Great First Lines

Elizabeth Bluemle - December 7, 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!)
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!)

39 thoughts on “Great First Lines

  1. Steve Geck

    “I always thought the biggest problem in my life was my name, Naomi Soledad León Outlaw, but little did I know that it was the least of my troubles, or that someday I would live up to it.” – BECOMING NAOMI LEÓN by Pam Muñoz Ryan.
    Thanks for reminding me about QUEST FOR A MAID; a wonderful book.

    1. shelftalker elizabeth

      Psst! If you guys don’t have the rights, see if you can get them and reissue the book. I see a Perfection Learning edition listed for libraries, but am not sure it’s really in print any more, either.

  2. Praxilla

    “Now I am thirteen, but when I was a chile . . .” –Alice Childress, A HERO AIN’T NOTHING BUT A SANDWICH (1970s classic).

  3. Carl

    ‘The Glass Castle’ by Jeannette Walls “I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster.”

  4. Stacey

    Okay so this is technically this is a few more than just the first line but it’s so good and hooks you…
    “Daddy said. “Let Mom go first.”
    Mom wanted me to go first. I think it was because she was afraid that after they were contained and frozen, I’d walk away, return to life rather than consign myself to that cold, clear box. But Daddy insisted.
    Across the Universe by Beth Revis (Razorbill/Penguin, 3/11)

  5. Hayley

    “Mister and Missus Dursley of Number Four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”

  6. Carol Moyer

    If your teacher has to die, August isn’t a bad time of year for it. – The Teacher’s Funeral by Richard Peck.
    The bear had been their undoing, though at the time they had all laughed. – Lyddie by Katherine Paterson.

  7. Jesica

    “To say that I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband’s dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching upon the floor.” — Silent in the Grave by Deanna Raybourn

  8. Penny

    This constitutes the whole first chapter of a brilliant book for boys, titled ‘Boyznbikes’, by Vince Ford:
    Guys are different.
    Like Dad and Baz and Skid. They ride motorbikes. They drink beer. They pee standing up. When you’re young you mostly hang out with women. They pee sitting down.
    Does that get your attention, or what?!

  9. Karleene

    Alas, I can’t recall the book, but it was one of Raymond Chandler’s detective stories. His protagonist says something like: “It was 5:30 and my parner and I were just finishing the day shift when someone threw the girl off the bridge.”
    Why can’ I think of openers like that?

    1. Caroline

      Are you sure you’re thinking of Chandler? This sounds a lot like the opener of John D. MacDonald’s Darker Than Amber: “We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody dropped the girl off the bridge.” Great line, great book!

  10. Margaret

    “The first Wednesday in every month was a Perfectly Awful Day — a day to be awaited with dread, endured with courage and forgotten with haste.”
    “White as alabaster lay the city of Akhetaten along the eastern bank of the slow-moving Nile.” [another book I wish someone out there would reprint!]
    On the other hand, I was so severely put off by “She scowled at her glass of orange juice” that I went back to the book only after a friend who insisted over a period of several months that I really should read The Blue Sword, in spite of my vivid first impression that I really didn’t want to read a book about orange juice.

  11. Ellen Scott

    “They took me in my nightgown.” Between Shades of Gray” by Ruta Sepetys. historical fiction coming in March 2011

  12. Terry Borzumato-Greenberg

    “Go ahead, shoot, I thought, because I was thirteen and desperate and anything, absolutely anything, was better than the fate to which my parents were leading me.”–Jason Wallace, OUT OF SHADOWS (Holiday House, 4/11)
    This debut novel, set in 1980s Zimbabwe, has a compelling advance quote from Markus Zusak, author of THE BOOK THIEF: “Sometimes a book takes you somewhere and keeps you there. Honest, brave and devastating—OUT OF SHADOWS is more than just memorable. It’s impossible to look away.”
    We hope you agree!

  13. Dyan Lyons

    I’ve been unable to get the first few sentences of FOR THE LOVE OF STRANGERS by Jacqueline Horsfall out of my mind since I first read it:
    Ants in my pants.
    That’s what Tee-tee found when she stripped off my tattered jumper to bathe me. Well, not literally ants. Worms, to be exact. Thriving in my soiled panties, all courtesy of the Moscow Home for Abandoned Children.
    –A bit of an ick factor, but it definitely makes you want to read on. And I love so many of the books mentioned in the article and the comments for more than their first lines, but they also do a terrific job of drawing you in.

