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Not Your English Professor’s First Lines: Openers in Contemporary Children’s Books

Not Your Professor's First Lines - featuredIt is a truth universally acknowledged that an intraoffice debate must be in want of a blog post, and things are no different here at Booklist. The other day, we ended up discussing the topic of great first lines. You know the ones I’m talking about: “All children, except one, grow up.” “It was a pleasure to burn.” “Call me Ishmael.” They’re those enduring openers, often quoted and almost as often parodied, that you probably know whether or not you’ve read the parent text. Of course, this discussion of the classics led to another frequently asked question: Do they still make them like they used to?

Well, of course they do, I thought, a little indignantly. After all, “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of Number Four, Privet Drive, were proud to say they were perfectly normal, thank you very much,” isn’t such a far cry from, “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.” But, of course, the question lingered.

It’s a mistake to say the days of the masterful
opening line have died with the classics.

In the January issue of Book Links, columnist Rob Reid penned a feature on attention-grabbing opening lines, of which there certainly are, and continue to be, many. But the recipe for a great opening line goes deeper than just a good hook. When I was in high school, I had an English teacher who postulated that the central themes of each Shakespeare play can be found in its opening lines, and not just in a “Two households, both alike in dignity” way. His favorite example was Hamlet. The play opens with a sentry who hears a noise and simply asks, “Who’s there?” It’s another way, my teacher theorized, of framing one of the play’s most enduring questions: Who am I?

I think it’s a mistake to say the days of the masterful opening line have died with the classics. Much contemporary—and especially teen—literature has the capacity to spark reflection and to endure. Below, I’ve stuck to what I know and collected a small sample of some of my favorite opening lines from more-or-less recent children’s literature. Let us know in the comments if you agree—or if I’ve missed your favorite!


The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey“There will be no awakening.”

The 5th Wave, by Rick Yancey (2013)

The whole prologue is chilling, and this first line, mysterious and haunting and declarative, is no exception.


Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz“One summer night I fell asleep, hoping the world would be different when I woke.”

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Saenz (2012)

You have to hand it to a sentence that can break your heart before you’ve even gotten to know any of the characters.


The Book Thief by Markus Zusak“First the colors.”

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak (2006)

“Then the humans.” It’s weird and eerie, and the first time I read it I had no idea what it meant, but the book is narrated by Death, so you know it’s not going to be boring.


Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine“That fool of a fairy Lucinda did not intend to lay a curse on me.”

Ella Enchanted, by Gail Carson Levine (1997)

It’s rare for me to write some sort of favorites list without including this book, but it fits right in with this opening line that sets the stage efficiently—and with just a little bit of attitude.


The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.”

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins (2008)

It’s the book that launched a thousand copycats, and the opening line is emblematic of everything that follows: bleak and austere, and featuring the heroine, as she so often is, alone.


The Giver by Lois Lowry“It was almost December, and Jonas was beginning to be frightened.”

The Giver, by Lois Lowry (1993)

Is this old enough to be considered a classic yet? A lot of the books on this list work because they carry varying degrees of trepidation, and this one strikes the exact right balance. You’re vaguely anxious after reading it, but not really sure why.


The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman“There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.”

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman (2008)

We might not immediately understand why The Giver makes us nervous, but there’s no such ambiguity here.


The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater“Blue Sargent had forgotten how many times she’d been told that she would kill her true love.”

The Raven Boys, by Maggie Stiefvater (2012)

Stiefvater’s a pro at opening lines in general (Printz Honor book The Scorpio Races opened with the equally ominous “It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die”), but this one might just take the cake. It’s a strange and unexpected sentence that remains always present throughout the course of the four-book series.


The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly by Stephanie Oakes“I am a blood-soaked girl.”

The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly, by Stephanie Oakes (2015)

Six words makes you immediately curious about (and afraid of) line two.


Seraphina by Rachel Hartman“I remember being born.”

Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman (2012)

Sometimes sweeping, startling statements are the best way to start, and an epic fantasy of this magnitude could hardly have it any other way.


Stolen by Lucy Christopher“You saw me before I saw you.”

Stolen, by Lucy Christopher (2010)

It sounds almost romantic, but when you take into account that this story is about a kidnapping, it takes on a much creepier tone.



About the Author:

Maggie Reagan works for Booklist as an associate editor in the Books for Youth department. In addition to the required love of reading, she is also an adventure junkie, animal hugger, and stringed-instrument enthusiast. Follow her on Twitter @MagdalenaRayGun.

2 Comments on "Not Your English Professor’s First Lines: Openers in Contemporary Children’s Books"

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  1. What I’m reading, Feb 1- 5 – Liz Likes Books | February 5, 2016
  1.' Patricia says:

    “It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.” Matilda by Roald Dahl. So accurate and loveable at the same time.

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