While an exceptional first line is a wonderful thing, any superior delight it offers is actually lagniappe, since readers generally are willing to wade through a page or two—and usually at least a chapter—before abandoning a book as a lost cause. First lines are important, but they don’t carry the pressure of, say, the last line, which shoulders the entire narrative on its skinny self. All an opening line in a novel really needs to accomplish is to make you want to read on.
That said, there’s a particular pleasure in a terrific first line. It sets the tone for the book, can establish a strong voice or setting, assist in building the fictional world, startle readers into unfamiliarity, make them laugh or gasp. The first line gives you a sense of the storyteller in whom you are placing your time and trust to lead you on a remarkable journey.
Twice before in ShelfTalker, I have collected fabulous first lines (2013, 2011) that caught my attention from the year’s new middle grade and young adult releases. Below are some of the standouts I’ve come across so far from the 2014 crop of ARCs.
This is just the first round; plenty of time for more of the best to surface! In December, we’ll vote for the absolute best first line of the year.
Enjoy, and please add your own 2014 discoveries in the comments section.
I’m the happiest guy alive, because Katrina M. Zabinski is my girlfriend. I’m also the most miserable guy who ever lived, because the pressure of having a girlfriend like Tina is crushing. —Family Ties by Gary Paulsen (Random House / Wendy Lamb)
My rules for the Black Market are simple. Don’t make eye contact—especially with men. Their faces are sharp, but their eyes are sharper, and you never want to draw that blade. —Sekret by Lindsay Smith (Roaring Brook)
Maximillian Reisman can stand on his head for thirty minutes if he wants to. —The Cracks in the Kingdom by Jaclyn Moriarty (Scholastic / Arthur A. Levine)
There’s something I need to tell you.
Don’t be mad.
Please. Please don’t be mad. I hate it when you’re mad at me.
—We Are the Goldens by Dana Reinhardt (Random House / Wendy Lamb)
No body meant no casket, so they used her headshot instead. This was a Hollywood funeral, after all. —A Hitch at the Fairmont by Jim Averbeck (Simon & Schuster / Atheneum)
When I first heard Gayle, I couldn’t tell if she was a bird or a girl. —Nightingale’s Nest by Nikki Loftin (Penguin / Razorbill)
Once upon a time there were two brothers, as alike to one another as you are to your own reflection. —The Witch’s Boy by Kelly Barnhill (Algonquin Young Readers)
In my life, I’d had my share of fights, sometimes with fists, sometimes with knives, occasionally with a sword. I’d faced opponents twice my size, twice as mean, and, as a general rule, uglier than I ever hoped to be. —The Shadow Throne by Jennifer A. Nielsen (Scholastic Press)
It looked like an ordinary package. —The Secret Box by Whitaker Ringwald (HarperCollins / Katherine Tegen)
I am Private First Class Daniel Christopher Wright, I am seventeen years old, and I fired the shot that ended the United States of America. —Divided We Fall by Trent Reedy (Scholastic / Arthur A. Levine)
I’d never seen a mock man until the Professor showed me one. —Threatened by Eliot Schrefer (Scholastic Press)
As Jackson Greene sped past the Maplewood Middle School cafeteria — his trademark red tie skewed slightly to the left, a yellow No. 2 pencil balanced behind his ear, and a small spiral-bound notebook tucked in his right jacket pocket — he found himself dangerously close to sliding back into the warm confines of scheming and pranking. —The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson (Scholastic / Arthur A. Levine)
What first lines have you loved this year?
L to R: e.E. Charlton-Trujillo, Chris Van Dusen, Joan Powers, Andie Krawczyk, Sharon Hancock, Katie Cunningham, Mac Barnett
I have so much to share with ShelfTalker readers about this week’s Children’s Institute, as well as the Texas Library Association convention—but that will need to wait a bit, since these days have been nonstop, leaving little time to pull together coherent thoughts and create any kind of succinct account of the highlights. I promise all that is coming soon.
In the meantime, I was one of the guests at my publisher’s author/librarian dinner last night, and so I polled some Candlewick authors, artists (well, one artist), editors, and marketing folk about the spring 2014 book they’re most excited about at the moment. Here’s what they shared (note: for brevity’s sake, I note only the most recent release for each author and artist polled):
e.E. Charlton-Trujillo, author of Fat Angie: “I’m excited to read Katie Davis’s Dancing with the Devil, because it’s a book about overcoming victimization that doesn’t feel like a Lifetime movie. It’s about becoming your best self and about empowerment.”
