Today’s challenge requires me to share with you the opening lines of five favorite books. Which would require me to choose five favorite books. Can’t do it. So perhaps I’ll tweak it a little and choose great opening lines from five of my favorite books. The lines that I admire for the craft of the author or that, when I think of them (because I’ve read them enough times to have committed them to memory) bring me straight back into the story and onto the journey of the novel.
1) The primroses were over. – Watership Down by Richard Adams
I get that this isn’t terrible exciting, nor does it introduce character, conflict, or really anything about the story except that it is set at the end of spring somewhere they have primroses. Yet, as description-heavy as this novel can be at times, it is also a wonderful portrait of a diverse and adventurous group of characters who undertake a hero’s journey. In fact, it is a classic myth in the form of a tale about common English rabbits. Seriously. Like the best fantasy novels and all myths, it forces you to consider the big questions about life: what does it mean to be human? what is worth fighting for? how should we treat each other? how much freedom can you give up and still be free? And yes, they are bunnies. Trust me. Read it. The other great thing about this first line is that it is echoed, nearly 500 pages later, in the last line “…where the primroses were beginning to bloom” (which you will read through your tears, I promise you).
2) It was a dark and stormy night. – A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle
This has become such a cliche that no one would dare even think it, much less write it on paper but it still gives me shivers because I know what comes next: a mysterious visitor, an assurance about a long-lost father, and a strange scientific phenomenon – “Speaking of way, by the way, there is such a thing as a tesseract” – which kicks the entire novel into high gear. I cannot understate the impact this book has had on my life in so many ways. I have returned to it time and time again throughout my life. If you have not read it, you simply must. If your kids haven’t read it, read it with them.
3) Claudia knew that she could never pull off the old-fashioned kind of running away. – From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsberg
First of all, just look at that title. Would a publisher even dream of it these days? Could the average kid be counted on to remember that many words in a row any more? They would slap a title like “Treasure Hunt” or “Museum Mystery” on it and the world would be a poorer place for it. Ahem. Now then. Just read that first line again. Doesn’t it just grab you and pull you in? Who is Claudia and why is she thinking about running away? And what on earth is an “old-fashioned kind” of running away, and why doesn’t she think she could do it? In fact, she “knows” she can’t – but why? Instantly, you want to know more about this Claudia girl. With that one simple sentence. And there’s no mention of vampires or dragons or blood or fear or anything.
4) Never believe me. I lie all the time. – The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry
Technically, this is not the first line. It’s actually the second paragraph, but the first line requires too much explanation to reveal anything, and this (fifth line or so) does reveal everything wonderful about what’s happening in the very beginning of the book. The character tells you this essential bit of information about herself – “I lie all the time” – which you then proceed to ignore for pretty much the rest of the book because she’s the narrator and, as a reader, you are inclined to trust your narrator. Which makes the rest of the book so delightful to read. Because you forget not to trust her. Big mistake.
5) Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen. – The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials, Book One) by Philip Pullman
“Lyra and her daemon…” Right away, we know we are in some other world. What’s a daemon? Why is it “hers”? And on a more mundane level, why are these two sneaking through the “darkening hall,” clearly up to no good? Immediately, you’re in the thick of things. Pullman drags you in and never lets you go. (By the way, if you’ve never read these books either, put this at the very top of your “To Read” list. And when you read it out loud with your kids, do the accents. They’ll love it.)