Genre: Children's Literature
A Place to Hang the Moon (2021)
Funeral receptions can be tough spots to find enjoyment, but eleven-year-old Edmund Pearce was doing his best.
In her debut novel, Albus had her narrator continue: “He was intent on the iced buns. Some of them had gone squashy on one side or the other, some had lost their icing when a neighboring bun had been removed, and a few had been sadly neglected in the icing department from the start.”
As the opening paragraph continued, the narrator neatly captured additional age-appropriate behavior for an eleven-year-old boy: “Undaunted, Edmund picked through the pile, finding two that met with his approval. He shoved one into each of his trouser pockets and, scooping up a handful of custard cream cookies to round out the meal, navigated through the crowd until he found a vacant armchair. There he settled, quite content despite the occasion. It helped that he’d never cared much for his grandmother, anyway.”
Hans Christian Andersen
There was once a woman who did so want to have a wee child of her own, but she had no idea where she was to get it from. So she went off to an old witch and said to her, “I would so dearly like to have a little child. Do please tell me where I can find one.“
The One and Only Bob (2020)
Look, nobody’s ever accused me of being a good dog.
This is a sequel to The One and Only Ivan, Applegate’s wonderful 2012 children’s novel about a talking gorilla, and, if anything, it is even better. For reasons I’m not sure I completely understand, I absolutely love books narrated by talking animals, and this one starts off with a fabulous opening line. On the rest of the first page, Bob truly finds his “voice” as he continues:
“I bark at empty air. I eat cat litter. I roll in garbage to enhance my aroma.
“I harass innocent squirrels. I hog the couch. I lick myself in the presence of company.
“I’m no saint, okay?”
And so it goes—with a staccato-like delivery style that would be the envy of a stand-up comic—for 340 pages of one of the best animal-narrated stories I’ve ever read.
Tuck Everlasting (1975)
The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning. The weeks that come before are only a climb from balmy spring, and those that follow a drop to the chill of autumn, but the first week of August is motionless, and hot.
These are the opening words of the Prologue to the book. The narrator continued ominously: “It is curiously silent, too, with blank white dawns and glaring noons, and sunsets smeared with too much color. Often at night there is lightning, but it quivers all alone. There is no thunder, no relieving rain. These are strange and breathless days, the dog days, when people are led to do things they are sure to be sorry for after.”
In a 2016 blog post on “What Makes a Great First Line,” literary agent Amanda Luedeke wrote: “The first line from Tuck Everlasting ...doesn’t do much in the way of drawing the reader into the action–it actually goes out of its way to describe a notable lack of activity–but it serves as an example of another effective function of an opening sentence: laying a foundation.”
Luedeke went on to write that “Babbitt paints a quick picture of a certain time of year, evoking the weather (probably hot) and the pace of life (slow) at the moment the story opens, and we absorb these details and are primed to interpret the characters and events to come...without her having to explain everything...right up front.”
James M. Barrie
Peter and Wendy (1911)
All children, except one, grow up.
The son of a weaver, Barrie studied at the University of Edinburgh before moving to London in 1885 to pursue a writing career. In 1897, he befriended Arthur and Sylvia Llewelyn Davis, a London couple with three young sons, George, John, and Peter (they ultimately added two more boys to the mix). Barrie loved playing with the boys, and regaled them with many fanciful stories, including one in which Peter was a bird before he was born and, after his birth, retained the ability to fly.
In 1902, Barrie introduced the character of Peter Pan in his novel The Little White Bird, but it was only a minor role, and Peter never advanced beyond infancy. Two years later, he developed Peter into the character we all know today for the 1904 London stage production, “Peter Pan, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up.“ The play was a spectacular success, and catapulted Barrie into worldwide celebrity.
In 1911, Peter Pan was already one of the world’s most famous fictional characters when Barrie extended the stage play into a full-blown novel titled Peter and Wendy. The novel’s opening line is now regarded as a classic in world literature. What is less well known, though, is how Barrie continued the first paragraph:
“They soon know that they will grow up, and the way Wendy knew was this. One day when she was two years old she was playing in a garden, and she plucked another flower and ran with it to her mother. I suppose she must have looked rather delightful, for Mrs. Darling put her hand to her heart and cried, ‘Oh, why can’t you remain like this forever!’ This was all that passed between them on the subject, but henceforth Wendy knew that she must grow up.”
L. Frank Baum
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900)
Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer’s wife. Their house was small, for the lumber to build it had to be carried by wagon many miles. There were four walls, a floor and a roof, which made one room; and this room contained a rusty looking cooking stove, a cupboard for the dishes, a table, three or four chairs, and the beds. Uncle Henry and Aunt Em had a big bed in one corner, and Dorothy a little bed in another corner.
The opening words introduce us to the young, female protagonist, but provide no information about why she is living with relatives. They also provide a hint about what is to come: “There was no garret at all, and no cellar—except a small hole dug in the ground, called a cyclone cellar, where the family could go in case one of those great whirlwinds arose, mighty enough to crush any building in its path. It was reached by a trap-door in the middle of the floor, from which a ladder led down into the small, dark hole.“
Nurse Matilda (1964)
Once upon a time there was a huge family of children; and they were terribly, terribly naughty.
