The opening sentences of a book, like the first moments of a movie, set the stage for the story. First lines create expectations in readers, and the best storytellers use them to make a promise to us about the experience we are about to have. They set the tone for the entire book—not an easy undertaking. Because first lines are so important, and so challenging to do well, and so much fun to read, I scour ARCs (advance reading copies) every year looking for great openers. I’ve been doing this fairly regularly since 2010, and wow, have there been some incredible first lines! (I usually quote M.T Anderson’s in these annual great-first-line posts, because he is the undisputed master of first lines, but I shouldn’t repeat myself, so you can read some of his—along with other doozies) here.)
What follows are opening lines from books from winter and spring of 2019. (Please note: almost all of these are taken from ARCs. If you authors have revised these lines for the finished books, please contact me so I can edit. Here are the best first lines I’ve discovered so far:
TELL ME A STORY
In the beginning, there were two brother-gods: the God of Salt, and the God of Sun.
—We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia (HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen)
It is said that long, long ago, there lived a princess in an underground realm, where neither lies mor pain exist, who dreamt of the human world.
—Pan’s Labyrinth: The Labyrinth of the Faun by Guillermo del Toro and Cornelia Funke (HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen)
He says his familial name is Niu.
And his personal name is Hisachi.
He has dimples, like the boy that I knew.
We stand before the Great Gate of Complete Centrality and Perfect Uprightness at the entrance to Pearl Famous Academy of Skate and Sword.
—Peasprout Chen: Battle of Champions by Henry Lien (Henry Holt)
OKAY, YOU’VE GOT MY ATTENTION
I might have to kill somebody tonight.
—On the Come Up by Angie Thomas (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray)
I was born in the upstairs room of an ancient roadside tavern, a group of common whores acting as midwives.
—Courting Darkness by Robin LaFevers (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
My face is mashed sideways against the trunk of a police cruiser when Kate dies for the third time.
—Opposite of Always by Justin A. Reynolds (HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen)
I have not cast a shadow in two months, three days, and eleven hours.
—Comet Rising by MarcyKate Connolly (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky)
The first time the Demon Queen appeared in my bedroom, I tried to decapitate her with my solar system night-light.
—Game of Stars (Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond #2) by Sayantani Dasgupta (Scholastic Press)
The trouble began when a giant purple armadillo ran onto the field behind Clay Elementary School.
—The Big Idea Gang: Worst Mascot Ever by James Preller (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
“Your face is falling off.”
—Fame, Fate, and the First Kiss by Kasie West (HarperTeen)
The whole naked selfie situation started on the first day of Higher Ground’s Teen Beach Retreat, during the closing prayer of the opening assembly.
—from “Girl, Stop Playing” by Liara Tamani in Black Enough: Stories of Being Young & Black in America, edited by Ibi Zoboi (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray)
Pa was taking too long to cut the boys’ throats.
—The Merciful Crow by Margaret Owen (Henry Holt)
PLACES YOU DON’T WANT TO BE
This is how I feel every single day of my life, like I’m falling without a parachute.
—New Kid by Jerry Craft (HarperCollins)
We were not prepared for it–
America, the land cut like a massive slab
of steak. Our mother did not sit us down
to explain, and nothing was said
over the black coffee and rice
soup at mealtimes. My siblings and I approached
our inevitable leaving with numb
acceptance, as people do under martial law.
—from “Departure: July 30, 1984” by Joseph O, Legaspi in Ink Knows No Borders: Poems of the Immigrant and Refugee Experience, edited by Patrice Vecchione and Alyssa Raymond (Triangle Square)
My laboratory reeks of death. Not of blood and flesh and decay, but the garlicky bite of arsenic, the musty essence of hemlock, and sweet-smelling oleander—like rose water and citrus. The lethal perfume tickles my nose as I rush about the hearth, stoking the fire and whisking the steaming concoction in my cast-iron kettle.
Today I will kill a man.
—An Affair of Poisons by Addie Thorley (Page Street )
The wraith crept through the darkness of its forest prison, hunger gnawing at its bones. It was skeletal now, brushing against the thron ferns and moss-covered tree bark with bony fingers that rattled in the breeze.
—The Blood Spell by C.J. Redwine (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray)
Sometimes people disappear. One minute they’re there, then poof, like a magic trick, they’re gone.
