First Lines from the Shelves

At long last (the delay: I had to make my way back to my office shelves and all of their wonderful books, old and new), here are some of my favorite first lines from PB, MG and YA books. Some of these you’ve heard me read live. Others are recent releases or old favorites. Without any further ado, here’s an analysis of first lines from published works and why they pull the reader in so well.

PB

On the outside Bernadette was mostly monsterly.

This super cute beginning to MOSTLY MONSTERLY by Tammi Sauer, illo. Scott Magoon (Paula Wiseman Books, 2010) sets up the expectation that Bernadette (a monster) doesn’t quite fit in. There’s the old internal conflict established: I don’t match people’s expectations for me.

Little Mabel blew a bubble, and it caused a lot of trouble.

So begins BUBBLE TROUBLE by Margaret Mahy, illo. Polly Dunbar (Clarion Books, 2008). And, no, you don’t have to work the book’s title into your first line, though both of these examples have. This is a very simple statement of conflict that, in picture books, at least, works very, very well to launch us into the story.

On her birthday, Eva was given a very special present.

This is from MAGIC BOX by Katie Cleminson (Hyperion, 2009). It’s a whimsical PB tale and the first line isn’t a statement of conflict as much as it is a call to adventure (see my choice from FROM THE MIXED UP FILES… below for a MG example). The question raised here, of course, is: What was in the box?

MG

Once upon a time, fairy tales were awesome.

From A TALE DARK AND GRIMM by Adam Gidwitz (Dutton, 2010). This is a book of twisted fairy tales where the author basically runs amok with the story of Hansel and Gretel. The whole thesis of the book is expressed in the opening line: “They were awesome, sure, but then they got lame, so here’s a truly awesome retelling.” It also plays with the familiar “once upon a time” and introduces the voice (“awesome” is a certain term spoken by a certain type of person…me, for example).

I was raised in a gaunt house with a garden; my earliest recollections are of floating lights in the apple-trees.

Since you were probably expecting me to quote from the M.T. Anderson canon with FEED (the first line of which most of us children’s publishing professionals have memorized), I decided to change it up a bit with THE ASTONISHING LIFE OF OCTAVIAN NOTHING, TRAITOR TO THE NATION, VOLUME 1 (Candlewick, 2006). There’s some lovely writing here, and a ghostly image of lights in the trees that recurs. We can also sense, right away, Octavian’s loneliness. The house is “gaunt,” which doesn’t seem very nourishing to a child, and his first memories aren’t people, they’re faraway twinkles in the treetops. A haunting first line.

Claudia knew that she could never pull off the old-fashioned kind of running away.

This is from the old favorite, FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER by E.L. Konigsburg (Aladdin, 1967). It plunges us into a) action and b) the narrator’s matter-of fact voice right away. We know that Claudia is running away, but also that she’s craving an adventure that’s much more epic than just, say, what I used to do when I mock ran away as a kid (went down the street to Kepler’s bookstore). Lots of action and momentum here. (And boy does Claudia ever pull off her goal of adventure!)

There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.

Louis Sachar and his Newbery-winning HOLES (Random House, 1998) hit us with trademark humor right away. No matter what happens from here, we know that we’re in for a zany ride. But rather than just being funny, this first line introduces us to the kind of contrarian narrator who would point out such a delicious detail, too.

Ms. McMartin was definitely dead.

This is from THE BOOKS OF ELSEWHERE by Jacqueline West (Dial, 2010) and it plunges us into action right away, too. Who is this woman? How did she die? Did the characters have anything to do with it? It doesn’t really hint at the fantasy nature of the novel and doesn’t really pass the vague test, but I like this book and it starts with a bang!

YA

In these dungeons the darkness was complete, but Katsa had a map in her mind.

This is, of course, from GRACELING by Kristin Cashore (Harcourt, 2008). What is Katsa doing in prison? What did she do to get there? Better yet, it seems like she has a plan to get out. And how come she knows the dungeon layout so well? This plunges us into action and raises stakes immediately. Pay attention to all the questions each of these lines has been raising. They’re intense and urgent.

They took me in my nightgown.

This is from the beautiful BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY by Ruta Sepetys (Philomel, 2011), about a girl deported with her family to Siberia during WWII. Not only does it give us action, but it also conveys a crucial mood for the events: helplessness. By emphasizing that it was night, that she was in her nightgown and vulnerable, we really lock in on an emotional connection right away.

The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say.

Ha! I love this first line from THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO by Patrick Ness (Candlewick, 2008). And Manchee (the dog) is one of my favorite characters in anything I’ve read in the past ten years. This line introduces the core relationship of the story, the dialect, and the odd fact that, in this world, at least, dogs talk (in terms of world-building, this lets us know there’s a fantasy element). The humor can’t be beat, either.

There you have some of my favorite first lines, grabbed at random from my shelves. Enjoy and discuss! Tell me some of your published favorites in the comments.

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  1. NicQ’s avatar

    It’s likely not the most spectacular in the scheme of first lines but one of my favs is S.E. Hinton’s THE OUTSIDERS: “When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had just two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.” It probably sticks with me because it goes so perfectly well with the last line of the book. :)

  2. Adele Richards’s avatar

    “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”

    The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S.Lewis.

    I love the narrator’s tone of voice, the simplicity of the line and that we already know so much about Eustace from 13 words.