So begins the story of Nurse Matilda, a hideously ugly witch who mysteriously arrives at the household of the Brown family, which is beset by some of the naughtiest children in England. The book was very popular in Great Britain, and resulted in two sequels: Nurse Matilda Goes to Town (1967) and Nurse Matilda Goes to Hospital (1974). The opening paragraphs of the two sequels are worded slightly differently from the original novel, but they both end the same way: “...and all the children were terribly, terribly naughty.”
In 2005, the novels were loosely adapted into the film Nanny McPhee, starring Colin Firth and Emma Thompson (she also wrote the screenplay). In addition to a new name for the title character, there were some other changes as well, but the essential story remained the same—a nanny with magical powers arrives at an out-of-control home and transforms the life of a family being disrupted by some very naughty children. One other important thing from the novel also made it into the film, and I was delighted to see it retained. Let me explain.
I’m a longtime fan of the literary device known as chiasmus (pronounced ky-AZ-muss), and in 1999, I introduced it to popular culture in my book Never Let a Fool Kiss You or a Kiss Fool You. Brand’s 1964 novel contains a wonderful example. Describing her approach to caring for children, Nurse Matilda says: “When my children don’t want me, but do need me: then I must stay. When they no longer need me, but they do want me: then I have to go.”
When I heard about the film coming out, I eagerly awaited its appearance, wondering if this very special observation would be included. Happily, with a slight change in wording, it did. In an early scene, when Nanny McPhee first meets the seven children, she says to them: “When you need me, but do not want me, then I will stay. If you want me, but no longer need me, then I have to go.” A hearty thanks to the literate Emma Thompson for including the chiastic sentiment in her screenplay.
Margaret Wise Brown
The Sailor Dog (1953)
Born at sea in the teeth of a gale, the sailor was a dog. Scuppers was his name.
In Nonfiction Matters, her 1998 book for young readers, writer Stephanie Harvey wrote: “These words churned in my mind throughout childhood. I return to Margaret Wise Brown’s The Sailor Dog time and time again because of that first line.”
A boy and girl were spending the night together in the back seat of a Volvo estate car. The car was in a garage. It was pitch black.
With these simple—but highly evocative—words, we are introduced to Gemma Brogan and David “Tar” Lawson, both fourteen years old and on the verge of escaping their highly dysfunctional home environments. Little do they know at this point of their journey that an even more dismal future awaits.
Burgess’s dark and gritty tale about teenage drug addiction went on to win the 1996 Carnegie Medal, awarded annually by England’s Library Association for the outstanding children’s book by a British writer. In 2007, on the 70th anniversary of the Carnegie Medal, Junk was named one of the Top Ten winners of the award. In 1997, the book was published in America under the title Smack, yet another slang term for heroin.
When the novel came out in a 25th Anniversary edition in 2021, the Guardian’s Julia Eccleshare wrote about it: “Melvin Burgess’s ground-breaking Junk remains the best book about teenagers and drugs to this day.”
Scales and Sensibility (2021)
It was a truth universally acknowledged that any young lady without a dragon was doomed to social failure.
Jane Austen’s legendary opening line from Pride and Prejudice has been tweaked in a multitude of ways over the years, but Burgis takes it in a whole new way in her YA fantasy update of Sense and Sensibility. In the opening paragraph, the narrator continued: “But it was becoming increasingly obvious to everyone in Hathergill Hall that for Penelope Hathergill, actually having a dragon would guarantee disaster.”
Kat, Incorrigible (2011; pub. in England in 2010 as A Most Improper Magick)
I was twelve years of age when I chopped off my hair, dressed as a boy, and set off to save my family from impending ruin.
I made it almost to the end of my front garden.
The setting is Regency, England in 1803, and these delightful opening words come from Kat Stephenson, a young girl who discovers she has inherited magical powers from her mother, who died ten days after she was born. The novel went on to win the Waverton Good Read Children’s Award in 2011 for Best Debut Children’s Novel by a British writer.
In a 2014 SFSignal.com “Mind Meld” post, writer Paul Weimer asked a number of writers to identify their favorite opening lines. Writer Beth Bernobich wrote about this opener:
“Imagine a cup of frothy hot chocolate, served in an elegant cup, with a dollop of cream—sweet, but with an edge of that dark chocolate bitterness—a perfect antidote to cold November days. The opening paragraph to Kat, Incorrigible…is that first sip that tells right away what a treat you’re in for.”
A. S. Byatt
“The Thing in the Forest,” in The New Yorker (June 3, 2002)
There were once two little girls who saw, or believed they saw, a thing in a forest.
GUEST COMMENTARY from Mary Dalton, a Chicago-area writer, editor, and blogger (“Art of the Tale”). “So begins (and ends) A.S. Byatt’s darkly brilliant WWII tale about Penny and Primrose, two English girls who meet on a train as they are evacuated from London to a country estate and ultimately encounter a grotesque creature known in folklore as the Loathly Worm.”
