I’d have friends argue that sticking the landing on a story, especially a long form one, is the toughest part of the job. But as I’m currently staring down maybe my 17th version (no lie) of my mystery’s first chapter, I’ve got to call it for beginnings.
That’s one of the reasons I dug this crazy fun interactive gallery of the “100 Best Opening Lines From Children’s Book” up over at something called The Stylist in the UK. The best first sentences of books encapsulate the whole of the story’s meaning and movement, so they say (you know who they are). I’m not sure that holds true for every one of these, but one thing I was struck by reading over the various lines was how many kids narratives start with some kind of travel or location. Stories for kids are always about moving from one place to another, after all.
Take the opening to E. Nesbit’s Five Children And It – a Brit kids book I’ve been meaning to read for a while because of supremely weird covers like the ones above, though it’s harder to find over here:
“The house was three miles from the station, but before the dusty hired fly had rattled along for five minutes the children began to put their heads out of the carriage window and to say, ‘Aren’t we nearly there?’”
A different riff on this theme shows up in a book I devoured as a kid, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. Here, we start with the location being traveled too – and with a particularly repugnant adult – because there’s no way we can meet a character line Anne through her own eyes. She needs to be experienced.
“Mrs. Rachel Lynde lived just where the Avonlea main road dipped down into a little hollow, fringed with alders and ladies’ eardrops and traversed by a brook that had its source away back in the woods of the old Cuthbert place.”
Of course starting with travel proves nothing of a story actually being about anything, as is the case with one of the top five worst kids books I’ve read in the past ten years: The Secret of The Old Clock by “Carolyn Keene”:
“Nancy Drew, an attractive girl of eighteen, was driving home along a country road in her new, dark-blue convertible.”
Ugh. THE WORST.
But simplicity can certainly get the job done too. Take Laura Ingalls Wilder with Little House On The Prairie:
“Once upon a time, a little girl named Laura traveled in a covered wagon across the giant prairie.”
Bing Bang Boom.
Just for the sake of a wider ranger, here’s one last one. The opening to one of my favorite books of all time, Roald Dahl’s Matilda:
“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.”
As a boy, it was Dahl’s storytelling voice that made me love him more than any other writer, and here he doesn’t start with his own character but with the idea that defines that character’s world: that some children and some adults even can be horrifically repugnant people. That’s a thing any kid who’s ever lived on planet earth knows from experience, and the way Dahl lets them know that he gets it without spelling it out is indicative of his enviable chops.
Anyway, check the whole list out. It’s fun. It’s also funny if for no other reason than that they included Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One. Really, The Stylist? Year One?!?! Hell, I read that when I was 11, and I still wouldn’t call it that.