November is a month for Robins! Our second First Impressions comes from Robin Hall. This is the first page of her MG fiction titled LIFE IS A TONGUE TWISTER:
Ruby woke long before her Hello Kitty alarm beeped. Watching the pink flip-down numbers turn to 5:21, she knocked it from her nightstand. Maybe this time it would crash into a million billion pieces and her brother Brian wouldn’t be able to fix it. Her brain felt like a boa constrictor was squeezing it and that at any second it would forget to tell her heart to pump, her lungs to breathe.
Today was happening without her permission. Today Ruby wouldn’t sit next to her best friend Olivia in the back of Mrs. Newton’s white Durango. Today, she’d ride the Yellow Whale. The bus that swallowed kids whole then spit them out by the cafetorium.
Ruby couldn’t get Brian’s jab out of her mind. “The only place you’ll be okay is sitting with the bus driver.” The one thing she knew for certain was that she couldn’t sit with the driver. If Ruby designed busses they’d have individual seats so no one could sit together, even if they wanted to.
Ruby sat up, the boa constrictor wriggling down to her vocal folds. Her underarms felt clammy. She never remembered to use that deodorant Mom gave her, but today she would lather it on.
Charlie, the neighbor’s hound, started singing his lament. She felt like Charlie, but she doubted her throat would let her talk without stuttering, much less sing. It was the worst day in her life and she hadn’t even gotten out of bed.
Her stomach rumbled, a reminder of last night’s dinner of overcooked spaghetti and slimy canned peas. How she detested those peas. But right now, if she could eat a whole can and never have to ride the bus, she would choke them down—even without the butter. Ruby peeled back the sheets, admitting today might as well start now.
It was weird being the first in the kitchen, turning on all the lights, the table bare, no cereal bowls with grapefruit halves next to each one. Wanting today to be as normal as possible, Ruby set the table herself.
Turning the blinds on the kitchen window, the soft, fuzzy gray sky peeked through. Soon the whole house would wake up. Mom would be glad Ruby set the table and think what a wonderful girl she was. Ruby straightened the spoon by her mother’s bowl and nodded to herself, certain that would do the trick.
The first thing I want to do is take that sentence about the boa constrictor squeezing her brain and move it up so it’s the second sentence in the paragraph. I want to see that emotion first – then have her dash the Hello Kitty clock to the floor. It makes more sense that way, because in reverse order, it seems like she’s upset by the clock. On a grammar note, she knocked the clock off the table after the numbers clicked into place, so starting with the gerund phrase “Watching …” is not correct because the actions don’t happen simultaneously.
I love the sentence Today was happening without her permission. It’s spot on perfect for voice. Of course, I have lots of questions about what’s happening today. Why will she not be riding with Olivia? Is she going to a new school, or just riding the bus for the first time? I think we need clarification on that soon – maybe right in that paragraph.
I also wondered why her brother Brian seemed helpful in the first paragraph (fixing her clock) but seemed to be making her anxiety worse later on by telling her there was no safe place to sit on the bus.
Finding out the answers to those questions interests me more than how she sets the table for breakfast. How about interspersing that action with Ruby’s thoughts about today, so we can get some questions answered while she moves around the kitchen? From the title and the reference to stuttering, my guess is she’s attending a new school for the first time, riding the bus, and anticipating being teased for her speech problem. But I’d like a better idea if I'm right, because there's no mention of a new school, only the bus.
Character, conflict, and voice is what you want to see on the first page. We've got the character and the voice; I just want a clearer hint of the conflict, especially because this is MG. Since most kids ride the bus every day, they will want to know why Ruby is so afraid of it. Readers, what do you think?