In the story’s opening paragraph, the narrator continued: “The two little girls were evacuees, who had been sent away from the city by train, with a large number of other children. They all had their names attached to their coats with safety pins, and carried little bags or satchels, and the regulation gas mask. . .they were like a disorderly dwarf regiment, stomping along the platform.”
About the opening words, Dalton writes: “I love how the author juxtaposes benign details like safety pins and bags with things like gas masks. There’s a lot of black humor in this story, along with traditional fairy tale elements, such as children facing danger alone. But she also poses a serious question: ‘What can better help us make sense of terror: modern psychology or storytelling?’”
About the author, Dalton concluded: “Byatt often explores the intersection of history and narrative in her work, and ‘The Thing in the Forest’ underscores the impact of both. Her choice to end the tale with her opening line brings to mind the words of Isak Dinesen: ‘I think all sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story, or tell a story about them.’ ‘The Thing in the Forest’ seems to suggest that our ability to cope—or even survive—may depend on which path we choose.”
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865)
Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the riverbank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “and what is the use of a book,“ thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?“
“Edward Gorey’s Toys,” in The New Yorker (July 12, 2021)
Killing children is generally frowned upon, but Edward Gorey did it all the time.
It’s rare for a short piece about an upcoming art exhibition to have a great opening line, but New Yorker staff writer Cep convincingly demonstrates it can be done. In her brief article about two exhibitions at the Edward Gorey House in Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts, Cep continued: “He squashed them with trains, fed them to bears, poisoned them with lye, forced them to swallow tacks, watched them waste away, and burned them in fires; on his watch, they died of everything from fits to flying into bits.”
The Adventures of Pinocchio (1883)
Centuries ago there lived—
“A king!“ my little readers will say immediately.
No, children, you are mistaken. Once upon a time there was a piece of wood. It was not an expensive piece of wood. Far from it. Just a common block of firewood, one of those thick, solid logs that are put on the fire in winter to make cold rooms cozy and warm.
I do not know how this really happened, yet the fact remains that one fine day this piece of wood found itself in the shop of an old carpenter. His real name was Mastro Antonio, but everyone called him Mastro Cherry, for the tip of his nose was so round and red and shiny that it looked like a ripe cherry.
As soon as he saw that piece of wood, Mastro Cherry was filled with joy. Rubbing his hands together happily, he mumbled half to himself:
“This has come in the nick of time. I shall use it to make the leg of a table.”
He grasped the hatchet quickly to peel off the bark and shape the wood. But as he was about to give it the first blow, he stood still with arm uplifted, for he had heard a wee, little voice say in a beseeching tone: “Please be careful! Do not hit me so hard!”
So begins the story of a block of wood that ultimately became a wooden puppet named Pinocchio—and one of the most popular children’s stories of all time. Originally presented in 1881-82 in serial form in a popular Italian children’s magazine, the story was published as a single book in 1883. In 1957, the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce hailed it as one of the greatest works in all of Italian literature, not just children’s literature.
In her classic Children’s Literature (1972), Francelia Butler said the novel “remains the most translated Italian book and, after the Bible, the most widely read.” The opening lines above are from Carol Della Chiesa’s 1926 translation.
James and the Giant Peach (1961)
Until he was four years old, James Henry Trotter had had a happy life. He lived peacefully with his mother and father in a beautiful house beside the sea. There were always plenty of other children for him to play with, and there was the sandy beach for him to run about on, and the ocean to paddle in. It was the perfect life for a small boy.
These words could begin any typical children’s book, but things take a dramatic, dark, and disturbing turn as the reader moves on to the second paragraph: “Then, one day, James’s mother and father went to London to do some shopping, and there a terrible thing happened. Both of them suddenly got eaten up (in full daylight, mind you, and on a crowded street) by an enormous angry rhinoceros which had escaped from the London Zoo.“
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. Some parents go further. They become so blinded by adoration they manage to convince themselves their child has qualities of genius.
This is an intriguing way to begin any book, but especially a children’s book. This is no ordinary children’s book, however. Dahl’s narrator continued in the novel’s second paragraph: “Well, there is nothing very wrong with all of this. It’s the way of the world. It is only when the parents begin telling us about the brilliance of their own revolting offspring, that we start shouting, ‘Bring us a basin! We’re going to be sick.’”
Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death (2019)
No, your cat won’t eat your eyeballs. Not right away, at least.
Doughty’s entire book consists of her answers to questions about death and dying posed by children. It opens with this creepy-but-adorable answer to a question that also served as the title to Chapter One: “When I Die, Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs.” About the book, reviewer Terri Schlichenmeyer (“The Bookworm Sez”) wrote: “There’s serious science here, but also cultural lessons in death and dying, a little history, and a touch of gruesomeness wrapped in that shroud of sharp, witty humor.“
The Princess Bride (1973)
This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it.
This is a spectacular first sentence, and it’s easy to understand why it has piqued the curiosity of readers for nearly a half century. When readers encounter this intriguing oxymoronic opening for the first time, most quite naturally wonder, “How can a book become a favorite if one never reads it?” There is a satisfactory answer to that question, of course, and it has to do with having a book read to you instead of actually reading it yourself.
