July 06, 2016
“If your teacher has to die, August isn’t a bad time of year for it.” (The Teacher’s Funeral: A Comedy in Three Parts by Richard Peck; Dial, 2004) What kid isn’t going to keep reading with an opener like that? You can read Richard Peck’s Horn Book Magazine article “In the Beginning: What Makes a Good Beginning?” from the 2006 summer issue.
And who wouldn’t keep reading if a chapter ended like this: “It wasn’t about saving us. And it wasn’t about enslaving us or herding us into reservations. It was about killing us. All of us.” (The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey; Putnam, 2013)
Page-turners keep even the most reluctant reader flipping the pages. From amazing first sentences to the lines that make us think “just one more chapter,” these books are gems that absorb us into their world. Time passes. Chores go undone. Eyes get bleary. We forge on until we get to “a good stopping place”—which often doesn’t come until the final page. (And then you just want to read another one.)
Classic mystery series such as the Nancy Drew books masterfully use the cliffhanger. “And a shot rang out.” “And she opened the door.” Today’s writers continue to use this technique to keep readers involved. Last year I read Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan (Scholastic, 2015). The 592-page novel is divided into four sections, which are natural stopping places. However, Ryan brilliantly uses a cliffhanger at the end of each one. Who could stop there? I was reading so late into the night that I could hardly see. I eventually decided to stop but…perhaps I wasn’t feeling well. I should probably stay home from work—cough cough—tomorrow! In retrospect, that was ridiculous. I get paid to read our books. But taking a sick day was worth the uninterrupted peace to finish the story.
Writers can also alternate character voices to keep tension high. Each chapter is narrated by a different character, perhaps corresponding to a shift in the plotline. Readers have to keep moving through the book to find out what’s going on in the intricate web of action. All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely (Dlouhy/Atheneum, 2015) alternates two sides of the story: one as told by Rashad, a black teen beaten by a white policeman; the other by Quinn, a white teen who witnesses the beating. In this particular book, the two characters aren’t even friends. They go to the same school but never really connect. But by the end of the novel, the young men are bound together—and the reader is emotionally bound to both characters.
Which leads to another way page-turners grab hold of us: the heart. Sometimes our emotions are so involved in the story we have to keep reading because we need everyone to be okay. Take Pax by Sara Pennypacker (Balzer + Bray, 2016), for example. (And now that I think about it, Pennypacker also uses alternating narrators!) We want to know that Peter will get back to his pet fox, Pax. We need for Pax to find Peter. What will happen to them? Will Peter make it three hundred miles? Walking? With a broken foot?! We want the happily-ever-after so we read until we get it—though sometimes we will also need a box of tissues because “happily-ever-after” can mean different things. Or, shifting gears, take Kate DiCamillo’s hilarious Francine Poulet Meets the Ghost Raccoon (Candlewick, 2015). When animal control officer Francine falls off the roof and loses her confidence, we then cheer for her to best the raccoon and regain her balance, both emotionally and physically. (By the way, a new installment of the series comes out this fall.)
Suspense also drives a good page-turner. Without a good plot, cliffhangers and alternating narrators won’t make much difference. Terror at Bottle Creek by Watt Key (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016) is nonstop suspense. A hurricane is coming. First the dad leaves. Then the neighbor mom goes to find the dad. Now teenaged Cort is left behind with two little girls and a dog who—wait for it—leaves too. Now they need to rescue the dog, who gets them on the houseboat which breaks loose during the storm. You get the picture. Key takes suspense and ratchets up the “what if?” factor until you cannot put down the book. If you’re looking for JLG categories with page-turners, try the high-interest categories in middle school and high school, as well as the mystery/adventure categories in elementary, middle school, and high school.
When you look at the whole package, a good page-turner grabs you from the first sentence and keeps you in its grip until the last word. You’re like a dog with a bone, except when it’s over you want to pass it along to someone else instead of burying it in the backyard.
What about you? What page-turners have you lost yourself in this year?
KOSS, Melanie D. Young Adult Novels with Multiple Narrative Perspectives: The Changing Nature of YA Literature. The ALAN Review. Summer 2009
MEACHAM, Margaret. Five Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Mistakes in Children’s Books.
PECK, Richard. In the Beginning: What Makes a Good Beginning? The Horn Book Magazine, September/October 2006