    (I love ‘Bubble Trouble’ by M.Mahy – soooooooo much fun to read!)

  3. Franziska Green’s avatar

    There once was a bear so filled with love and happiness that whenever he roamed the forst and came across another living thing, he would give it a hug.
    BIG BEAR HUG by Nicholas Oldland
    (It’s a long line, but I just love it soooo much. This book is probably my all-time favourite PB.)

    “I come from a family with a lot of dead people.”
    EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS, Deborah Wiles (MG)
    This has all the elements you want. Love it.

    I have been accused of being anal retentive, an over-achiever, and a compulsive perfectionist, like those are bad things.
    MILLICENT MIN (Lisa Yee) (MG)
    So funny! Love Millicent!

  4. Elizabeth May’s avatar

    I really love this first line from The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making:

    “Once upon a time, a girl named September grew very tired indeed of her parents’ house, where she washed the same pink and yellow teacups and matching gravy boats every day, slept on the same embroidered pillow, and played with the same small and amiable dog.”

  5. Tish’s avatar

    these postings on first lines are like a mini writing class concentrated… I’m inspired. Thanks so much for that…

    Little Mabel blew a bubble, and it caused a lot of trouble – brings a smile every time I read it.

  6. Brian F.’s avatar

    “They murdered him.” –The Chocolate War, Robert Cormier

  7. Robyn’s avatar

    I needed this post!

    Favorite first line:
    “It was a pleasure to burn”- Fahrenheit 451

  8. Kristen PelfreyFaulconer’s avatar

    I love this post!
    I agree with NicQ about The Outsiders.
    Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster:”There was once a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself–not just sometimes, but always.”
    “Story of a Girl” by Sara Zarr:”I was thirteen when my dad caught me in the back of Tommy’s Buick, parked next to the old Chart House down in Montara at eleven o’clock on a Tuesday night.” Holy Tomato.
    “We Were Here” by Matt de la Pena: “Here’s the thing: I was probably going to write a book when I got older anyways.” Love the voice.

  9. Valeria’s avatar

    My sister is a reluctant reader, but she got totally hooked by this first line.

    “If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book.” – The Bad Beginning, Lemony Snicket.

    And I was hooked by it as well.

  10. Jade’s avatar

    When I read the first line of THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO, my mind automatically goes to the next line: Need a poo, Todd.
    LOVE. It’s the best opening to any book I’ve ever read.

  11. Amanda F.’s avatar

    “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.- from EB White’s Charlotte’s Web.
    It’s one of my favorites from childhood. As an aspiring writer, I now realize it introduces the main character’s voice, includes elements of setting, and drives the plot forward by mentioning the main story problem… He made it look so easy!

  12. Morgan’s avatar

    What a fun post! I was immediately sucked into HALF EMPTY by David Rakoff.

    “We were so happy. It was miserable.”

    How could I not keep reading?! :)

  13. Carolyn’s avatar

    @Adele Richards – that is my favorite first line, as well!

    I don’t have a good memory for text, but that’s one that sticks with me.

  14. M.W.’s avatar

    One unique opening is from Markus Zusak’s THE BOOK THIEF. This is not the first *line,* but it’s the opening, and it’s terrific–in my opinion, anyway:

    First the colors.
    Then the humans.
    That’s usually how I see things.
    Or at least, how I try.
    ***HERE IS A SMALL FACT***
    You are going to die.

    Doesn’t that opening just grab you?

    Another good first line is from THE DEAD-TOSSED WAVES by Carrie Ryan. “The story goes that even after the Return they tried to keep the roller coasters going.”

    THE FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH is going to be turned into a movie! A screenwriter’s already been picked.

  15. Kathryn Roberts’s avatar

    Cute. I love reading first lines. And this is the perfect time to read this for me, going into my first set of revisions.

  16. Kristin Gray’s avatar

    Mary, you’ve hit on so many favorites. I could spend half a day doing just this. :)

    “The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world.” THE BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER by Barbara Robinson

    “So Mom got the postcard today.” WHEN YOU REACH ME by Rebecca Stead

  17. Gail Shepherd’s avatar

    I had fun seeing how many I recognized. Didn’t do too badly. And @Amanda, I’m with you: “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” is my favorite first line in all lit, except maybe for “The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida.”

  18. Nicq’s avatar

    Kristin, I Loooove THE BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER! One of my fav books of all time. Thanks for putting that up! I think I will read it again this Christmas!

  19. Timothy’s avatar

    “Late in the middle watch of a calm winter’s night, many years ago, a square-rigged, three-masted ship, the Sarah Casket, was making her way slowly through northern seas under a blaze of stars.”
    —Joan Aiken, NIGHTBIRDS ON NANTUCKET

  20. Stella Michel’s avatar

    I am commanded to write an account of my days: I am bit by fleas and plagued by family.
    – Karen Cushman, Catherine Called Birdie.

  21. Helen Robertson’s avatar

    “In a palm tree, on an island, in the middle of the wide blue sea, was a girl.”
    –Wendy Orr, Nim’s Island

    And Adele, your pick is another one of my favorites! Makes me smile every time.

  22. Kat Abbott’s avatar

    From The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin-

    The sun sets in the west (just about everyone know that), but Sunset Towers faced east.

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