As the novel unfolds, the distinction between fantasy and reality is blurred from the outset, with Goldman suggesting he is writing an abridgement of a classic European tale by a writer named S. Morgenstern (the full title and subtitle is The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure, the “Good Parts” Version). There is no such author, of course, and no classic book; it’s simply a literary conceit employed by Goldman in order to create a number of different ways the story could be interpreted and understood.
In 1987, Rob Reiner came out with a film adaptation that was only a modest success at the time, but is now regarded as a Hollywood classic (in 2016, it was added to the National Film Registry’s list of “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant films”).
The Little White Horse (1946)
The carriage gave another lurch, and Maria Merryweather, Miss Heliotrope, and Wiggins once more fell into each other’s arms, sighed, gasped, righted themselves, and fixed their attention upon those objects which were for each of them at this trying moment the source of courage and strength.
This is a lovely in media res (literally, “into the middle of things”) opening that ends with an important life lesson: different individuals find comfort and courage—and probably lots of other things as well—in different things. The narrator continued in the second paragraph: “Maria gazed at her boots. Miss Heliotrope restored her spectacles to their proper position, picked up the worn brown volume of French essays from the floor, popped a peppermint into her mouth, and peered once more in the dim light at the wiggly black print on the yellowed page. Wiggins meanwhile pursued with his tongue the taste of the long-since-digested dinner that still lingered among his whiskers.”
And, just to make sure her young readers got the message, Goudge continued in a third paragraph: “Humanity can be roughly divided into three sorts of people—those who find comfort in literature, those who find comfort in personal adornment, and those who find comfort in food; and Miss Heliotrope, Maria, and Wiggins were typical representatives of their own sort of people.”
After winning The Carnegie Medal in 1946, Goudge’s novel became a favorite childhood book for many Baby Boomers, including J. K. Rowling, who said in a 2011 interview: “The Little White Horse was my favorite childhood book. I absolutely adored it. It had a cracking plot. It was scary and romantic in parts and had a feisty heroine.” in 2008, the book was adapted into a film titled “The Secret of Moonacre.”
Island of the Aunts (originally published in England under the title Monster Mission) (1999)
Kidnapping children is never a good idea. All the same, sometimes it has to be done.
This is yet another example of a novel for children treating a serious crime in a sensible or almost commendable way. In the novel, the narrator continued: “Aunt Etta and Aunt Coral and Aunt Myrtle were not natural kidnappers. For one thing, they were getting old, and kidnapping is hard work; for another, though they looked a little odd, they were very caring people.” The novel was named a School Library Journal Best Book of 2000.
“Rip Van Winkle,” in The Sketch Book (1819-20)
Whoever has made a voyage up the Hudson, must remember the Kaatskill mountains. They are a dismembered branch of the great Appalachian family, and are seen away to the west of the river, swelling up to a noble height, and lording it over the surrounding country.
The range is now known as the Catskill Mountains, of course, but Irving was writing at a time when the original Dutch spelling of place names predominated. By modern standards, this might not be regarded as a great opening line, but I have always admired it, and I especially enjoyed the lovely metaphor of a mountain range lording it over the surrounding countryside.
“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” in The Sketch Book (1819-20)
In the bosom of one of the spacious coves which indent the eastern shore of the Hudson, at that broad expansion of the river denominated by the ancient Dutch navigators the Tappan Zee, and where they always prudently shortened sail, and implored the protection of St. Nicholas when they crossed, there lies a small market town of rural port, which by some is called Greensburgh, but which is more generally and properly known by the name of Tarry Town.
The opening words of novels and short stories can be appreciated in many different ways—some of them highly unexpected. In this case, the narrator continued with a delicious tidbit about how Tarrytown, New York got its name:
“The name was given, we are told, in former days, by the good housewives of the adjacent country, from the inveterate propensity of their husbands to linger about the village tavern on market days.”
Gareth P. Jones
Constable & Toop (2013)
In her last few moments of life, as the blood gushed from the knife wound in her neck, Emily Wilkins found her thoughts drifting to her mother’s death.
Gareth P. Jones
The Thornthwaite Inheritance (2010)
Lorelli and Ovid Thorhthwaite had been trying to kill each other for so long that neither twin could remember which act of attempted murder came first.
Only in the opening lines of children’s literature do we find murder portrayed so matter-of-factly, or discussed in such a diabolically delicious manner. In the opening paragraph, the narrator went on to add:
“Was it Lorelli’s cunning scheme to put on a play about the French Revolution, casting Ovid in the role of an aristocrat to be executed using a working guillotine? Or could it have been that long hot summer when Ovid managed to produce an ice lolly containing a small but deadly explosive, triggered by the surrounding ice reaching melting point.”
In response to a query from me, Jones said that he considered the novel’s first sentence “one of my stronger opening lines.“ He went on to add, “I often describe the opening line as a key that unlocks the story and advise young readers to re-read it once they know what happens and see how the essence of the story is contained in that one sentence.“
E. L. Konigsburg
From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (1967)
Claudia knew that she could never pull off the old-fashioned kind of running away. That is, running away in the heat of anger with a knapsack on her back. She didn’t like discomfort; even picnics were untidy and inconvenient: all those insects and the sun melting the icing on the cupcakes.
