Monday, February 11, 2013

Middle Grade First Lines


This image doesn't necessarily have that much to do with Middle Grade First Lines (it's a photo of a letter Gandhi wrote), but with so many copyright concerns with web images of late, it seems best to use only images that are in the public domain.

Anyway, today I want to share some first lines. As writers, first lines are something I think we all think about a lot. We certainly have to write them (at least one for each book). And whether they come easily to you, or whether you rewrite them hundreds of times, it can be interesting to think what they mean to readers, and whether they have more or less impact than we expect.

So, I went and grabbed 5 Middle Grade novels from my daughter's room. I read plenty of Middle Grade myself, of course, but she has a much nicer bookshelf than I do, so we keep them in there. At any rate, without further ado, I will share the opening lines from these five mystery books, and say a few things about each one:
  • A mango, thought Peter. The perfect weapon.
Okay, okay. Yes, this is technically two sentences, but I would argue that they are so inextricably linked, they ought to be separated by a semi-colon, not a period. Anyway, that's not the point. The point is: isn't this a great line? It give us character, voice, humor, setting, and a taste of conflict, all in six brief but luscious words. Well done, author, well done.
  • Goldie Roth hated the punishment chains.
Maybe I should have done opening paragraphs? Just kidding. Obviously this one line doesn't give us as much as the last pair of sentences, but it still ain't half bad. We've got the feeling of something sinister here, and we can at least infer a bit about setting - a school perhaps, or an orphanage? The key with this one, I think, is specificity. There are all kind of chains, after all, but punishment chains sound like a very specific type of chain, if you ask me.
  • Eva Nine was dying.
I'm not sure how much I like this one. It's succinct, sure, and it's rather shocking, too, but it doesn't feel earned, you know what I mean? It's all a matter of taste, of course, and I actually do happen to love this book and this author, but as first lines go, I guess I'm partial to lines that ground me in a scene, and clue me into multiple story aspects at once.
  • It all started with Aldwyn's whiskers beginning to tingle--the way they always did when he got hungry.
I'll admit, I'm somewhat partial to the old em-dash, and I love it in creative writing. I'm not sure it's used to full effect here, but it doesn't hurt, either. This opening line is all about character, and it pulls it off pretty well. Animal characters always have a little easier time with characterization, I think, because as readers we all already have some assumptions about certain types of animals.
  • Look, I didn't want to be a half-blood.
I suppose this one is probably pretty famous by now. I still haven't read this book, but my kids both love it. Anyway, this isn't the strongest of these five openings, but it isn't bad either. Half-blood is obviously an interesting detail, even if we don't know what it means at first, and in the long run it's probably the most important part of this sentence, but I would argue it's the "look," that really makes this opening line work, for me. It's the touch of irreverence to the voice of this narrator that would make me read on, but then maybe I just like angry kids.

Well that's it. What do you all think? Do you recognize any of these books (don't give it away if you do)? Which of these opening lines is your favorite?

48 comments:

  1. *blush* I don't recognize any! Terrible, huh? I like 1 + 4 the most. Oh, and I'm an em-dash fan too, but I think you're right. It doesn't necessarily fit great in 4.
    Are you going to post which books these come from?

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    1. I should do some kind of reveal later, shouldn't I?

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    2. Yes and put us out of our misery...those of us who don't recognize the lines... though the half-blood thing feels Potterish.

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    3. I'll update the posts when I get home. :)

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  2. I recognize the last one, of course, and I could possibly make a guess at the first.

    Your post gives me an idea for a post of my own. I wonder how important the first lines are to real middle grade kids, compared to other factors. I have a crop of real MG kids pretty much at my mercy every day, and we're about to start opinion writing. Hmmmm ... *scrapping lesson plans for new idea*

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    1. If I had to harbor I guess, I would say MG kids probably care less about first lines that neurotic writers like myself. After all, they tend to care so much more about story than writing. But still, you should ask your students. That would make a great post!

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  3. I'm right with you on how I took each one.

    The animal one I liked best, since it reminded me of the beginning of Watership Down. If I wanted something more serious, I'd go with the last one, and if I wanted something light to read, I'd go with the mango.

    And I didn't recognize any, but I looked up the last one 'cause I got curious.

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    1. Interesting point about Watership Down. Man, I loved that book.

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  4. I like the first one best. Don't read the genre, so I have no idea what books they belong to.

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    1. Except for the last one, most of these aren't that famous. I like the first one best too.

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  5. Great first lines, except that #4 doesn't grab me as much. But that's probably because I'm not into characters who are animals. See personal preference is a factor too.

    I'm not sure the first line alone is critical to a middle grade reader. But grabbing the reader's attention in the first few pages, which include the first lines is.

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    1. Yeah, I'm sure you're right. I know for my kids, it's all about setting. My eldest pretty much won't read anything (unless it's assigned for school) that isn't a fantasy setting. My younger daughter tends to prefer contemporary stuff, but likes paranormal elements too.

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  6. Eva Nine was dying. Why? What from? Will she really die?
    I need to know!

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    1. If you really want to know what book that is from, Melissa, you can reach me at mattmrush (at) gmail (dot) com. Thanks for reading!

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  7. Just spent a glorious couple of minutes googling all these first lines. Your kids have quite the library! I'm ashamed to say I've only read one of these (#5).

    One of the things that struck me is that, while the first lines were fine, I wouldn't necessarily read on based on them. But the first paragraphs--oh yes!