Chris Van Dusen, artist of President Taft Is Stuck in the Bath: “Rules of Summer by Shaun Tan. His illustrations blow me away. He’s innovative, he always does something different, and you can expect the unexpected.”
Joan Powers, Candlewick editor: “There Will Be Bears by debut author Ryan Gebhart. It’s a middle grade book about hunting and meat and guns, none of which I like but all of which I love in this book.
Andie Krawczyk, Candlewick marketing: “The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton. It’s multigenerational magical realism, which I’m not usually a fan of, but I am in this book. The writing is lyrical. Even the book design is impeccable.”
Sharon Hancock, Candlewick marketing: “Swim That Rock by John Rocco and Jay Primiano. It’s a compelling coming-of-age story in a blue-collar quahogging community.” (Apologies to Sharon for catching her with her eyes closed. She was not asleep – just blinking!)
Katie Cunningham, Candlewick editor: “I absolutely adore Two Speckled Eggs by Jennifer K. Mann. I like that it explores female friendships in a genuine way. And I really love the scene with the party hats!”
Mac Barnett, author of President Taft is Stuck in the Bath! “The Meaning of Maggie by Megan Jean Sovern. It’s super good. It’s got that intangible thing people are talking about when they say ‘voice.’ It’s perfect voice.”
I never knew how many people collected flying pigs until we opened the store in 1996. Collectors come in varied ages, with a slight tip towards women, but a surprising number of men also collect all manner of flying pigs. We usually have people eyeing our four shelves of flying pigs that have been given to us throughout the years. They look so disappointed when I tell them they’re not for sale.
Last week we got an email from someone inquiring about any flying pig collectibles. I wrote back and said we had finger puppets and our own Flying Pig tote bags and I could easily send both to her. She called later that day. Becky, was calling from Austin, Texas. We don’t have many customers – okay, any – customers from Texas, so this was a surprise. She has a collection of over 200 flying pigs, she said she wanted the tote bag. I asked, “Not the finger puppet as well?” To which to she said, like a true collector, “Is it the small one from Folkmanis with the magnetic nose?” Well, yes it is. Clearly, she already had this one. If you don’t know these puppets, they are wonderful. And the magnetic noses mean they can stick to a lot of things, including each other, which is just adorable. I always know I’m driving too fast when my paired piglets fly off my rearview mirror.
Becky happily asked for a tote bag. Which I popped in an envelope and mailed off. But first, I had to ask her how she found us. I thought she had done an internet search for flying pig things, but actually not. She had gotten a poem in her email that somehow led her to Kate Messner’s website. Kate, of course, is a very talented writer of many books for children, and a great customer of the Flying Pig, who links to our store on her website. Once that link was made, Becky contacted us for memorabilia. So, in the ever increasing connectedness of the internet, another flying pig found a home.
As booksellers, we read a lot of books. Hundreds a year in all likelihood and there are books that stay with us for their humor and their characters. Some books combine all the great things of a memorable story coupled with deep sadness. Not the kind of sadness that is fleeting, but the kind that flat-out makes you sob. I am the first to admit that I weep easily and often if I’m moved, but there are books that just crush me. There is nothing wrong with crying with books because the emotions are real. I refuse to read books where animals die because that simply slays me.(why people dying isn’t the same is worth looking at, but that’s a blog post for another day).
It’s funny – as a kid I don’t really remember crying at books or stories. When I was sixth grade, my teacher, Mrs. Groupe, read Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory and she started sobbing halfway through and never recovered. I cried more at her sadness than what was happening in the story. Teachers weren’t supposed to cry.
Books six and seven of the Harry Potter series had me crying so hard, a friend came outside to the deck where I was reading to offer solace, tissues and plea to not reveal the ending. But let’s face it, if you were a Harry Potter fan, how could you not shed a tear or two, or hundreds at the deaths of Dumbledore and Fred Weasley. And Dobby’s brave sacrifice just about killed me. When I tear up talking about these things with kids they think I’m a little crazy. This brings up the point that the sobbing that adults do at kids’ books often makes up for the tears the kids don’t shed. It’s always struck me as funny that there’s not a grown-up around who can’t stem the tears when reading Charlotte’s Web and yet I’ve not met a kid who has cried at that book. Perhaps it’s more a sense of the sentimental that children do not yet posses, but it’s always struck me as funny.