The opening sentence introduces us to 12-year-old Claudia Kincaid, a sixth-grader from Greenwich, Connecticut who feels unappreciated by her parents. The narrator continued:
“Therefore, she decided that her leaving home would not be just running from someplace but would be running to someplace. To a large place, a comfortable place, an indoor place, and preferably a beautiful place. And that’s why she decided upon the Metropolitan Museum.”
In 1968, this classic work of children’s literature won the American Library Association’s Newbery Medal.
C. S. Lewis
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952)
There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.
I especially like what writer Danielle Karthauser said about this classic opening line in a 2016 post on Mugglenet.com: “This first line literally gives the reader all they need to know about his character. Author C. S. Lewis is telling his readers, ’Here is my main character. Do you think he has an ugly name? Yeah, he does. Does his personality match it? Almost.’“
In the novel—the third book in The Chronicles of Narnia series—the narrator continued with one other savory tidbit about the protagonist: “His parents called him Eustace Clarence and masters called him Scrubb. I can’t tell you how his friends spoke to him, for he had none.“
C. S. Lewis
The Silver Chair (1953)
It was a dull autumn day and Jill Pole was crying behind the gym.
This opening line from Book 4 in The Chronicles of Narnia series couldn’t be simpler, or more affecting. Close your eyes, and the scene appears almost automatically in your mind.
The narrator continued: “She was crying because they had been bullying her. This is not going to be a school story, so I shall say as little as possible about Jill’s school, which is not a pleasant subject. It was ’Co-educational,’ a school for both boys and girls, what used to be called a ’mixed’ school; some said it was not nearly so mixed as the minds of the people who ran it. These people had the idea that boys and girls should be allowed to do what they liked. And unfortunately what ten or fifteen of the biggest boys and girls liked was bullying the others.“
The Scar (2011)
Mom died this morning.
It wasn’t really this morning.
Dad said she died during the night, but I was sleeping during the night.
For me, she died this morning.
These are among the most powerful words to ever open a children’s book. In a Booklist review, writer and editor Daniel Kraus wrote: “This is not a book for everyone, but it could be an important one for those in need. From the opening line—“Mom died this morning”—it’s clear that this is going to be a hard book to get through, and it is, with the unnamed little boy struggling with wild fluctuations of emotion: anger at being left behind; sympathy for his grieving dad; and panic about forgetting his mother, which he tries to counteract by closing all the windows, holding his breath, and running around until his heart pounds, since he was told that she’ll always be ‘in your heart.’”
The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail (2013)
Every time a human walks out of a room, something with more feet walks in.
This is a magnificent first sentence, and one could easily make the argument that it deserves to be included in any discussion of the greatest opening lines in all of children’s literature.
According to writer Lee Wind, Peck made a startling revelation at a 2013 meeting of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). In a workshop on “Shaping Story From the Opening Line,” the legendary author told participants that the line didn’t come to him until eleven months into his work on the novel, when he was on page 124 of the fifth draft of the book. Immediately sensing that the perfect opening line had arrived, he quickly sat down to re-write the beginning of the tale. About the long wait, he happily admitted, “It was worth it.”
In that same workshop, Peck told participants that books for younger people must suggest action that has begun before the opening line. With children’s books, he said, “We start in the story, not at the beginning.”
The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902)
Once upon a time there were four little Rabbits, and their names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter.
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
The Secret River (1955)
There is a dark forest far away in Florida. The trees are so tall the sky is like a blue veil over their leafy hair.
There is a path through the forest. It leads to the home of Calpurnia and Buggy-horse.
After Rawlings’ unexpected death from a cerebral hemorrhage at age 57 in 1953, the completed manuscript for The Secret River was found among her papers. Her only children’s book, it was published posthumously in 1955. In the book, the narrator continued:
“Calpurnia is a little girl and Buggy-horse is her dog. Her name is Calpurnia because she was born to be a poet. Buggy-horse is a peculiar name, but even when he was a puppy, his back dipped in the middle and he had an enormously fat stomach, just like a little old buggy horse. He could not possibly have been called Rex or Rover or any ordinary name for a dog. Calpurnia wrote her first poem about him:
My dog’s name is Buggy-horse. Of course.“
J. K. Rowling
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets [Book 2 in the Harry Potter Series] (1998)
Not for the first time, an argument had broken out over breakfast at number four, Privet Drive. Mr. Vernon Dursley had been woken in the early hours of the morning by a loud, hooting noise from his nephew Harry’s room.
J. K. Rowling
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban [Book 3 in the Harry Potter Series] (1999)
Harry Potter was a very unusual boy in many ways. For one thing, he hated the summer holidays more than any other time of year. For another, he really wanted to do his homework but was forced to do it in secret, in the dead of the night. And he also happened to be a wizard.
J. K. Rowling
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire [Book 4 in the Harry Potter Series] (2000)
The villagers of Little Hangleton still called it “the Riddle House,” even though it had been many years since the Riddle family had lived there.