On that first Saturday after we moved to Fortin, Vermont, when I watched my mom get handcuffed and placed in the back of a police cruiser, that’s what I thought about.
—Ruby in the Sky by Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo (FSG)
PLACES YOU WANT TO BE (?)
Identifying characteristics: Abundance of food trucks, strip malls, and concert T-shirts worn by grown adults.
Habitat: 104 degrees. Generally inhospitable to human life.
Other facts: Observed slogan “Welcome to Austin: Please Don’t Move Here.” Hypothesis: environmental insecurity masked as pride.
—The Field Guide to the North American Teenager by Ben Philippe (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray)
Yves Rencourt, the chandler’s apprentice, had lost his wig.
After the last customer left the shop, he searched through baskets of curling wicks and blocks of beeswax and teetering stacks of bills. Rien.
—Enchantée by Gita Trelease (Flatiron)
Anna worked at the cold stone floor of the Tower, using a tool she’d made from the handle of a lantern years before.
—Tarot by Marissa Kennerson (Razorbill)
“Are you sure this thing is magical?” Dave slowly turned the Crown of the North under the bright basement lights. The seven diamonds adorning the simple silver circlet barely flickered. “It doesn’t look it.”
—Spirits, Spells, and Snark by Kelly McCullough (Feiwel and Friends)
GETTING TO KNOW YOU
I have the most beautiful voice. I use it to say just one thing: Me-ow! Have you ever heard anything so lovely? And it starts with “me!”
—Ruff vs. Fluff by Spencer Quinn (Scholastic Press)
Jenny Horowitz likes horses and the color pink and asking lots of questions about things I don’t want to talk about.
—Eventown by Corey Ann Haydu (HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen)
RIGHT DOWN TO IT
No parties, no shorts, no boys. These were my parents’ three cardinal rules.
—The Love & Lies of Rukhsana Ali by Sabina Khan (Scholastic Press)
The earliest thing I can remember is dirt jammed beneath my fingernails.
—Right as Rain by Lindsey Stoddard (Harper)
IT’S ALL RELATIVE
Once upon a time, there were two sisters, alike in every way, except for all the ways that they were different.
—The Lost Girl by Anne Ursu (Walden Pond)
My little brother is holding my acceptance letter hostage.
And I’m going to kill him
—from “Oreo” by Brandy Colbert in Black Enough: Stories of Being Young & Black in America, edited by Ibi Zoboi (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray)
Charlie O’Reilly was an only child. It therefore made everyone uncomfortable when he talked about his little brother.
—The Missing Piece of Charlie O’Reilly by Rebecca K.S. Ansari (Walden Pond)
Cat always kept her brother in the back of her mind, except for the times he was at the front of it.
—Caterpillar Summer by Gillian McDunn (Bloomsbury)
WE *ARE* AMUSED
I’m allergic to trouble. It makes my hands itch.
—A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramee (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray)
I’m going to tell you a secret: being a troubadour kind of stinks.
—Max & the Midknights by Lincoln Peirce (Crown)
Dear Riley (Manic Pixie Dream Boy #0002),
An Author alleged you went off script on your last completed project, your second such infraction.
—The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project by Lenore Appelhans (Carolrhoda Lab)
BURYING THE LEAD
Bailey Buckleby sat behind the register in the front room while his father fed the monsters in the back.
—The Monster Catcher by George Brewington (Henry Holt)
Our mother had a dark heart feeling. It was as big as the sky kept inside a thimble.
—Lenny’s Book of Everything by Karen Foxlee (Knopf)
There’s no such thing as true black.
This is one of the very first art lessons. Squeezing black ready-made from a tube makes a painting look artificial, so instead, you mix the three primary hues: red, yellow, and blue. Because even the darkest shadow or deepest sorrow has a glimmer of color at its heart.
—How to Be Luminous, by Harriet Reuter Hapgood (Roaring Brook)
Once there was a girl brave enough to draw a question mark in the dust that covered her heart.
—Over the Moon by Natalie Lloyd (Scholastic Press)
Ten million light years from now
bathed in the radiation of a time without time
are the bones of a girl who loved Ryann Bird
—The Weight of Stars by K. Ancrum (Imprint)
THE ORDINARY IN THE EXTRAORDINARY
Zero-gravity dodgeball three times since Tuesday. So you know it’s the end of the year.
