in soot and being protective of his baby sister. Every good story has tension and conflict, I realize, but if I am not given anything that is strong and good and kind and hopeful in the story, I don't know if I want to read more. So even though Saffron is upset she's not in the color wheel, and the Casson parents' relationship is questionable, Indigo's patience with Saffron and insistence that his youngest sister, Rose, isn't left out of anything, provides tenderness, the much needed something-good. This character trait of Indigo continues in the rest of the books in the series although he goes through transformation in other aspects of his life, and that makes me very happy.

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