In the opening paragraph, the narrator continued: “It stood on a hill overlooking the village, some of its windows boarded, tiles missing from its roof, and ivy spreading unchecked over its face. once a fine-looking manor, and easily the largest and grandest building for miles around, the Riddle House was now damp, derelict, and unoccupied.”
J. K. Rowling
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows [Book 7 in the Harry Potter Series] (2007)
The two men appeared out of nowhere, a few yards apart in the narrow, moonlit lane. For a second they stood quite still, wands directed at each other’s chest; then, recognizing each other, they stowed their wands beneath their cloaks and started walking briskly in the same direction.
J. K. Rowling
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix [Book 5 in the Harry Potter Series] (2003)
The hottest day of the summer so far was drawing to a close and a drowsy silence lay over the large, square houses of Privet Drive.
In the opening paragraph, the narrator continued: “Cars that were usually gleaming stood dusty in their drives and lawns that were once emerald green lay parched and yellowing; the use of hosepipes had been banned due to drought. Deprived of their usual car-washing and lawn-mowing pursuits, the inhabitants of Privet Drive had retreated into the shade of their cool houses, windows thrown wide in the hope of tempting in a nonexistent breeze. The only person left outdoors was a teenage boy who was lying flat on his back in a flower bed outside number four.”
J. K. Rowling
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince [Book 6 in the Harry Potter Series] (2005)
It was nearing midnight and the Prime Minister was sitting alone in his office, reading a long memo that was slipping through his brain without leaving the slightest trace of meaning behind.
The narrator continued: “He was waiting for a call from the President of a far distant country, and between wondering when the wretched man would telephone, and trying to suppress unpleasant memories of what had been a very long, tiring, and difficult week, there was not much space in his head for anything else. The more he attempted to focus on the print on the page before him, the more clearer the Prime Minister could see the gloating face of one of his political opponents.”
J. K. Rowling
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997)
Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.
This was the opening line of the very first Harry Potter novel. The series went on to become one of the most successful in literary history, but it had an inauspicious beginning. Rowling, an unknown writer at the time, received a modest advance (1,500 pounds) and the initial print run was a puny 500 copies, almost all expected to be purchased by school libraries.
By adding “thank you very much” at the end of the opening line, Rowling subtly but skillfully adds a “thou doth protest too much” quality to the Dursleys’ assertion that they are a perfectly normal family. Indeed, in a 2016 Guardian article on the best opening lines in children’s novels, Ciara Murphy wrote:
“If ever we needed confirmation that Mr. and Mrs. Dursley were, in fact, not normal at all, this line is it! But by emphasizing so strongly the Dursleys’ pride in their supposed normality, Rowling also hints at the existence of other, perhaps more ‘abnormal’ dimensions to reality, setting us up perfectly for a book filled with witches, wizards and dark forces….”
In the opening paragraph, the narrator continued: “They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.”
In an October 17, 2019 article in the Independent, Ellie Harrison included Rowling’s opening line on her list of “The 27 Best Opening Lines in Books, from Rebecca to The Great Gatsby.”
Bambi: A Life in the Woods (1928)
He came into the world in the middle of the thicket, in one of those little, hidden forest glades which seem to be entirely open, but are really screened in on all sides. There was very little room in it, scarcely enough for him and his mother.
With these words, the English-speaking world was introduced to a baby deer named Bambi (the book was originally published in Germany in 1923). In the novel’s second paragraph, the narrator continued: “He stood there, swaying unsteadily on his thin legs and staring vaguely in front of him, with clouded eyes, which saw nothing. He hung his head, trembled a great deal, and was still completely stunned.”
Salten, an Austrian Jew, originally wrote the novel as an allegory about the persecution of the Jews in Europe, and it was no surprise when the book was banned in Nazi Germany in 1936. In 1942, the novel was adapted into the second feature-length animated film by Walt Disney productions (the first was Fantasia in 1940). The Disney film, which introduced the new characters Thumper the Rabbit and Flower the Skunk, was far lighter than the original novel, but it still retained some of the darkness of the original.
In a 2014 Rolling Stone interview, when Stephen King was asked by Andy Greene what drew him to the horror elements that are featured so prominently in his novels, he replied: “It’s built in. That’s all. The first movie I ever saw was a horror movie. It was Bambi. When that little deer gets caught in a forest fire, I was terrified, but I was also exhilarated. I can’t explain it.”
The Fur Person (1957)
When he was about two years old, and had been a Cat About Town for some time, glorious in conquests, but rather too thin for comfort, the Fur Person decided that it was time he settled down.
These are the opening words of a charming novel inspired by Sarton’s own cat, Tom Jones. In a 2015 “Conscious Cat” blog post, writer and cat lover Ingrid King hailed the The Fur Person as “one of the most endearing cat stories I’ve ever read.” About the book, King added: “This little book captures the essence of what a cat is all about in the beautiful prose of this gifted and sensitive writer and poet.”
And, speaking of beautiful prose, Sarton’s novel contains one of my favorite examples of the literary device known as chiasmus:
“A Fur Person is a cat who had decided to stay with people as long as he lives. This can only happen if a human being has imagined a part of himself into a cat just as the cat has imagined part of himself into a human being.“
For more information on chiasmus, go here.