—Seventh Grade vs. The Galaxy by Joshua S. Levy (Carolrhoda)
Just minutes before the attack in Washington, D.C,. Fort’s father was embarrassing him at the Lincoln Memorial.
—The Revenge of Magic by James Reilly (Aladdin)
“You never took a boring Cambridge in pie school?” Dr. Galloway, my academic adviser, asked.
—Meet Me in Outer Space by Melinda Grace (Swoon Reads)
PULLS NO PUNCHES
When I wake up, all my friends are dead.
—Heroine by Mindy McGinnis (HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen)
Nobody knew what made the three of them from Iona Crescent up and walk out of the world.
—Other Words for Smoke by Sarah Maria Griffin (Greenwillow)
—Beware the Night by Jessika Fleck (Swoon Reads)
Here are things that I, Bernice Buttman, was awesome at. One: burping the alphabet. Two: blowing up stuff with firecrackers. Three: wearing the teachers and puny kids of Oak Grove Elementary School into nubs.
—Bernice Buttman, Model Citizen by Niki Lenz (Random House)
There is a locket in my heart
that holds all of the questions
that do cartwheels in my mind
and gurgle up to the top of my brain
like root beer fizz.
—The Moon Within by Aida Salazar (Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine)
“We’re going to burn this joint down, my ninja! My outfit is fire.” We were in Foot Locker and DeMarcus popped his collar in the mirror. A floor mirror. The kind meant for checking your kicks, so he was leaning over real weird to do it. DeMarcus did everything weird.
—from “Black. Nerd. Problems.” by Lamar Giles in Black Enough: Stories of Being Young & Black in America, edited by Ibi Zoboi (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray)
IRRESISTIBLE CHAPTER TITLES
- Nicknames, a Punch in the Nose, and the Death of a Show Chicken Called Kathleen
—A Good Night for Shooting Zombies by Jaco Jacobs, illus. by Jim Tierney (Rock the Boat)
Being Alone in the Dark in a Hole, on Thanksgiving Day, Is Not Much Fun; Or, Oh Well!
—The Size of the Truth by Andrew Smith (Simon & Schuster)
Chapter One: The End
—White Rose by Kip Wilson (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/Versify)
Greetings, my new friend!
There’s something you need to know.
Before I tell you…
[art instructions to the reader, referencing a drawing of an outline of a person] Make hair standing straight up. Add super-wide eyes. Draw mouth like an O. When you’re done, fold this corner up!
[on the other side of the corner] I predict you’ll look just like this when you turn the page and read your fate!
You are TRAPPED inside this book…
…and this book is the TITANIC!
—Escape This Book! Titanic (Draw Yourself Into and Out of History!) by Bill Doyle, illus. by Sarah Sax & You! (Random House)
 It is a pleasure to meet you. Truly. Life as a book is not as easy as one might think. A book waits. A book waits some more. Sometimes a book waits for years. And then one day, a reader much like yourself happens upon it. Plucks the book right off the shelf and opens it up. I am glad you have chosen me.
—The Tragical Tale of Birdie Bloom by Temre Beltz (HarperCollins)
AND SPECIAL MENTION IN THE ‘COULD NOT BE MORE POWERFUL OR IMPORTANT TO SAY’ CATEGORY:
The book you are holding was scheduled to be published in 2017 with full-color portraits of the young people who were interviewed for it. Since that time laws regarding DACA recipients have changed, making it unsafe for many of the participants to reveal their identities. Their images, names, and other identifiers have been withheld to protect the inspiring people who share their stories in these pages.
—We Are Here to Stay: Voices of Undocumented Young Adults, written and photographed by Susan Kuklin (Candlewick Press)
Hit me up with some more great first lines from January-April 2019 titles! (No fair posting your own, but your admirers are welcome to do it.)
These are great! I also loved the opening paragrapgh to The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise.
There were big days and there were small days and there were bad days and there were good days and I suppose I could pick any one of ’em for my “once upon a time.” But if I’m gonna be truthful—and truthful is something I always aim to be—then really there is only one best place to start this story.
It all started with Ivan.
Ooh, that’s a good one! The ARC must have been enjoyed by another bookseller at the store before I had a chance to raid it for first lines. Thanks for sharing!