Build Vocabulary Skills with Wordgirl

Sure, spelling bees are fun, but this upcoming Wordgirl webcast will help students build "super" word powers! I have already shared this Wordgirl webcast info with my kids' teachers. It looks like it will be an entertaining way to enhance vocabulary and improve word usage skills.

Classrooms and home schoolers can register at http://www.scholastic.com/wordgirldefinitioncompetition/

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Great First Lines: The Answers, Part 2

Here’s the second part of the answers to my Great First Lines Challenge.  I notice that no one even tried to guess any of these. I guess they are trickier than #s 1-5. Well, herewith, all is revealed: 6. There are two kinds of travel. The usual way is to take the fastest imaginable conveyance along the shortest road. The other way is not to care particularly where you are going or how long it will take you, or whether you will get there or not. --The Twenty-One Balloons, by William Pene DuBois
  • Do kids still read this book? I hope so. It looks like an old-fashioned kind of gentlemanly travelogue, not a rip-roaring plot-filled adventure. But, as its first line suggests, there are unparalleled delights to be savored in an indirect journey: in this case, the orderly society and Restaurant Government of the (real, but imaginarily populated) island of Krakatoa. And all those fabulous balloons, of course. I’m going to slip this into the hands of the next older kid who comes to the library looking for a copy of the “Up” DVD.
7. The bear had been their undoing, though at the time they had all laughed.—Lyddie, by Katherine Paterson
  • Most of Lyddie isn’t about the bear: it’s about Lyddie’s life as a mill girl in a Lowell textile factory, and her internal struggles over whether to join the nascent union. But this first line lets you in on the primal fear that drives Lyddie and makes her reluctant to risk her job: the wolf at her door isn’t metaphorical, but real—she knows about starvation, and the threat of the wild, and she means to survive.
8. I am riding the bicycle and I am on Route 31 in Monument, Massachusetts, on my way to Rutterburg, Vermont, and I’m pedaling furiously because this is an old-fashioned bike, no speeds, no fenders, only the warped tires and the brakes that don’t always work and the handlebars with cracked rubber grips to steer with. I Am the Cheese, by Robert Cormier [warning: link is very spoilerish]
  • Without giving away too much: nothing in this detail-stuffed first line, except the bicycle, is true. One of the first novels I ever read that messed with my head.
9. Later—much, much later—when we both knew what we had bought and what it had cost, she said that I should tell it. Father’s Arcane Daughter, by E.L. Konigsburg
  • Why, why, why is this book not better known? I put it on my Top Ten Novels list, even though I knew it would never make Fuse #8’s Top 100, because even though E.L. Konigsburg, multiple-Newbery-winning author, is anything but arcane, this book has somehow slipped through the cracks. It’s not even in print. But this first line is so exquisite in its gorgeousness and teaser-ish-ness that I had to include it even though I didn’t think anyone would recognize it. The rest of the book is just as good. Go, read!
10. I blame it all on The Hobbit. That, and my supportive home life.—Alice, I Think, by Susan Juby
  • Quick—what do you know about the narrator of this book, just from this first line? A) She’s familiar with The Hobbit, and so quite possibly sort of nerdy and eccentric. B) Something—“it all”, in fact—has gone wrong. C) Her home life is “supportive,” though supportive of what remains in question. D) She’s very funny, but she might not know it. E) All of the above. That’s a lot of freight for twelve little words, and it’s all borne out in the book that follows, as Alice attempts to remake herself into an ordinary high-school student (in rural British Columbia, yet) after ten years of homeschooling.
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Great First Lines: The Answers, Part I

Congratulations to Heidi, who guessed First Line #3 of my Great First Lines Challenge  a couple of weeks ago, and Liz, who guessed #3 and #5! Sorry for the delay in posting the answers—I wanted to give more people a chance to guess, if they were so inclined. 

Here are the answers to First Lines #1 through 5:

1. Once upon a time, in a gloomy castle on a lonely hill, where there were thirteen clocks that wouldn’t go, there lived a cold, aggressive Duke, and his niece, the Princess Saralinda. --The Thirteen Clocks, by James Thurber.