Black Beauty (1877)
The first place that I can well remember was a pleasant meadow with a pond of clear water in it. Some shady trees leaned over it, and rushes and water lilies grew at the deep end. Over the hedge on one side we looked into a plowed field, and on the other we looked over a gate at our master’s house, which stood by the roadside. At the top of the meadow was a grove of fir trees, and at the bottom a running brook, overhung by a steep bank.
The opening paragraph reads like the beginning of almost any autobiography you’ve ever read. As readers begin the second paragraph, however, it quickly becomes apparent that this is not the autobiography of a human being:
“While I was young I lived upon my mother’s milk, as I could not eat grass. In the daytime I ran by her side, and at night I lay down close by her. When it was hot, we used to stand by the pond in the shade of the trees, and when it was cold, we had a warm shed near the grove.”
The Hundred and One Dalmatians (1956)
Not long ago, there lived in London a young married couple of Dalmatian dogs named Pongo and Missis Pongo. (Missis had added Pongo’s name to her own on their marriage, but was still called Missis by most people.) They were lucky enough to own a young married couple of humans named Mr. and Mrs. Dearly, who were gentle, obedient, and unusually intelligent—almost canine at times.
The novel gets off to a great start with these opening lines, but it begins to soar when the narrator continues:
“They understood quite a number of barks: the barks for ‘Out, please!’ ‘In, please!’ ‘Hurry up with my dinner’ and ‘What about a walk?’ And even when they could not understand, they could often guess—if looked at soulfully or scratched by an eager paw. Like many other much-loved humans, they believed that they owned their dogs, instead of realizing that their dogs owned them. Pongo and Missis found this touching and amusing and let their pets think it was true.”
At some point, I’ll be featuring this in a post on “20 of the Best Opening Lines from Animal Narrators and Protagonists.” If you’d like to nominate any candidates, let me know.
Lemony Snicket (pen name of Daniel Handler)
The Reptile Room [Book 2 of A Series of Unfortunate Events] (1999)
The stretch of road that leads out of the city, past Hazy Harbor and into the town of Tedia, is perhaps the most unpleasant in the world. It is called Lousy Lane.
The narrator continued: “Lousy Lane runs through fields that are a sickly gray color, in which a handful of scraggly trees produce apples so sour that one only has to look at them to feel ill. Lousy Lane traverses the Grim River, a body of water that is nine-tenths mud and that contains extremely unnerving fish, and it encircles a horseradish factory, so the entire area smells bitter and strong.”
Lemony Snicket (pen name of Daniel Handler)
The Bad Beginning, or, Orphans [Book 1 of A Series of Unfortunate Events] (1999)
If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle.
The narrator continued: “This is because not very many happy things happened in the lives of the three Baudelaire youngsters. Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire were intelligent children, and they were charming, and resourceful, and had pleasant facial features, but they were extremely unlucky, and most everything that happened to them was rife with misfortune, misery, and despair. I’m sorry to tell you this, but that is how the story goes.”
Lemony Snicket (pen name of Daniel Handler)
The Austere Academy [Book 5 of A Series of Unfortunate Events] (2000)
If you were going to give a gold medal to the least delightful person on Earth, you would have to give that medal to a person named Carmelita Spats, and if you didn’t give it to her, Carmelita Spats was the sort of person who would snatch it from your hands anyway.
The narrator continued: “Carmelita Spats was rude, she was violent, and she was filthy, and it is really a shame that I must describe her to you, because there are enough ghastly and distressing things in this story without even mentioning such an unpleasant person.”
In a New York Times review when the novel was published, Gregory Maguire wrote: “Had the gloom-haunted Edward Gorey found a way to have a love child with Dorothy Parker, their issue might well have been Lemony Snicket, the pseudonymous author of a multivolume family chronicle brought out under the genteel appellation A Series of Unfortunate Events. The scribe of the Baudelaire family misfortunes speaks morosely to his readers, promising that however cheery things may appear, in the end nothing will go well. Rewardingly, so far in five volumes, nothing has.“
Robert Louis Stevenson
Treasure Island (1883)
Squire Trelawney, Dr Livesey, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island, from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the island, and that only because there is still treasure not yet lifted, I take up my pen in the year of grace 17—and go back to the time when my father kept the Admiral Benbow Inn and the brown old seaman, with the sabre cut, first took up his lodging under our roof.
In a 2012 Guardian article on “The Ten Best First Lines in Fiction,” Robert MCCrum described this introductory paragraph as “Among the most brilliant and enthralling opening lines in the English language.”
J. R. R. Tolkien
The Hobbit (1937)
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.
This is the line that started it all, written during the height of a worldwide depression when millions around the world were also hungering for a bit of escapism. In a 2016 Guardian article on “The Best Opening Lines in Children’s and Young Adult Fiction,” Ciara Murphy wrote: “In just ten words, Tolkien’s opening line is so simple and yet leaves the reader with so many questions. What is a hobbit? Why does he live in a hole? And why is this particular hobbit so important that an entire novel is going to be centered on him?”
