By now, halfway into the year, we booksellers have seen hundreds of advance reading copies for books, all of which try to stand out in a crowded field. We can’t read them all, so those opening lines can have a big impact. Obviously, we don’t choose books only based on first lines, or even first pages, but a great opener is like a promise to the reader: enter and ye shall be entertained.
What makes first lines exceptional? I admit that, for me, a not-young reader with thousands of books in my rear-view window, anything that takes me by surprise has special oomph. I appreciate freshness and authority, and style that stands out from less distinctive writing, and I appreciate first lines that immediately reveal character or situation or mood, or offer me surprise, dread, suspense, or humor.
With several thousand new books out in 2017, I’m sure I have missed many fabulous first lines. This is compounded by the fact that we have a more efficient galley-donation system, so I don’t have as many stacks from the early months of this year to go through. However, I already have fifteen fabulous first lines socked away for the upcoming Round 2 post, so stay tuned!
Have favorites of your own? Please add them to the Comments section below. (Psst! Editors, I’m especially talking to you. You know which opening lines made your seasoned editorial hearts beat faster.)
Here are some terrific openers, arranged into arbitrary categories of why I like them:
FIRST LINES THAT HOOK WITH SURPRISE
Prologue – Our world did not end the way you might expect. It wasn’t caused by any of the things you hear so much about today: the wars, the unrest, the changing climate. It wasn’t our arrogance, our pride, our selfishness. No, in the end, it was our creativity and brilliance. We thought we were making history by changing the future. Turns out, we did both.
—Timeless: Diego and the Rangers of the Vastlantic by Armand Baltazar (Katherine Tegen Books)
It was my dad who gave me the idea of using quantum physics to find my mum.
—The Many Worlds of Albie Bright by Christopher Edge (Delacorte)
At the end of August before sixth grade started, Cheetah broke my bed.
—Finding Mighty by Sheela Chari (Amulet)
“You’re a brave lassie.” That’s what my grandfather told me as he gave me his shotgun.
—The Pearl Thief (prequel to Code Name Verity) by Elizabeth Wein (Hyperion)
I’m officially resigning from love. Time in a cell will do that to a kid.
—The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora by Pablo Cartaya (Viking)
One day I sank to the bottom of the pool and died.
—You May Already Be a Winner by Ann Dee Ellis (Dial)
FIRST LINES THAT WORLD-BUILD WITH A BANG
Althea-310 waited for class to begin, sitting in a neat row with her nine sisters.
—Your One and Only by Adrianne Finlay (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
We had just started over the bridge, toward my party, when the famously cheerful “Don’t Jump” ad clicked on. This had never happened to me before. The billboard’s advertising systems scanned me, analyzed my age, my style, my pulse, and calculated I was in need of a friendly reminder not to kill myself.
—All Rights Reserved by Gregory Scott Katsoulis (Harlequin Teen)
My parents used to fight a lot.
Wait. No. Not with each other. They used to fight other people for a living.
[Art shows two characters facing a masked grimacing figure in a dark alley, saying to each other, “Why can’t we ever fight in a well-lit alley?” “What happens in the dark stays in the dark.”]
Yup. My parents are supers. Supervillains, to be exact.
—How to Be a Supervillain by Michael Fry (Jimmy Patterson)
LYRICAL FIRST LINES
My name is Crow.
When I was a baby, someone tucked me into an old boat and pushed me out to sea.
I washed up on a tiny island, like a seed riding the tide.
—Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk (Dutton)
Prologue: The Child in the Curds
One dark season, Grandible became certain that there was something living in his domain within the cheese tunnels. To judge by the scuffles, it was larger than a rat, and smaller than a horse. On nights when hard rain beat the mountainside high above, and filled Caverna’s vast labyrinth of tunnels with the music of ticks and trickles and drips, the intruding creature sang to itself, perhaps thinking that nobody could hear.
—A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge (Amulet)
Prologue: On the second Sabbat of Twelfthmoon, in the city of Weep, a girl fell from the sky.
—Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor (Little, Brown)
I shall speak of love… and of hate. It is truly a marvel, but I tell you, hatred and love may live cramped together, crouching in the same heart.
—Yvain: The Knight of the Lion by M.T. Anderson, illus. by Andrea Offerman (Candlewick)
LINES THAT SET THE STAGE
Before I tell you what Charlie Fisher saw, the incredible and beautiful thing he witnessed, and how it would set into motion a series of events that would change his life in a very dramatic way for a very long time, I should first explain to you who Charlie was and how he came to be sitting there in the Place Jean Juares in Marseille, France, on a warm Tuesday morning in April 1961.
—The Whiz Mob and the Grenadine Kid by Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis (Balzer + Bray)
It was a bloody great hotel.
The minibar in Jule’s room stocked potato chips and four different chocolate bars. The bathtub had bubble jets. There was an endless supply of fat towels and liquid gardenia soap.
—Genuine Fraud by E. Lockhart (Delacorte)
Welcome to Ocean Wonders, the realm of Neptune, god of seas and storms! All life began in the watery depths, where I reign supreme. Everything you see here obeys my command. Behold! In every room of this house, you see the most amazing creatures of my kingdom. I have gathered them from across the oceans and seas for you to gaze upon!
—Fish Girl by David Wiesner and Donna Jo Napoli (Clarion)
If you ever find yourself on the road to Dullsville, you might encounter an unassuming house. In it reside the Bland Sisters, Jaundice and Kale.
—The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters by Kara LaReau, illus. by Jen Hill (Amulet)
SUPERIOR SHORT STARTS
It’s a lot of pressure to pick a good elf name.
—”Secret Samantha” by Tim Federle in Flying Lessons & Other Stories, edited by Ellen Oh (Crown)
Lynet first saw her in the courtyard.
Well, the girl was in the courtyard. Lynet was in a tree.
—Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust (Flatiron)
Blame my uncle Kenneth. Everybody else does.
—”Choctaw Bigfoot, Midnight in the Mountains” by Tim Tingle in Flying Lessons & Other Stories, edited by Ellen Oh (Crown)
You can hear a miracle a long way after dark.
—All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater (Scholastic Press)
Smith Fearfall was a scavenger.
—The List by Patricia Forde (Sourcebooks)
Only eight people at breakfast today, which feels weird.
—The Lotterys Plus One by Emma Donoghue, illus. by Caroline Hadilaksono (Arthur A. Levine)
I spend a lot of time looking up.
—Short by Holly Goldberg Sloan (Dial)
FIRST LINES WITH CHARACTER
Nani wears a fur coat to the beach.
It’s my second clue she doesn’t plan to go swimming.
—”Flying Lessons” by Soman Chainani in Flying Lessons & Other Stories, edited by Ellen Oh (Crown)
I’m not a particularly good daughter, but I sat through a month of therapy for my parents’ sake. I like to think they got more out of it than I did.
—Nice Try, Jane Sinner by Lianne Oelke (Clarion)
This is taking too long. I just want to pay for the shit and go. It’s not like I’m breaking the law or anything—except it totally feels like I’m breaking the law.
—Dreadnought by April Daniels (Diversion Books)
“This gonna be one of them years,” Mama says to me as we watch the ball drop on New Year’s. She doesn’t look at me when she says it, just stares at the TV.
—”The Beans and Rice Chronicles of Isaiah Dunn” by Kelly J. Baptist in Flying Lessons & Other Stories, edited by Ellen Oh (Crown)
Sartre said hell is other people, but he obviously never experienced a winter heat wave in the Georgia Lowcountry.
—Rebels Like Us by Liz Reinhardt (Seventeen Fiction from Harlequin Teen)
which is why I haven’t
told nobody the story
I’m about to tell you.
And truth is
you probably ain’t
gon’ believe it either
gon’ think I’m lying
or I’m losing it,
but I’m telling you,
this story is true.
It happened to me.
It so did.
—Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds (Caitlyn Dlouhy)
The stepmonster is at it again.
