Avoiding the Back-to-School Cliche (September theme) by Claudia Mills

Like so many of my fellow Smack-Dabians who have posted thus far this month, I love the start of a new school year, the promise of a clean slate, those heaps and heaps of glorious brand-new school supplies. Because I specialize in writing school stories, I'm always tempted to begin a book with a first-day-of-school scene. Opening chapters are supposed to contain an "inciting incident," a game-changing event that sets in process all that is to come in the rest of the story. What is more of an inciting incident in the life of a child than the beginning of a new school year?

Then I saw "starting a book with a first-day-of-school scene" included on one of those recently circulating lists of middle-school fiction cliches. I had a pang when I saw it. For not only have I been tempted to launch a story in this way, I have published a number of books that do precisely that. It's so awful to be called out for predictability! It's so cringe-worthy to be a cliche!

So in defense of myself, let me suggest ways that we can write about the first day of school that make this standard opening at least a little bit more fresh and new.

1.  Consider why the first day of school is a special challenge for your character. It's not enough to be a new kid in a new school. But maybe your character has always been homeschooled and so is entering the regimented world of public schooling for the first time. Maybe he has a disability - a disfiguring appearance, a cognitive or affective limitation. Or maybe this first day of school is just a defining moment for her at this time in her life story.The heroine of my Dinah for President had been a force to be reckoned with in elementary school (Dynamite Dinah) and now finds herself pitifully anonymous in middle school. The title character of my Lizzie at Last overhears some peers making fun of her during a back-to-school shopping trip and yearns to reinvent herself in seventh grade. The protagonist of my After Fifth Grade, the World gets the meanest teacher in the school and is bound and determined to use her own abundant energy to reform her (with mixed results).

2. Consider introducing some distinctive features to your school that will give your story that ring of the real. Is the school overcrowded, spilling out into portables? Does it share space with another, rival school? Does it have unusual architecture, or an unusual curricular focus? A quirky principal, comical mascot, unique way of displaying school spirit, laughable motto?

3. Don't just take us through the character's opening day, class by class, in a dutiful way. Let each teacher come alive with (briefly given) distinctive mannerisms, unreasonable rules, noteworthy outfits, squirm-inducing get-to-know-you activities -- all of these intersecting with your character's distinctive challenge in a way fruitful for your larger story and character arc.

4. Assignment for the reader: how many different ways can you think of to do something fun with that hugest of all first-day of middle-school challenges - the combination lock? So far I've done two combination lock scenes that I can remember. After finally getting her locker open, Dinah collects her books and slams the locker shut in triumph - only to find that she's caught her skirt in the door. And Cooper in One Square Inch finds himself called a "combination lock genius" and instant sixth grade celebrity for his lock-opening prowess.

Maybe, even after all of this effort, the first-day-of-school scene will remain a cliche. If so, then all I can say is that there are good reasons why some things become writing cliches: it's because they speak so deeply to something so important in the human experience, in this case, in the experience of children who some distant day may be writing their own blog posts on what the first day of school once meant to them.


  1. I like your ideas Claudia. It's always a challenge to make a school scene fresh and new.

  2. THE JUNCTION starts at the beginning of a school year. (Then again, so does SPEAK, and I consider that a seminal contemporary YA work. We're in good company.)

  3. I'm with you, Claudia. Your first-day-of-school scenes do speak deeply to something important in your characters' experiences — not boring cliches at all.


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