    Like you, Matt, I'm an em-dash fan. Unlike you, I don't come up with great ideas for blogposts like this one. Your mind is a creative hive, man--and we are all the better for it.

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    1. Well, admittedly, I've only read one of these. I want to read them all, of course, but there's this thing called time ...

      And thanks for the compliment, but I literally just dreamed this idea up yesterday afternoon, grabbed the books, and sat down and wrote the post. I guess that's what happens on Sundays after football season is over.

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  8. I do like The Search for WondLa's opening. Made me think right away, "Who is Eva Nine, and why the hell is she dying?"

    One of my favorite first lines is from YA Godfather, Robert Cormier, in his book, The Chocolate War:

    They murdered him.

    Not only does this hyperbole grab your attention, when you finish the book, the entire theme goes full circle. The protagonist is not literally murdered, but oh-man-oh-man, he gets MURDERED in just about every other way.

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    1. Can you believe I still need to read The Chocolate War? I know, I know, shame on me.

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  9. I recognized and read #3-5, but was surprised I had also read 1 and 2. I had to Google them to see where they came from. My favorite is the one about the Mango making a great weapon. However, my all time favorite opening line is "There was a hand in the darkness and it held a knife." From The Graveyard Book

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    1. That's my favorite too, Brenda! I've posted about it here, in fact. Here's the link:

      http://project-middle-grade-mayhem.blogspot.com/2012/05/first-page-analysis-graveyard-book-by.html

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    2. Thanks for the link, great post too.

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  10. The first one is good. If you want to re-write it in a more correct manner, which would make it one sentence, it would look like this:
    "A mango," thought Peter, "the perfect weapon."
    I think I know what series that's from, but I've only read the first one. If I'm correct.
    I don't like any of the others. With the exception of the one mentioning "punishment chains," I don't find them at all intriguing. Again, except for the first one, I just see blatant fish hooks, and that just makes me want to avoid them all together.
    And the last one... well, I highly disliked that book.

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    1. It's supposed to be inner thought, and as far as I know that goes in italics, not quotes, though I guess it can vary from editor to editor (and I could not recreate the formatting exactly here, because it's just blog post with simple HTML).

      That said, the first is my favorite as well.

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    2. Yeah, I know it's supposed to be thought. The actual rule is that thought is treated just like dialogue. It's only been the past decade or so that that's really been changing.

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  11. Yeah, so, I'm ornery. What do you want me to say?

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    1. Tell us what you really think, Andrew.

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  12. I remember when looking at books as a kid the things that grabbed my attention the most were title and cover. If that was intriguing, I'd pick up the book and flip it open to the description and then, yes, the first page. So I think first lines are still important to readers of all ages, even if the younger ones don't realize it. And we know editors and agents are paying careful attention to them!

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    1. Yeah, I'm sure readers care less than writers. And the other thing is that the first line usually has so much more meaning after you've finished the book.

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  13. I, too, don't recognize any of them. BUT! I'm not sure that i would unless it was a book that i really loved, or read more than once

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    1. Yeah, I can't think of any book I would remember. Except for maybe "Concerning Hobbits."

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  14. I recognize the last one. These are great first lines--no wonder they are on your book shelf!

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  15. I know the last one! :) The funny thing is the first line in Harry Potter is kind of boring. But the book is amazing. First lines should hook you in, and I really like the first two lines out of the examples.

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  16. And speaking of Percy Jackson, you should read at least one, Matt!! My oldest son and daughter both read the series quickly and couldn't get enough. I only read the first book though..

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    1. I intend to get around to it some day.

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  17. So ... for those who must know, these are the books:

    - Peter and the Starcatchers (yes it's the second in the series)
    - Museum of Thieves
    - The Search for Wondla
    - The Familiars
    - Percy Jackson, the Lightning Thief

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  18. LOVE all of these! Those punishment chains kinda give me the creeps... :P But I love the Eva Nine was dying. GREAT open.

    Opening lines are so fun~ <3

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    1. It's so cool to see how different ones connect with different people.

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  19. I overuse the em dash, but I am glad to see that it still has value.

    I really like the mango combo sentences. They catch my interest immediately.

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    1. Yeah, me too. That one is definitely my favorite.

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  20. I knew three of them, but then I blog first lines too.
    Lastly I've been blogging first paragraphs because I believe an editor would grant us that much of a break.
    http://thepenandinkblog.blogspot.com/2013/02/first-lines-2012-cybils-finalists.html.
    Want to add the Mango one to my reading list. I will put up the answer to my first lines on March 4th. We are a group blog and right now Hilde is talking about emotional level vs reading level.

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    1. Okay. Thanks for the info, Pen and Ink.

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  21. I love good first lines. These are a great selection with different strengths and weaknesses (is that a word?). I'll go with the Mango as a weapon as my favorite. It intrigues and teases.

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    1. I know, right? That's such an awesome opening line.

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  22. Love this post, Matt. I'm thrilled that I've read three out of the five (and recognized them before I saw your answers in the comments). I'd forgotten all about Museum of Thieves, so thanks for the nudge. I love the Peter and the Starcatcher books (they're funnier than I expected), and of course the Percy Jackson books.

    My favorite MG opening line is: I have been accused of being anal retentive, an overachiever, and a compulsive perfectionist, like those are bad things.

    Yep. That's Millicent Min, Girl Genius by Lisa Yee.

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    1. Oh wow. That's a wonderful first line! I'm going to have to read this one. Thanks, Joanne!

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Thanks for adding to the mayhem!