…because no child is even going to reach the second line if the first one doesn’t reel them in. Here are some of the very best.
1. ‘Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.’
(Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling)
Just think: the first children to read this sentence didn’t have any idea they were witnessing the birth of a global publishing phenomenon. But looking back…well, it is rather a good line, isn’t it? Haughty and aloof, the sentence drips with understated irony. After reading it, the only thing you’re certain of is that the Dursleys are anything but normal.
2. ‘There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.’
(Voyage of the Dawn Treader by CS Lewis)
Who is this boy with the strangely ridiculous name, readers wonder, and why on earth does he deserve it? Lewis, author of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, was a master of creating sharp little pen-portraits of his characters. And like many writers of his age, there was sometimes a cruel edge to his writing. Which, of course, kids just love.
3. “Where’s Papa going with that axe?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
(Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White)
‘Uh, oh,’ every young reader will be saying to themselves: ‘Something doesn’t look right here. There was nice picture of a cute pig on the cover, but here’s a man sauntering round the place with a big, choppy axe.’ Really, which (possibly very worried) kid would not read on?
4. ‘There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.’
(The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman)
Young readers love a sense of danger – and that’s exactly what this opening line delivers. But cleverly, it doesn’t give anything else away. Whose hand? Why in the dark? What is the owner of the mysterious hand planning to do with the knife? You’ll have to read on to find out…
5. ‘Marley was dead, to begin with.’
(A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens)
A classic tale from one of the greatest storytellers of all time. The genius here lies in the ‘to begin with’. What, readers will ask, you mean there’s more? It’s not enough that this Marley guy is dead? No, it’s not, and you’ll carry on reading to find out what else happens. (Clue: a lot!)
6. ‘If you are interested in stories with happy endings you would be better off reading some other book.’
(A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket)
Children love a bit of meanness in their books. So if the very first line has such a promising hint of nastiness, then they will be instantly smitten. By stating at the very outset that things are going to get very grim indeed within these pages, Snicket reassures his readers that they’re in for a thoroughly horrid experience. And they, of course, are delighted.
7. ‘The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world.’
(The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson)
This story of six delinquent kids (smoking! drinking! shoplifting!) who go to church hunting for free snacks and somehow end up taking over the Christmas play, is a laugh-riot. (And popular: More than 800,000 young readers have gloried in its naughtiness.) But everything starts with that perfect, unputdownable first line.
8. ‘It was a dark and stormy night.’
(A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle)
So well-known it has almost fallen into cliché by now, but taken on its own merits this is a cracking opening line. It doesn’t actually say that anything is wrong; it merely describes the weather. But the tone is full of dread and foreboding, and no young reader will be in doubt that perilous excitement lies ahead.
9. ‘All children, except one, grow up.’
(Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie)
Ah, they don’t make them like they used to. Way back when (this book was published in 1902) J.M. Barrie laid down a challenge to future generations of writers with this fantastically absorbing opening line. What impresses most is the economy. Six words, eight syllables; there’s almost nothing to it. And yet there’s a whole world of mystery and adventure bottled up in that one sentence.
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