The Fault in Our Stars found me crying so hard at the ending that my dog, Ink, became so alarmed he jumped on my chest and started to lick at my face. This served two purposes. His jumping up was funny enough that it got me to stop crying for at least a minute while I explained to Elizabeth why I was practically convulsed with tears, and his insistence on licking my face grossed me out enough that I sat up and pulled myself together.
And lastly, the book has left many adults stunned: The Book Thief. I found myself crying throughout that book but devastated at the end, and not just from sadness but from the beauty of the ending. I’ve had many customers tell me that this was the book they read in public and regretted it. When I sell this book and other books that are surprisingly sad I always warn folks not read them in public, or at least have tissues handy and be prepared to have kindly strangers ask if they’re okay.
What are some of the saddest books you’ve read?
We were recently approached by an author wanting to do an event with us for his Vermont history book. Local authors are lovely and they should be supported, but how to do to that when their book is published by Amazon? The book was published by CreateSpace, which is Amazon’s independent publishing arm. This was the first time I’ve been speechless at the store. I punted by
The more I thought about this the angrier I got. I know the author wasn’t thinking about the larger picture. He was understandably proud of his book and wanted to set up as many events as possible. I just couldn’t say yes right away. I left word with Elizabeth about it and she wondered if we could get the books on consignment from the author. This at least saves us from ordering directly from Amazon. Then I posted on the NECBA listserv to get advice from other booksellers.
Elizabeth’s point is an excellent one and one that was echoed by other booksellers. Getting the books directly from a local author is probably the best thing to do. Several colleagues responded privately that it was galling to be asked by authors to provide the one thing Amazon cannot: a connection with real people. Authors smartly know that events are a great way to reach people. And while Amazon is great at suggesting other titles you might like, they can’t compete with a one-on-one connection borne out of people being in the same room talking about books.
I am still struggling with this. I know Amazon doesn’t really care about my little store, but increasingly, I’m forced to try and compete with them on price on a weekly, if not daily basis. It is easy to characterize Amazon as the big bad monster, but when an actual Vermonter comes in with his book, it’s hard to say no. So, with a small dose of education about why shopping locally is not important, it’s vital, I will likely host this event.
Booksellers and authors: what are your thoughts on events with Amazon-published authors?
Next week at the ABC Children’s Institute in San Antonio, I’ll be on a panel with fellow booksellers and one librarian, talking about our experiences with adult customers and patrons who seem to be pushing children out of picture books and into chapter books at younger and younger ages.
I don’t want to post spoilers for the panel (I’ll report on the discussion next week, and I think ABA members will be able to watch the video of the panel), but I did want to ask you out there in ShelfTalker land — you parents and teachers and booksellers and librarians — if you are noticing this pressure, and why you think it’s happening. We don’t see this “age compression” in schools; teachers who shop at our bookstore seem to understand the value of both fiction and nonfiction picture books for students of all ages. But parents and grandparents seem to be balking.
Obviously, we need to educate customers about the richness of picture book language, and the huge range of styles and formats and narratives in this literary genre that is perhaps more diverse than any other. We need to remind them that, although the price of a 32-page picture book and a 300-page chapter book might be roughly the same, a child may read the chapter book once, but the picture book 1,000 times, finding more to discover with each reading.
Why do so many parents and grandparents reject even sophisticated picture books as “baby books?” Is it a misunderstanding of what picture books are? It is an outcome of the excesses of our testing-burdened, measurable-achievement-oriented educational system? Or is there a greater loss at work, as well? Has the love of stories become somehow lesser? Do we value only what is perceived as more challenging, and testable? And why is it that the same parents who readily read light, unchallenging books for their own pleasure and comfort don’t allow the same indulgence for their kids? They often want little Johnny or Samantha to chug on up the reading levels — again, a misperception, since so many picture books contain rich vocabulary and complex sentence structure that are more challenging than many young chapter books.
There is no sinister intent on these parents’ parts, of course; they are most likely simply trying to make sure their children are well prepared, not left behind, in the academic realm. So how do we best show them the sweet and rewarding light of opening their minds to the full range of worthy reading possibilities for their kids? Inquiring minds want to know — and if you share a terrific thought in the comments, I’d be delighted to share it during the panel discussion and credit you!
(Booksellers and librarians: The ABC has prepared a fantastic flyer to use, featuring great picture books to share with older kids, along with tips for talking with parents. Be on the lookout for that next week!)