About the hole in the ground, the narrator continued: “Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”
The Hobbit was greeted with international acclaim from the day it was published. Writing in The Times of London, C. S. Lewis wrote about it: “The truth is that in this book a number of good things, never before united, have come together: a fund of humor, an understanding of children, and a happy fusion of the scholar’s with the poet’s grasp of mythology.”
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (1972)
I went to sleep with gum in my mouth and now there’s gum in my hair and when I got out of bed this morning I tripped on the skateboard and by mistake I dropped my sweater in the sink while the water was running out and I could tell it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.
This is the opening paragraph of a classic book in children’s literature, the final line of which (a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day) has become a hugely popular meme for describing a series of serious setbacks for people, organizations, and movements.
E. B. White
Charlotte’s Web (1952)
“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
In “When You Were Very Young,” a 2014 New York Times article about a Grolier Club exhibition of early editions of classic children’s literature books, writer Sarah Lyall wrote that Charlotte’s Web had “one of the best opening lines in all of literature.” The first sentence sets the stage perfectly. The ensuing dialog between young Fern Arable and her mother frames the remainder of story:
“Out to the hoghouse,” replied Mrs. Arable. “Some pigs were born last night.”
“I don’t see why he needs an ax,” continued Fern, who was only eight.
“Well,” said her mother, “one of those pigs is a runt. It’s very small and weak, and it will never amount to anything. So your father has decided to do away with it.”
“Do away with it?” shrieked Fern. “You mean kill it? Just because it’s smaller than the others?”
E. B. White
Stuart Little (1945)
When Mrs. Frederick C. Little’s second son arrived, everybody noticed that he was not much bigger than a mouse.
The narrator continued: “The truth of the matter was, the baby looked very much like a mouse in every way. He was only about two inches high; and he had a mouse’s sharp nose, a mouse’s tail, a mouse’s whiskers, and the pleasant, shy manner of a mouse. Before he was many days old he was not only looking like a mouse but acting like one, too—wearing a gray hat and carrying a small cane. Mr and Mrs. Little named him Stuart, and Mr. Little made him a tiny bed out of four clothespins and a cigarette box.”
In a 2005 New Yorker article, White’s step-son Roger Angell offered this lovely little tidbit about the book’s now-famous opening line: “The first sentence of Stuart Little, to be sure, is just as surprising as its shadowed endings—the fact that the Littles’ second child, on arrival, is a mouse, not a boy. White never explains the anomaly, and simply gets on with the story, but some critics and teacher-parent groups—and Anne Carroll Moore, the retired but still formidable children’s librarian at the New York Public Library—were collectively aghast. Harold Ross, who read everything, stuck his head into Andy’s office one afternoon and said, ‘God damn it, White, at least you could have had him adopted.’ The author and his readers—kids and their read-aloud elders—stayed calm, however, and Stuart Little sold a hundred thousand copies in the first fifteen months after publication.”
Show Way (2005)
When Soonie’s great-grandma was seven, she was sold from the Virginia land to a plantation in South Carolina without her ma or pa but with some muslin her ma had given her.
Few children’s books have approached the topic of slavery, and none in a more touching, meaningful, or sophisticated way. Based on the true experiences of Woodson’s ancestors, Soonie’s great-grandma is raised by a slave woman named Big Mama, who teaches her how to read, tells her stories about slaves “growing up and getting themselves free,” and teaches her how to sew quilts. These are not ordinary quilts, however, but rather secret maps—called show ways—that can be used by escaped slaves seeking freedom.
The Day You Begin (2018)
There will be times when you walk into a room and no one there is quite like you.
On its own, this is a wonderful message to send to children, and it becomes even more special as the opening line for a children’s book. In Woodson’s case, it was also a way to preserve one of her most treasured childhood memories.
Growing up, Woodson loved hearing stories about her ancestors, traced by her family back to Thomas Woodson, believed to be the first son of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Jacqueline Woodson’s great-great-grandfather, William Woodson, was born in 1832 to the wife of a free black man from Ohio, and went on to fight and die while serving in the Union Army during the Civil War. After his death, his only son—Woodson’s great-grandfather—was sent to Nelsonville, Ohio to live with an aunt, who enrolled him in a local all-white school. From her earliest days, Woodson had heard her mother describe his experiences as the only black child in the school, and the story so affected her that she ultimately transformed it into a poem, “It’ll be Scary Sometimes.” A portion of the poem goes this way (italics in original):
You’ll face this in your life someday, My mother will tell us Over and over again. A moment when you walk into a room and No one there is like you.
While writing the poem, which was first published in the 1992 book Maizon at Blue Hill, Woodson believed the story about her grandfather would one day figure in another one of her future works. It couldn’t have found a better place to be reprised than in the opening line of The Day You Begin.
I Am The Messenger (2002)
The gunman is useless.
I know it.
He knows it.
The whole bank knows it.
These opening words come from 19-year-old Ed Kennedy, who, along with his best friend Marvin, is lying face down on the floor of a bank that is being robbed. Kennedy—an Australian taxi driver and soon-to-be hero—continues: “Even my best mate, Marvin knows it, and he’s more useless than the gunman.”