Sunday, April 25, 2021

Hooking the Reader

How does an author grab our interest from the first page and pull us into the story so quickly and deeply that we are reluctant to shut the book for fear something might happen while we're gone and we might miss something exciting?

In her Newberry Honor Book The War That Saved My Life, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley hooks the reader's attention on the first page—in the very first line—and creates the kind of momentum that makes the story feel like a freight train picking up speed and careening down a hillside.

Here’s the opening paragraph:

“Ada! Get back from the window!” Mam’s voice, shouting. Mam’s arm, grabbing mine, yanking me so I toppled off my chair and fell hard to the floor.

In that opening word —“Ada!”—we are introduced simultaneously to the main character, Ada, and to the person who is her greatest antagonist, her mother, calling her name.

Ada—although we don’t yet know her age— appears to be in immediate danger sitting or standing too close to the window, and her mother’s concern—the shouting, the grabbing, the yanking away from the window—seems to reflect a mother’s natural worry about a child in danger who has gone too close to an open window and is at risk of falling out. 

But then the second paragraph reveals that our assumption might be incorrect, that there’s something else underlying the relationship.

Here, take a look at what comes next:

“I was only saying hello to Stephen White.” I knew better than to talk back, but sometimes my mouth was faster than my brain. I’d become a fighter, that summer.

Ada has become a fighter. We still don’t know her age, only that she has discovered her own strength and is willing to stand up to her mother’s unreasonable demands. This second paragraph shows us that Ada wasn’t at risk of falling out of the window, as we might have feared in the first paragraph. She merely wanted to say hello to a friend.

So the question Bradley has planted in her reader’s mind is this: why would Mam object to Ada simply sitting at a window and saying hello to a friend?

The third paragraph reveals the fundamental truth and sadness of their mother-daughter relationship:

Mam smacked me. Hard. My head snapped back against the chair leg and for a moment I saw stars. “Don’t you be talkin’ to nobody!” Mam said. “I let you look out that window out a’ the kindness of my heart, but I’ll board it over if you go stickin’ your nose out, much less talking to anyone!”

We are only three paragraphs into the story, and already our heart is aching for Ada, whose mother seems not only overbearing but cruel in ways that appear unfair and border on abusive. We aren't yet finished with the first page of the book, yet already we are wondering how Ada can possibly survive such a relationship.

Still, it’s unclear why her mother wants her to stay away from the window. Before the end of the first page, though, we learn the reason.

Ada, in her defense for looking out the window, says her younger brother, Jaime, is outside, reasoning why shouldn’t she be allowed to look outside, even if she’s not allowed to go outside?

And her mother responds, revealing the reason for her severe treatment of her daughter:

“And why shouldn’t he be?” Mam said. “He ain’t a cripple. Not like you.”

Ada is a cripple. We don’t know yet how or why she became a cripple, only that in her mother’s eyes being a cripple is a kind of sin, a stain that she can’t erase. But as becomes obvious over the course of the story, Mam nonetheless tries to erase the “stain” of her daughter’s crippleness from the world by keeping Ada out of sight. 

And so we have the beginning of the story. The weight of the challenge for the main character is clear. Not only does Ada have to overcome an abusive mother but she has to face the challenge of living the life of a cripple.

As the story unfolds, we hope, like Ada, that if she learns to walk—she was born, it turns out, with a club foot—perhaps she might be able to gain her mother’s love or, if not, then escape her mother's abuse. 

So… Ada begins to teach herself how to walk at great physical and emotional expense … and the reader joins her every step of the way.

For more info about Bradley and her work, visit her website: Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

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