Great First Lines: A Challenge

A few days ago, coming across this article on great opening lines in (adult) novels, I was reminded of some of the great, legendary, opening lines in children’s books. Novels, in particular. Like:

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.


“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.”

Each of these (the first lines of Little Women and Charlotte’s Web, respectively) is a marvel of, setting a tone, developing character, building suspense, and basically cracking open a  whole world for the reader, all in fewer characters than your average Twitter post.

It is HARD to write a great first line like these two. I’ve just been through my whole home collection of children’s and teen novels, looking for more examples, and was surprised by how many wonderful books have forgettable or lackluster first lines. Here are ten of the best I found (along with the occasional second or third line; that’s cheating a little, but in a few cases I couldn’t resist).

 Just for fun, I’m going to list them here without title or author and see if anyone recognizes them. All are from well-known authors and/or well-known books that were published at least ten years ago. Some are—I think—pretty easy if you know kids’ books, though at least one is out of print and un-Google-able, and I’ll be very surprised if anyone gets it:

1.  Once upon a time, in a gloomy castle on a lonely hill, where there were thirteen clocks that wouldn’t go, there lived a cold, aggressive Duke, and his niece, the Princess Saralinda.

2. Walking back to camp through the swamp, Sam wondered whether to tell his father what he had seen.

3. 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. 

4. Linderwall was a large kingdom, just east of the Mountains of Morning, where philosophers were highly respected and the number five was fashionable.

5. Mrs. Jane Tabby could not explain why all four of her children had wings.

6. There are two kinds of travel. The usual way is to take the fastest imaginable conveyance along the shortest road. The other way is not to care particularly where you are going or how long it will take you, or whether you will get there or not.

7. The bear had been their undoing, though at the time they had all laughed.

8. I am riding the bicycle and I am on Route 31 in Monument, Massachusetts, on my way to Rutterburg, Vermont, and I’m pedaling furiously because this is an old-fashioned bike, no speeds, no fenders, only the warped tires and the brakes that don’t always work and the handlebars with cracked rubber grips to steer with.

9. Later—much, much later—when we both knew what we had bought and what it had cost, she said that I should tell it.

10. I blame it all on The Hobbit. That, and my supportive home life.

Post your guesses in the comments, and then see how many you got right when I post the answers in a future post!

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3: The Outsiders
5: Catwings

I *know* I have read several of the others, but can't quite place them.

The only sentence that I can remember reading is #3, but now I want to read all of them!

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