Raffles, discount coupons, and magazine sweepstakes lay strewn across the kitchen table. My stepmom sits straight-backed in one of the creaky wooden chairs, delicately cutting out another coupon, dyed blonde hair piled on top of her head in perfect ringlets, lipstick the color of men’s heartblood.
—Geekerella by Ashley Poston (Quirk Books)
Nothing made me want to get hit by a bus more than Tuesday night happy pill (see: Zoloft) runs.
—Definitions of Indefinable Things by Whitney Taylor (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Where are we going? Dixie would ask.
The forest, I’d say. Or, space.
She never questioned me.
—Gem & Dixie by Sara Zarr (Balzer + Bray)
LINES THAT LET YOU KNOW YOU HAVEN’T READ THIS BOOK BEFORE
When I was little, a kid pointed at me on the playground and shouted, “Her arms fell off!” then ran away screaming in terror to his mom, who had to cuddle him on her lap and rub his head for like ten minutes to get him to calm down. I think, up until then, I hadn’t thought about the idea that my arms must have actually fallen off at some point in my life. I had never really thought about not having arms at all.
—Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling (Sterling)
His mother met his father in Liverpool on a frigid night in 1907. She was not a prostitute but in times of need, short of other forms of employment, she would sell herself to men. She never spent the proceeds frivolously.
—Beck by Mal Peet (Candlewick)
When I was sold to the Li family, my mother let Mrs. Li take me only after she’d promised that I would be taught to read.
—”The Difficult Path” by Grace Lin in Flying Lessons & Other Stories, edited by Ellen Oh (Crown)
LINES WITH SUPER KID OR TEEN APPEAL
“When you live in a motel,” I told my audience, “you never know when your neighbors might be fiendish jewel thieves!”
—Welcome to Wonderland: Beach Party Surf Monkey by Chris Grabenstein (Random House)
There’s not a person in the world who hasn’t heard of Hideo Tanaka, the young mastermind who invented Warcross when he was only thirteen.
—Warcross by Marie Lu (Putnam)
The funny thing is this: people think that dorky geeks who read all the time are the kinds of kids who don’t get into trouble. But they’re wrong. We do.
—One Mixed-Up Night by Catherine Newman (Random House)
IN MEDIAS RES: FIRST LINES THAT PLUNK YOU STRAIGHT INTO THE ACTION
“Hey, you kids!” Mr. Schmitz yells up at us. “Yeah, I’m lookin’ at you. The movie’s over. Go home!”
—Saturdays with Hitchcock by Ellen Wittlinger (Charlesbridge)
LINES THAT ARE SIMPLY FUN TO SAY
Once upon a not too long time ago, there was a couple named Snorkel.
—Lilly and Fin by Cornelia Funke (Random House)
Before he was called the Wonderling, he had many names: Puddlehead, Plonker, Groundling, and Spike, among others.
—The Wonderling by Mira Bartok (Candlewick)
Imogene! Hasten down from that tree! Her Majesty the Queen requests your presence!
—All’s Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson (Dial)
FIRST LINES THAT ALREADY MAKE YOU ROOT FOR THE MAIN CHARACTER
Eliza Mirk is the kind of name you give to the creepy girl who clings to her ex-boyfriend for weeks after he’s dumped her because she refuses to accept that he hates her guts. Eliza Mirk is a low-level villain with a secret hideout in the sewers. Eliza Mirk belongs in a comic book.
But Eliza Mirk is me.
—Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia (Greenwillow)
Archer was dreaming again, and in the dreams he had no name. He didn’t remember when he’d lost it, but now the men called him boy or bootlicker or nothing at all.
—Sea of Ink and Gold: The Speaker by Traci Chee (Putnam)
Honorable Mention for Best Section Header in a Novel
Part the First: On the Mysterious Origins of the Wonderling & His Arduous Life at Miss Carbunkle’s Home for Wayward & Misbegotten Creatures
—The Wonderling by Mira Bartok (Candlewick)
Honorable Mention for Promising Title
Longburrow: Podkin One-Ear – The Legend Begins by Kieran Larwood (Clarion)