Such a Fun Age and Opening Scenes
There’s a lot of talk about starting books off at exciting moments, right in the middle of things. And there are many great reasons to do this.
There are also a lot of challenges! How do we cram in the backstory and character building needed to fully understand the scene? Well, sometimes it’s actually an advantage NOT to cram that in, to let a scene be lighter, and still set up the about-to-unfold plot in a compelling way.
Kiley Reid finds the perfect opening moment for her novel Such a Fun Age. In the book, Emira is a young Black woman, still figuring out her life, who has a job babysitting for an affluent white family. Here are the first few paragraphs:
That night, when Mrs. Chamberlain called, Emira could only piece together the words “. . . take Briar somewhere . . .” and “. . . pay you double.”
In a crowded apartment and across from someone screaming “That’s my song!,” Emira stood next to her girlfriends Zara, Josefa, and Shaunie. It was a Saturday night in September, and there was a little over an hour left of Shaunie’s twenty-sixth birthday. Emira turned the volume up on her phone and asked Mrs. Chamberlain to say it again.
“Is there any way you can take Briar to the grocery store for a bit?” Mrs. Chamberlain said. “I’m so sorry to call. I know it’s late.”
We don’t know anything about any of these people yet. Because Emira is the one piecing things together, we know the POV is aligned with her, and we guess she might be the main character. But beyond that, we only know for sure she’s at a party and having fun.
Emira decides she needs the money, and so she agrees to leave the party and babysit. She picks up almost-three-year-old Briar and keeps her entertained at a nearby grocery store while Briar’s parents deal with a broken window. We quickly see that Emira and Briar have an easy relationship and that Emira is good at her job. She and the little girl dance. It’s fun and innocent.
But then a security guard notices that a Black woman, dressed for a party, is with a little white girl. He confronts Emira and won’t let her leave the store until her white employer arrives to explain the situation.
The scene is a great opening for some obvious reasons. The conflict pulls us into the story immediately. Because she’s in danger, we’re inspired to care about Emira and want to know what will happen to her. And the cause of this particular conflict—racism—means that the stakes are high and the situation is frighteningly believable.
It’s also a smart scene because it introduces the central themes of the story. We see three major components of Emira’s life crashing together—her friends and social life, her job caring for Briar, and living in a racist society. The book will be about Emira’s navigation of all of these.
But after reading the entire book and then returning to the intense opening scene, I’m mores struck by what we don’t know yet: We don’t yet know Emira.
Because we meet Emira in an extreme situation, we get to see her react to it. And that’s important and revelatory. She’s tough and quick-witted, and she never forgets to keep Briar feeling safe. But, of course, it’s not the whole story.
Throughout the book, we learn so much more about Emira as a person. We get to know her specific sense of humor, her kindness, and that she’s a good friend, but also that she stands up for herself and doesn’t trust easily. We feel her special bond with Briar and understand how well she can love. We see that even though she puts up with her boss’s boundary-crossing bullshit to keep her job, it never actually fools her. We learn that she wants to be more of an adult but doesn’t know how. We even learn a little of what her childhood was like. Different aspects of her personality emerge with different sets of people and in different situations. In short, we learn that she is a full and complex human being.
But in the scene at the grocery story, we don’t know any of that yet. And that’s sort of the point. It doesn’t matter what kind of a person she is, just that she is one. The situation is unjust whether or not Emira is good and whether or not we know her very well.
The opening of the novel and its focus on a loud party invites the reader to see Emira as she appears that night—even as she appears to the security guard. Except that the POV helps us to empathize with her, we don’t know very much more about her than he does.
This is really important. The book first gives us the version of Emira who is dressed for a party, the version a security guard judges as not good enough to take care of a little white girl. It makes us see that this is her true self just as much as what we learn later. The part of Emira that wears short skirts is as real—and as worthy of respect—as the side of her that has a special bond with Briar.
Some readers might be tempted to elevate Emira’s love for her charge and admirable skill as a babysitter, wrongly citing those traits as the single reason the guard should not treat her this way. But Emira as partygoer shouldn’t be treated this way either.
Like any human being, Emira is not just one thing, but a multiplicity of selves—none of which deserve to be hassled by this racist security guard. Reid makes sure we see many sides of Emira eventually, but seeing this side first has a significant effect.