The Best First Lines of Middle Grade Books
Published on: 09 March 2023
Author Anna Goodall shares the opening lines that are so intriguing they’ve compelled her to read on.
When choosing a book to read, the first lines can be the reason a reader decides to take the plunge… or not… No pressure, then.
First lines might ask an intriguing question; suggest a world where something is very wrong or different; turn the narrative on its head and tell you what happens at the end (one of my personal favourites); introduce a voice or first-person narrator you connect with at once; or tell you something so dramatic, you simply have to keep reading.
The opening lines of Maggie Blue and the White Crow, my second middle-grade novel (and the second in the trilogy started by Maggie Blue and the Dark World), go thus:
The blue wren was poised on a branch, so light she swayed with it in the breeze that tried and failed to pierce the late June heat. She was watching the girl, as she had watched her through the winter, spring, and now the summer.
So what was I trying to do here? First of all, the wren is blue. (There are blue ones in Australia; but go with me here, it’s a bit unusual.) Secondly: why has this unusually coloured wren been watching a girl for six months? Readers of Maggie Blue and the Dark World may also wonder if this bird is from another world, and whether the girl being watched is Maggie Blue.
The first lines are not especially dramatic. But it’s the calm before the storm. And the reader already possesses knowledge Maggie does not: she is being watched by something otherworldly, and has been for months…
But enough about my efforts! Here are some of my old- and recently-discovered favourite opening lines to middle-grade novels:
Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow by Benjamin Dean
So, you’re standing in the bookshop reading this, right? Or maybe you’ve just unwrapped this book for your birthday in front of all your friends and you’ve quickly flicked to the first page to see what kind of story you’re in for.
I always absolutely loved openers like this when I was a kid… the, pssst, hey you, have I got your attention? kind of first lines. I didn’t know what the fourth wall was, but I definitely liked it being broken now and again. And I love the way the narrator here goes on to warn the new reader to look over their shoulder because people are so darn nosy. It’s also the perfect start to a book that is about secrets adults keep from children, and how you deal with that when you’re a kid.
The Witches by Roald Dahl
In fairy tales, witches always wear silly black hats and black cloaks, and they ride on broomsticks. But this is not a fairy tale. This is about REAL WITCHES.
Mr Dahl sometimes began his children’s novels with a general comment about ridiculous and/or horrible people in the world (see Matilda and The Twits for more comic versions of this technique), before honing in on the particular gruesome, dark, greedy, vain characters in the story in hand. This is an especially chilling take on the idea. This book really scared me when I first read it… and it still does!
Northern Lights by Philip Pullman
Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening Hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.
This first book hovers on the boundary between middle-grade and young adult. But the opening lines are utterly intriguing… we know we’re in a different world: what is a daemon? We also meet Lyra: up to no good. Although Maggie Blue is a very different person, Pullman’s heroine was an inspiration. These opening lines take us directly into Lyra’s world, her singular character and experience.
Ghostlight by Kenneth Oppel
Rebecca Strand was sixteen the first time she saw her father kill a ghost.
This is one of those undeniable opening lines I mentioned, where, quite frankly, you just have to keep reading. And the novel’s opening chapter subverts further what you might think is coming. A fantastically written middle-grade novel with a thrilling plot, I think this opening line is the perfect introduction for all that follows…
The Chrysalids by John Wyndham
Last but not least I have to come back to my all-time favourite middle-grade book EVER. Here are the opening lines:
When I was quite small I would sometimes dream of a city – which was strange because it began before I even knew what a city was. But this city, clustered on the curve of a big blue bay, would come into my mind.
Quite simply, this is superb writing. And it’s a beautiful idea… a child having a vivid dream about a world he doesn’t know, recognise or begin to understand. It turns out this mysterious night-vision is very relevant… And I promise the novel remains as brilliantly constructed and brilliantly told throughout. Please read.
Maggie Blue and the White Crow by Anna Goodall is out now.
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