  • Perfectly sets up the mood of the book, which is fairy-tale-esque (without being twee), gothic, and just a tiny bit arch. That word “aggressive” is the tip-off that we’re in the hands of a master.

2. Walking back to camp through the swamp, Sam wondered whether to tell his father what he had seen. --The Trumpet of the Swan, by E.B. White .

  • This isn’t one of the showier first lines out there—nothing dramatic happens, just a kid walking back from a swamp. But in a move that’s typical of EB White’s understated brilliance, it sets up all kinds of questions in the reader’s mind, like: what on earth did Sam see in that swamp? And why wouldn’t he want to tell his father? It’s a testament to White’s skill at bringing us into Sam’s world that when the answer—a Trumpeter Swan’s nest—is revealed, it doesn’t feel anticlimactic at all.

3. When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home. --The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton.

  • Atmospheric, succinct, character-setting. It really is hard to believe Hinton was only sixteen when she wrote this..

4. Linderwall was a large kingdom, just east of the Mountains of Morning, where philosophers were highly respected and the number five was fashionable. --Dealing with Dragons, by Patricia Wrede.

  • Like The Thirteen Clocks, Dealing With Dragons draws on familiar fairy-tale fare: a kingdom, a princess, a dragon. But the slightly wonky opening (“the number five was fashionable”??) is a big hint that the usual fairy-tale plot is about to be set spinning crazily across the room.

5. Mrs. Jane Tabby could not explain why all four of her children had wings. --Catwings, by Ursula LeGuin

  • I can’t actually think of anything clever or illuminating to say about this first line. It seems to me to be utterly complete in itself, which is, I guess, enough of a testament.

I'll save the answers to first lines #6 through 10 for my next post in a day or two. If anyone wants to try to guess them, the original post is here.

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Great First Lines: A Challenge

A few days ago, coming across this article on great opening lines in (adult) novels, I was reminded of some of the great, legendary, opening lines in children’s books. Novels, in particular. Like:

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

Or:

“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.”

Each of these (the first lines of Little Women and Charlotte’s Web, respectively) is a marvel of, setting a tone, developing character, building suspense, and basically cracking open a  whole world for the reader, all in fewer characters than your average Twitter post.

It is HARD to write a great first line like these two. I’ve just been through my whole home collection of children’s and teen novels, looking for more examples, and was surprised by how many wonderful books have forgettable or lackluster first lines. Here are ten of the best I found (along with the occasional second or third line; that’s cheating a little, but in a few cases I couldn’t resist).

 Just for fun, I’m going to list them here without title or author and see if anyone recognizes them. All are from well-known authors and/or well-known books that were published at least ten years ago. Some are—I think—pretty easy if you know kids’ books, though at least one is out of print and un-Google-able, and I’ll be very surprised if anyone gets it:

1.  Once upon a time, in a gloomy castle on a lonely hill, where there were thirteen clocks that wouldn’t go, there lived a cold, aggressive Duke, and his niece, the Princess Saralinda.

2. Walking back to camp through the swamp, Sam wondered whether to tell his father what he had seen.

3. When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home. 

4. Linderwall was a large kingdom, just east of the Mountains of Morning, where philosophers were highly respected and the number five was fashionable.

5. Mrs. Jane Tabby could not explain why all four of her children had wings.

6. There are two kinds of travel. The usual way is to take the fastest imaginable conveyance along the shortest road. The other way is not to care particularly where you are going or how long it will take you, or whether you will get there or not.

7. The bear had been their undoing, though at the time they had all laughed.

8. I am riding the bicycle and I am on Route 31 in Monument, Massachusetts, on my way to Rutterburg, Vermont, and I’m pedaling furiously because this is an old-fashioned bike, no speeds, no fenders, only the warped tires and the brakes that don’t always work and the handlebars with cracked rubber grips to steer with.

9. Later—much, much later—when we both knew what we had bought and what it had cost, she said that I should tell it.

10. I blame it all on The Hobbit. That, and my supportive home life.

Post your guesses in the comments, and then see how many you got right when I post the answers in a future post!

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