Great First Lines

Elizabeth Bluemle -- December 7th, 2010

Sometimes, the only handselling a book needs is its opening line. When I picked up the ARC for Franny Billingsley’s Chime (Dial, April 2011), the first lines popped out and zapped me: “I’ve confessed to everything and I’d like to be hanged. Now, if you please.” And the rest of the page is even better. That’s what I call a great opener.

For children’s literature aficionados, it’s hard to match the iconic first line of Charlotte’s Web: “‘Where’s Papa going with that ax?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.”

I’m also a big fan of Frances Marie Hendry’s opening line to Quest for a Maid (a fabulous adventure novel for ages 10-14, in case you don’t know it): “When I was nine years old, I hid under a table and heard my sister kill a king.” (Nota bene: In a search for the cover image, I discovered that this unique gem of a book is OP. How can that be?! Probably because booksellers like me forgot to recommend it often enough. Argh.)

Avi’s provocative first line from The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle is well-known: “Not every thirteen-year-old girl is accused of murder, brought to trial, and found guilty.”

It’s not all murder and mayhem. Karen Cushman’s Catherine, Called Birdy begins, “I am bit by fleas and plagued by family.” A Drowned Maiden’s Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz starts thusly: “On the morning of the best day of her life, Maud Flynn was locked in the outhouse singing ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic.'”

How about M.T. Anderson’s hilarious beginning to The Game of Sunken Places: “The woods were silent, other than the screaming.” A better known Anderson blockbuster first line is Feed‘s “We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.” And another—he is a formidable formulator of first lines—comes from Whales on Stilts: “On Career Day Lily visited her dad’s work with him and discovered he worked for a mad scientist who wanted to rule the earth through destruction and desolation.”

Hints of disaster and intimations of unusual worlds are always intriguing. We can’t help wanting to know what comes next.

Which sent me to some nearby 2011 galleys to see what unusual or particularly provocative first lines might await us next year. It’s a silly way to judge a book, of course; plenty of books with quiet first lines are absolute treasures. But book lovers are drawn to first and last lines; we can’t help ourselves. So here are a few new promising starts. (I’m writing at home tonight, not at the store, so I don’t have a full range of galleys to choose from, just a recent box of Harper ARCs, plus a few from Random House and Egmont. I hope you fine readers will chime in with your own favorites in the comments section.)

LARK by Tracey Porter (HarperTeen, 6/11) — “First he hit her, then he stabbed her with a small knife, but Lark didn’t die from this. She died from the cold.”

(Okay, yes, very violent, but the title character dies in the second line? That’s literary chutzpah right there.)

DELIRIUM by Lauren Oliver (Harper, 2/11) — It has been sixty-four years since the president and the Consortium identified love as a disease, and forty-three since the scientists perfected a cure.”

(A cure for love? Love as disease? Definitely got my attention.)

FINS ARE FOREVER by Tera Lynn Childs (HarperCollins/Tegen, 7/11) — “At the moment I am sole heir to the throne of Thalassinia, one of the most prosperous underwater kingdoms in the world.”

(Underwater kingdom? I’m there.)

THE SCHOOL FOR THE INSANELY GIFTED by Dan Elish (Harper, 7/11) — “Like most of the students at the Blatt School for the Insanely Gifted, Daphna Whispers had her share of quirks.”

(A lot of set-up in one funny opener.)

THE STORM BEFORE ATLANTA by Karen Schwabach (Random House, 12/10) — “Jeremy DeGroot was determined to die gloriously for his country.”

(Name a boy who wouldn’t be interested to read further.)

BUMPED by Megan McCafferty (Balzer+Bray, 5/11) — “I’m sixteen, pregnant, and the most important person on the planet.”

(Well, allrighty then.)

FALCON QUINN AND THE CRIMSON VAPOR by Jennifer Finney Boylan (Katherine Tegen, 5/11) — Hum this one out loud to the tune of the Beach Boys’ “California Girls”:  “Well the Sasquatch girls are hip, I love their fur all splotched with crud…”

(I will think of this line every time I hear the song now. I’m not sure this is a good thing, but it makes me laugh.)

HUMAN.4 by Mike A. Lancaster (Egmont, 3/11) — “When Danny Birnie told us that he had hypnotized his sister we all thought he was mad. Or lying. Or both.”

(You had me at “hypnotized his sister.” And “lying.”)

FAERIE WINTER by Janni Lee Simner (Random House, 4/11) — “The woman who would become my mother backed trembling away from the man who would save her life, and I did not know why.”

(Neither do I, but I want to.)

KINDRED by Tamar Stein (Knopf, 2/11) — “The first time I meet an angel, it is Raphael and I am eighteen.”

(Personal bias at work here, perhaps: I love the name Raphael, and the reference to the Old Testament archangel interests me.)

BLOOD MAGIC by Tessa Gratton (Random House, 4/11) — “It is impossible to know who you really are until you spend time alone in a cemetery.”

(Really? I immediately want to test out this theory — and find out why the narrator says it.)

YOU’LL LIKE IT HERE (EVERYBODY DOES) by Ruth White (Delacorte, 6/11) — “When I was in the third grade on the California coast, a crazy man came into my classroom and started waving a knife around.”

(Something about the juxtaposition of third grade and a crazy man in the classroom is jarring in a way that makes me instantly believe it. I want to know what happened and how that affected the narrator.)

THE END OF THE WORLD CLUB by J&P Voelkel (Egmont, 12/10) — “The twelve Lords of Death were bored.”

(Simple, succinct, unexpected; sounds like something Christopher Moore or Terry Pratchett might write. I’m in!)

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Good, aren’t they? What are your favorite first lines, either from 2011 ARCs or from books already out? (Please identify the books for people who haven’t read them yet. Great springboard to a new read!)

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