Beautiful Beginnings: Bethany Hegedus’ Between Us Baxters

Between Us BaxtersEditors and agents talk a lot about “voice,” that seemingly elusive quality that every good book possesses. As soon as I started reading Between Us Baxters by Bethany Hegedus, I was immediately struck with one thought: “Wow, what a voice!”

Between Us Baxters is a middle-grade novel set in the fall of 1959, a time of racial tension in Holcolm County, Georgia. The story is told by 12-year-old Polly, who’s white, and looks at her relationships with her poor parents, her overbearing grandmother, and her best friend, 14-year-old Timbre Ann, who’s African-American. When thriving colored businesses start getting burned to the ground, Polly worries about losing her friendship with Timbre Ann.

Heavy subject matter indeed, as well as important and poignant.

Bethany begins the novel with writing that packs a punch. Reading it, you immediately get a sense of Polly, her character and her circumstances. For me, whose accent is far away from Southern, I even found my thoughts twinged with a twange.

Here’s the first page from Between Us Baxters:

Like Moses, Meemaw had ten commandments. On Sundays, I was bound as if by the Bible to a long list of rules. Before dinner, be seen and not heard. Once at the table, lay my napkin in my lap. Keep my elbows off the table, ankles crossed. Bow my head while Uncle Jimmy presides over the prayer. Pass the rolls to my right. Don’t talk with my mouth full. Use the soupspoon only for soup. Wipe my mouth with a napkin, not the back of my hand. And never leave the table before being excused.

Why, if Moses had a number eleven, Lord help me Jesus, Meemaw could have come up with another one. But Holcolm County, Georgia, beat her to it. Here we were all supposed to live by the “no befriending Negroes” rule.

Mama and I preferred to break a few commandments every now and again. And today we weren’t giving credence to the one unwritten law the entire South, not just Georgia, subscribed to. This morning, we were breaking bread with the Biggses.

Can’t you just see this character? Her voice is so strong. Her colloquialisms (“Lord help me Jesus”), her attitude (“Meemaw could have come up with another one”) and her principles (“we weren’t giving credence to the one unwritten law”).

We can also imagine Polly sitting at that Sunday table, trying her best to follow all of Meemaw’s rules — and hating every minute of it.

The first page of a novel can mean the difference between a sale and the book getting ignored. By studying Between Us Baxters, we can see a good example of a first page that works.

Have you read any brilliant beginnings lately? What are you favorites?


Brilliant Beginnings: Jessica Lee Anderson’s Calli

Calli book coverThe beginning of a book is oh so important. The first page can mean the difference between someone buying the book and leaving it on the shelf. And as much as writers write because they love it, they equal love when people buy their books and read them.

Brilliant beginnings aren’t easy. They have to give information about the story, set the tone of the book, introduce the main character and, of course, entice readers to keep going.

When I find books that do all that with a brilliant beginning, I love to celebrate them. The latest I’ve found is Jessica Lee Anderson’s Calli.

Here’s how the story begins:

A girl rushes to the tallest guy in tenth grade and reaches up to drape her thin, muscular arms around his neck. The girl’s shirt rises up while her baggy khakis slide down over her narrow hips, revealing the strings of her red underwear.

The guys keeps his hands tucked in his pockets as the girl tilts her head slightly. She leans in to kiss him.

She kisses him.

Cherish kisses Dub.

My foster sister, Cherish, kisses my boyfriend, Dub.

Oh. My. God. He’s not stopping her.

My blood feels like crude oil bubbling in a refinery furnace.

Inside me, the crude oil separates into toxic fuel. I want to yell at them to stop, to push each other away, but my words are trapped. My eyes and ears hurt from the pressure of holding back the tears. The hallway is full of students watching me, waiting for my reaction.

Like Cherish told me before, I’m a chicken turd. She thinks I won’t do anything. But she’s wrong.

That’s the first page of Calli, and as well as entertaining us with beautiful writing, it tells us so much about the story we’re about to read and the characters in it.

We know that our heroine, Calli, has a boyfriend, Dub, and a foster sister, Cherish, and that the relationship between Calli and Cherish is not exactly one of sisterly love. We learn that Calli is perhaps quiet or on the less confident side because she doesn’t rush up to them and shout, “What the hell?” Opposite to Cherish, who seems like she might enjoy letting the top of her red underwear peek out from her pants. But, with that last sentence, we also know that while Calli might not have the strength to do anything right now, she’s not a coward.

So we learn that this is a relationship story between two foster sisters, as well as the story of how one teen is going to gain the courage to stand up for herself.

And we got all that from the first page of the book.

On the subject of that beautiful writing, I love the way Jessica begins the scene describing just a boy and girl, any boy and girl, doing something that could be happy and celebratory, something that any boy and girl would love to be doing, an innocent kiss. But is it innocent? That red underwear suggests otherwise.

And Jessica wonderfully leads us from looking at the scene as if we’re hovering outside to in closer, then closer and finally so close that we’re seeing the scene through Calli’s eyes — and it’s anything but nice and innocent.

It’s lovely writing, brilliantly done by Jessica, and it made me want to read more.

As important as first pages are, the rest of the book must be equally amazing to keep readers — including agents and editors — turning pages. But knowing what a brilliant beginning is can help us create a brilliant book.

What was the last book beginning that made you go, “Wow! I have to read this?”