Characters that Steal Our Hearts in the First Lines…..

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Picture books may initially be pulled from the shelf because of cover illustrations. Unless the character steals the heart of the reader, even the finest illustrations won’t turn a new story into an old favorite. Thinking back to my childhood, more than a half-century ago, I can still remember the first lines of Madeline (Ludwig Bemelmans, 1939).

On the cover, two rows of little girls in yellow are followed by a lady, holding tightly to one little girl. But the first lines of that classic introduced a character I would relate to throughout life… who captured my heart. “In an old house in Paris that was covered in vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines. They left the house at half past nine… The smallest one was Madeline.” My mother never tired of reading the story, in hopes that Madeline’s example would channel my independence into courage not taught to women in those days. And it did!

Characters in picture books, usually containing fewer than 500 words, must connect to the reader’s heart immediately. Some old favorites and new reads illustrate my point.

The Polar Express (Chris Van Allsburg, Houghton Mifflin, 1985)
On Christmas Eve, many years ago, I lay quietly in my bed. I did not rustle the sheets. I breathed slowly and silently. I was listening for a sound……” What sound? How could the boy be so quiet on Christmas Eve? The sound must be really important. And so it was……as the final line circles back to the reader’s wonderings. “Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me as it does for all who truly believe.” That boy continues to inspire children, teachers and parents to believe impossible is nothing.

The Pout-Pout Fish (Deborah Diesen, Scholastic, 2008)
Deep in the water where the fish hang out, lives a glum gloomy swimmer with an ever-present pout.” This cranky, sulking fish is approached by other underwater creatures with advice on how to cheer up. But Pout-Pout fish is convinced that cranky is his destiny…..until a shimmery fish plants a kiss on him and swims away. His transformation to a Kiss-Kiss fish is instantaneous. Pout-Pout fish turns the corners of fussy children’s mouths downside up in seconds and gives children a reason to laugh even on their most messy, horrendous, down-and-out, really awful days.

Chicken Dance (Tammi Sauer, Sterling, 2009)
Tonight Barnyard Talent Show – Grand Prize: Tickets to Elvis Poultry in Concert – The Final Doodle Doo. Marge and Lola took one look at the poster on the barn and almost lost their cluck.” The hilarity of a possible concert with Elvis Poultry and two chickens about to lose their cluck grabs the reader and holds on for an unexpected and delightful reading rollercoaster ride! The reader connects to these two cluck-less fowls, pulling for them from the outset. Marge and Lola become even more endeared to the reader as they are tormented by the confidence of barnyard neighbors, the pigs, cows and ducks. The surprise ending leaves readers cheering for the underdogs, making a place for Marge and Lola in their hearts forever.

A picture book character that explodes in the first lines endears the reader and assures the story will be passed down to the next generation.

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