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READ LIKE A WRITER, a teaching blog

PROLOGUES: Reasons Against and For in Children's Lit

An editor leading a retreat told us there is no good reason for a prologue, to just begin the story at Chapter 1. Yet, authors do use prologues successfully in adult and children’s literature, fiction and nonfiction. As I was preparing to write this article on prologues I opened my e-mail box to this blog article written by Writer's Digest Books editor Chuck Sambuchino. In the article, Sambuchino quotes three literary agents citing reasons why not to use a prologue:

“I’m not a fan of prologues, preferring to find myself in the midst of a moving plot on page 1 rather than being kept outside of it, or eased into it.”
- Michelle Andelman, Regal Literary

“Most agents hate prologues. Just make the first chapter relevant and well written.”
- Andrea Brown, Andrea Brown Literary Agency

“Prologues are usually a lazy way to give back-story chunks to the reader and can be handled with more finesse throughout the story. Damn the prologue, full speed ahead!”
- Laurie McLean, Foreword Literary


In studying children’s literature, I found three main reasons for prologues:
1. To leap forward in time to Chapter 1.
2. To leap backward in time to Chapter 1.
3. To let the reader in on a mystery and/or suspense the protagonist knows, but the other characters in the story do not. This usually begins before or at a point of impact--where events are knocked out of balance. The ending of the story usually circles back to this prologue beginning and then all becomes clear as a whole picture.

However, it is also possible to do all of these without a prologue, such as Dandi Daley Mackall did in her Edgar-winning THE SILENCE OF MURDER (Random House 2012). She began Chapter 1 back in time, at the moment that the protagonist’s brother quit speaking. Then Chapter 2 leaps forward to when the two siblings are teens and the brother is on trial for murder.


In WAITING FOR CHRISTOPHER by Louise Hawes (Candlewick 2002) the prologue shows protagonist Feena behaving lovingly with her baby brother Christopher, four years younger than her. At the end of the prologue Christopher dies. Chapter 1 leaps forward to teen-age Feena beginning high school in a new town, and her parents are divorced. The prologue is crucial to understanding the intensity of Feena’s motive for what she does in this story.


In early drafts of NO SURRENDER SOLDIER there was no prologue. This novel, which takes place toward the end of the Vietnam War—1972—on Guam, is written in two point of views (POV) in alternating chapters: 15-year-old Chamorro Kiko Chargalauf (protagonist), and WWII Japanese soldier Isamu Seto (antagonist). (See POV article in archives.) I struggled with writing the opening chapter more than any other part of this book. For a long time in revisions I stuck to the story beginning in 1972 with Kiko’s story (in 1st person), following with (in 3rd person) Seto’s struggle surviving 28 years in the jungles of Guam. After all, Kiko is the teen protagonist, and my target audience is intended mainly for teens, so it made sense to begin with Kiko’s story.

However, one day as a writing exercise I traveled back (mentally) to 1944, at the point the U.S. Marines invaded Japanese-occupied Guam, and imagined I was Seto. Why did he not fight the enemy marines? Why did he not commit suicide? Why did he run and hide? The answers were all in my already-written story, so the manuscript could stand on its own without this prologue (backstory).

But what the prologue did was to leap forward from WWII in the prologue to 1972 in Chapter 1 (and the rest of the entire story). In addition, Seto seems sad and creepy when the reader first meets him as an old man, a survivalist straggler. But the prologue shows him as a 20-something young man stuck in the midst of battle with harrowing choices. This is a much more identifiable and sympathetic character.


Another novel that leaps forward in time and changes POV characters from the prologue to Chapter 1 is THE PERFECT SHOT by Elaine Marie Alphin (Carolrhoda 2005). The prologue is written in 3rd person from the POV of Amanda’s eyewitness account of what occurs before she and her brother and mother are murdered. Chapter 1 leaps forward to the following spring and is in the 1st person viewpoint of Amanda’s boyfriend, who has been shot and is in critical condition in the hospital.


THE COMPASSIONATE WARRIOR, a biography of Abd El-Kader of Algeria by Elsa Marston (Wisdom Tales, 2013) has a forward, preface, and prologue before Chapter 1. Marston sets the prologue in 1847 at the time of Abd El-Kader’s surrender and exile, and places it on the ship while he is awaiting France’s decision where to exile him. Chapter 1 leaps backward in time to Algiers 1516. The author reaches the time of the prologue by Chapter 8, so the reader gets to follow Abd El-Kader’s life beyond his time of exile to the point of his courageous acts later in his life and until his death in 1883.


In PHAROAOH’S DAUGHTER by Julius Lester (Harcourt 2000) the prologue begins at the time Mosis (Moses) is confessing to his sister and adopted mother that he killed a man. Chapter 1 begins back in time when the Egyptian soldiers were murdering Habiru (Hebrew) baby boys.

One novel that begins with the ending/outcome is Printz award-winning KIT’S WILDERNESS by David Almond (Random House 1999).


Another novel by Elaine Marie Alphin that has a prologue is COUNTERFEIT SON (Puffin Penguin 2000). In this Edgar Alan Poe award-winner, the protagonist Cameron Miller, the son of a murderer, tells why he chose the Lacey family to impersonate their long-missing son, Neil. This is an example of where the author lets the reader in on a secret that no one but the protagonist knows. The effect is that of mystery, suspense and motive given to the reader before the story begins.


It might be argued that all of these prologues show the protagonists (main characters) before the point of impact, when their worlds are knocked topsy-turvy. But, as I’ve shown in these examples above, the prologue also serves dual purposes.

However, I wanted to make note of a different prologue where the main purpose is to show a character who lived in a state of innocence before she was sexually molested and experienced a loss of innocence. This author, Beth Fehlbaum, chose to use a poem for her prologues in THE PATIENCE TRILOGY. Beth said this is why she chose to write poems for the prologues:

“I wrote a poem as a prologue to the first book in THE PATIENCE TRILOGY, COURAGE IN PATIENCE in order to communicate the innocence of the protagonist prior to her stepfather entering her life. Ashley Nicole Asher's life is basically carefree, living with her single mom and being doted on by her grandparents, until her mother, Cheryl, meets Charlie Baker. Within the first year of their marriage, Charlie begins molesting Ashley--the first time in the green chair referenced in the poem. COURAGE IN PATIENCE is about Ashley's journey from the terror of being sexually abused for six years to living with David, the biological father she has never known.”


Sunshine’s rays upon my hair
Freeze-tag, childhood play
Blue skies hope and careless clouds
Uncluttered simple days

Streetlight glow pretending sun
His shy smile oh, yes, he’s the one
Pack our lives and move away
The darkness now will come

He stole the glow within my soul
That night in the green chair
Earth’s axis broken fondling hands
He thought me unaware

A shadow by my bedside nights
Full eclipse of the sun
A monster reeking alcohol
Left me no choice but run

My outcry silenced broken down
In blackness lost and sad
I plead for lightness beg for care
“Ashley? I’m your dad”
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