Sunday, September 27, 2009

The First Line

I’ve been revising a picture book manuscript. I got to the point where I was pretty happy with it, except for the very beginning.

At the library I pulled some picture books from the shelves and studied the first lines. I expected the stories to move right along within the first few sentences, but I wondered which ones grabbed you with the very first line.

From my random selection, here are a few I liked best:

Once there was a boy who found a penguin at his door. (Lost and Found, by Oliver Jetters)

Read it, don’t eat it. (Read It, Don’t Eat It, by Ian Schoenherr)

I have dreams about those shoes. (Those Shoes, by Maribeth Boelts)

It was all the mayor’s fault. (The Great Cake Bake, by Helen Kettleman)

One morning Hedgehog found Mouse covering himself with leaves. (Help! A Story of Friendship, by Holly Keller)

He was so lost, and had been so lost for so long, that when the early April thunderstorm blew in like a freight train, the dog lay down in the culvert, covered his eyes with his paws, and decided to never get up again. (Orville, A dog Story, by Haven Kimmel)

Although it seemed unusual for a picture book, it was the last example that made me sit down and immediately read the story. I just had to know why that poor dog was so darn tired and sad. All of the above examples raised questions and hinted that something interesting was to follow. After all, it’s not every day a penguin shows up at the door. And just what kind of trouble did the mayor stir up?

What do you think…what’s important in a first sentence? Are there any first lines from books you’ve read that stand out in your mind?

Just for fun – here’s a little quiz I found on some famous first lines from classic picture books. See if you can guess them all. Click here for first line quiz.


Ocean Girl said...

Hi Adrienne, I love all you have picked and also think the last one was the best (there is something about the dog covering his eyes with his paws).

I know of very few picture books i.e., Dr Suess', The Little Engine That Could and maybe Peter Rabbit and can't say I remember any first lines but I would think that what attracts would still be the cover picture which I can just picture them from the first lines you listed.

Keats The Sunshine Girl said...

Great quiz and I enjoyed doing them.
How about this one:
Word went out 'cross the prehistoric slime:
'Hey, dinosaurs, it's rock 'n' roll time! - Saturday Night at the Dinosaur Stomp - Carol Diggory Shields

Kim Kasch said...

Revising is work. I think it's a good idea to take a break, go to the library or bookstore and have a little fun - it's doing research - so you're still working.


ICQB said...

I think that more importance is placed on "first lines" than need be. For example, "I'm Emily Elizabeth and I have a dog," isn't exactly must read material, but the Clifford books were wonderful and very popular.

LW said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
MG Higgins said...

Those are wonderful examples of openings. Even though I write MG/YA and not PB's, the lesson is the same--grab the reader's attention right from the start; make them want to find out what happens next. Great reminder.

Green Girl in Wisconsin said...

Excellent first lines--they are SO important--the voice, POV, tone, plot, setting--everything chunked into one. I often find myself re-reading the really good first lines before continuing into a book.

Kelly said...

Maybe it's because I'm a girl, but I liked the "I had dreams about those shoes" best.:) But all were intriguing!
I like your research at the library, what a great idea to look at the opening lines.

LW said...

"It was late one winter night, long past my bedtime, when Pa and I went owling."
Owl Moon by Jane Yolen..

This was my son’s favorite book; we must of read this one hundreds of times.
He was not a kid that loved books but loved a few. And those that he loved,
he loved with all of his heart.
Jane Yolen did a book signing at a local bookstore and I can still see him in line with
a brand new hard cover copy of “Owl moon” waiting for the storyteller to sign her name.

The quiz was fun; I knew all of the books and remembered some of the authors. I wish I had some of those on hand to read right now…I loved “The Snowy day”.

The other night I could not sleep so I entertained myself by trying to make a list of my favorite picture books… My list was long and I was trying to decide on the top ten. My list of reasons why I loved a book was long as well and now I must add a section for first lines. “Madeline” did not make my list but what a wonderful first line. One that I often quoted to my Brownie troop to get their attention. It worked every time, my 12 little brownies would move as fast at they could to make two straight lines…


adrienne said...

Ocean Girl - I'm drawn to covers and clever titles, and after that I read the first page...I guess I'm pretty picky - if I'm not curious enough I put it back on the shelf. With all of my favorites, the illustrations are the first thing I think of.

Keats - That line promises a fun story!

Kim - It's my favorite excuse to go hang out in the picture book section. :)

ICQB - I sometimes think that, too. Once upon a time a story could begin with 'Once upon a time'...
After listening to some first pages discussions, I feel like you've got few words to get a reader's attention.

MG - The rules are pretty much the same no matter what the genre. I just picked up a book on short story writing from the library - it had lots of tips that applied to what I'm working on.

Green Girl - For all those reasons I'm starting to wonder if it's easier to write the first line last.

Kelly - I love that line, too. It's a very cute story - and probably not at all what you imagine!

Louise - I love the picture of those brownies snapping to attention!
I've read Owl Moon, but it wasn't part of our usual repetoire. I'll have to take another look at that one.

Nora MacFarlane said...

I knew 5 of the 10. Not too bad, since it's been a while since I've read picture books. My kids are 12 and 20.

It's an awfully long sentence for a picture book, but I liked the last one best, too. It made me want to know what happened.

Rena said...

I loved, "It was all the mayor's fault." I love opening lines like that. What was his fault? Why? Always makes me want to read more.

Ara Burklund said...

Too funny! I just blogged about first lines, then came over here to find you'd done the same thing this week! First lines are CRITICAL. With picture books, I guess you have more to judge by, since the artwork's so important, too, but when buying picture books, I still think, "Would I really want to read this to someone over and over and over again?" If so, it's a winner, but the first hurdle is those opening lines.

Mary Witzl said...

I got 4 out of 10, which isn't great but was better than I thought I'd get.

I love picture books. They're a lot like haiku: you have to fit so much into so few words and do it all artfully, making full use of each word. Someone gave us a couple of picture books once which were artistically top-notch, but not terribly well written. It was interesting to see how the kids never really took to them. The art can definitely draw you in (no pun intended!), but the real power is in the words

adrienne said...

Nora - I recognized all of them, but it helped that at least half of them are included in a picture book treasury I have at home (and read over and over when my kids were small). :)

Rena - I thought that one was amusing - so many questions in that short phrase!

Ara - That's another great question - what qualities make you want to read a picture book over and over? I think humor and rhythm win me over.

Mary - I compare picture books to haiku, too. I like the concept of conveying a lot in few words.