  14. Mallory Loehr

    “I know people who say they can read any kind if book except an “I” book, and sometimes I think I agree with them.”‘ Edward Eager, The Well-Wishers.
    I also loved QUEST FOR A MAID, and I always liked the cover. I must go hunt my copy down!

  15. Connie

    Best opening paragraph:
    “On a cold, fretful afternoon in early October, 1872, a hansom cab drew up outside the offices of Lockhart and Selby, Shipping Agents, in the financial heart of London, and a young girl got out and paid the driver. She was a person of sixteen or so – alone, and uncommonly pretty. She was slender and pale, dressed in mourning, with a black bonnet under which she tucked back a straying twist of blond hair that the wind had teased loose. Her name was Sally Lockhart; and within fifteen minutes, she was going to kill a man.”
    Philip Pullman, The Ruby in the Smoke

  16. Leslie Rose

    I’m teaching a writing lesson on leads tomorrow. Thank you for writing my lesson plan! My new favorite is from Rachel Vail’s GORGEOUS. “I sold my cell phone to the devil.”

  17. Gill

    ‘Aubrey Fitzwilliam hated being dead; it made things much harder than they needed to be.’ Blaze of Glory – Michael Pryor

  18. Shanna

    “Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood.”
    –“The Lightning Thief” (“Percy Jackson and the Olympians” book 1)
    May I also mention the chapter title is, “I Accidentally Vaporize My Pre-algebra Teacher?” I love this series and there are so many great hooks in it. ” The 39 Clues: The Maze of Bones,” also by Rick Riordan, got me as well: “Five minutes before she died, Grace Cahill changed her will.”
    Not kids’ books, but awesome first lines:
    Nicholas Sparks, “The Notebook:” “Who am I? And how, I wonder, will this story end?”
    “The Secret Life of Bees,” Sue Monk Kidd: “At night I would lie in bed and watch the show, how bees squeezed through the cracks of my bedroom wall and flew circles around the room, making the propeller sound, a high-pitched zzzzzz that hummed along my skin.”
    Kids’ books again:
    “Once upon a time there was a pair of pants.” Ann Brashares, “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants”
    “You’re up, Joelle!”–Dori Hillestad Butler, “Sliding Into Home”
    “Rain fell that night, a fine, whispering rain.”–Cornelia Funke, “Inkheart”
    “I need you to do me a favor.”– “The Thing About Georgie,” Lisa Graff
    This one has the “you” being the reader!
    “Little Man, will you come on? You keep it up and you’re gonna make us late.” “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” by Mildred D. Taylor
    Last one from an adult book that was based off a kids’ classic:
    From “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West” by Gregory Maguire: “A mile above Oz, the Witch balanced on wind’s forward edge, as if she were a green fleck of the land itself, flung up and sent wheeling away by the turbulent air.”

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  20. Alexa

    “When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.” -S.E. Hinton: The Outsiders

  21. Melissa

    Okay, so this isn’t a YA beginning but it is the best beginning line I have ever read…it still makes me smile and fills me with anticipation which is what reading is all about.
    “The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.”
    The Gunslinger by Stephen King.
    I use it in class (middle school) to help teach great beginnings.

  22. Loretta Ellsworth

    “Of all the kids in the seventh grade at Camillo Junior High, there was one kid that Mrs. Baker hated with heat whiter than the sun. Me.” From the Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt.
    Great post!

  23. Shanna

    “I was home alone on that Friday evening. Those who survived know exactly which Friday I mean. Everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing, in the same way my parents remembered 9/11, but more so. Together we lost the old world, slipping from that cocoon of mechanized comfort into the hellish land we inhabit now. The pre-Friday world of school, cell phones, and refrigerators dissolved into this post-Friday world of ash, darkness, and hunger.”
    –from the YA novel Ashfall by Mike Mullin. It is one of the best I have read this year for sure! I know it is more than a line, but I love the paragraph too much to stop at the first sentence.
    From “The Silver Linings Playbook,” an adult novel by YA author Matthew Quick:
    “I don’t have to look up to know Mom is making another surprise visit. Her toenails are always pink during the summer months, and I recognize the flower design imprinted on her leather sandals; it’s what Mom purchased the last time she signed me out of the bad place and took me to the mall.”
    Right then, you can see that these novels will be about life changing events: witnessing a catastrophe (Ashfall) and learning to live with mental illness (Silver Linings Playbook).


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