They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. I say you should judge a book by its first line. Well, maybe not exactly, but a good first line is a great way to draw yourself into a book. Authors work very hard to craft creative openers to their stories, in order to hook the reader from the very first page. In this post, I’ll be looking at an assortment of both kids and adult books with excellent first lines (and sharing those lines with you, of course!) I hope that these titles succeed in capturing your attention and leaving you interested in reading more!
Opening: “Ebenezer Tweezer was a terrible man with a wonderful life.”
Who is Ebenezer Tweezer? What has he done to make the narrator describe him as “a terrible man”? And what is so wonderful about his life? The reader wants to know more!
Beauty comes at a price and no one knows this better than Ebenezer Tweezer, a 511-year-old man who looks like he’s 20. The secret to his immortality is the beast that lives in his attic providing him with gifts (including an immortality potion) in exchange for being fed. But, after a while, the beast tires of performing monkeys, cactuses, and statues. It announces to Ebenezer that it wants to eat a child. While Ebenezer is certainly a terrible man, this is too terrible even for him. But, the cost of losing his youth and beauty is also too great to contemplate, so he finds himself the snottiest, naughtiest, and most unpleasant brat he can get his hands on (her name is Bethany) and prepares to feed her to the beast. But, despite her flaws, Ebenezer finds himself feeling a little guilty, wishing Bethany didn’t have to be eaten after all. Perhaps there’s something he could do instead?
Opening: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
I feel like everyone knows what a hobbit is now, as Lord of the Rings now has three animated movies, and six live-action ones, and a streaming TV show to boot. But, at the time I first read this book when I was twelve, I was aquiver with curiosity. What is a hobbit? I had to read more to find out!
The Hobbit is the story of Bilbo Baggins, who enjoys nothing more than his life of peace and tranquility. So, when his quiet life is disrupted by a sarcastic wizard and a troupe of homeless dwarves, you can imagine how frustrated he is. The reason is clear: the dwarves need an additional member of their party, a burglar who can help them to retrieve their treasure, stolen by a dragon years before. Bilbo is not an adventurer (and he’s certainly not a burglar) but the longer he travels, the more he realizes that while he now lacks for the comforts of home (good food, a warm bed, his garden), he is actually starting to enjoy this grand adventure!
Opening: “This morning I had poison for breakfast.”
Crisp, clean, and to the point. No fat on this opening line. And we are caught up on the situation immediately. The narrator has had poison for breakfast. Was this intentional? Was it an attempt on his life? Right now, we don’t know. And we’re of course, eager to find out!
This twisty, meandering philosophical read is exactly what you’d expect from a book with an opening like that. Mr. Snicket (famous author and investigator of villainy, treachery, and suspicious fires) discovers upon finishing his morning meal that there is a note slipped under the door. The note informs him quite simply that he has had poison for breakfast. Now, the questions remain– who poisoned Mr. Snicket? And why? And of course, will he manage to survive until lunch?
Opening: “The opera ghost really existed.”
What better way to start a horror story than by hitting your reader with a horrifying fact. The opera ghost existed. So many scary stories reveal that the ghost, the monster, the headless killer, etc. was never real to begin with. It was just a spooky legend, a fireside tale, or like in the classic Scooby-Doo cartoons, a man in a mask. But, while this opera ghost is also a man in a mask, we know for a fact now, that he really existed. Wow.
The story is told by a reporter, years after the events of the book took place. He is investigating the tragedy that struck the Paris opera, involving the disappearance of a young singer, as well as a series of mysterious deaths. At its heart, however, its the story of the Opera Ghost, a disfigured madman living underground, who fell in love with a young singer and who could not control his desires to have her, to keep her, and to make her love him, too.
Opening: “From where I sit, the story of Arthur Less is not so bad.”
Already, I have questions. Who is this narrator? Who is Arthur Less? And what’s his story? What I like about this opening line is that even though it leaves us with a lot of questions, it also is somewhat comforting. From where I sit, the story of Arthur Less is not so bad. At least, we know that no matter what happens, it’s going to be okay.
Arthur Less is a failing gay novelist about to turn 50. And his longtime partner is about to get married–to someone else. Less desperately wants to avoid the wedding. Imagine the gossip! But, he also knows that he can’t avoid it, either. Imagine how people would talk about him missing the wedding! The jilted lover! So, he does the only thing he can think of. He goes through his stack of literary invitations to a series of mediocre presentations, conferences, and teaching opportunities, and he accepts them all. After all, he can hardly be blamed for missing the wedding while he’s out of the country on business! What follows is a painfully touching, funny, and beautiful story about a middle-aged man trying to find himself in a world that seems to be looking right through him.
Opening: “Not everybody knows how I killed old Phillip Mathers, smashing his jaw in with a spade; but first it is better to speak of my friendship with John Divney because it was he who first knocked old Mathers down by giving him a great blow in the neck with a special bicycle-pump which he manufactured himself out of a hollow iron bar.”
Wow. Shocking, almost coldly clinical, this opening line is a real gut-punch. I haven’t read this book since 2012 (★★★★☆), but a coworker reminded me of this spectacular opening line, and I just had to include it! Our narrator is obsessed with the works of philosopher de Selby (who believes that the Earth is neither round, nor flat, but sausage shaped), and he has just finished what he hopes will be the definitive de Selby text. But, he’s broke and desperate, so he winds up committing robbery–and murder. What follows is a Kafka-esque dark comedy that often leaves the reader with more questions than answers. Perfect for fans of the absurd and not to be missed!
Opening: “Dear Reader, This is a cautionary tale.”
Already I’m curious! What is this cautionary tale about? Of course, with a cover as cute as this, we know that it won’t be a horrible story, there won’t be any heartrending cataclysm, but we know that something happens–and the narrator wants to warn us. What a mystery! How exciting!
Authentically, Izzy is an adorable story about a young librarian who doesn’t think much of falling in love. So, when her cousin sets her up a dating profile, she’s less than thrilled. But, she goes along with it, and makes the acquaintance of a sweet young man named Brody. The only problem is that homebody Izzy is very close to her family in Mount Airy, North Carolina…and Brody lives across the Atlantic Ocean on the tiny Scottish Island of Skymar. Add in a mysterious and handsome author also vying for Izzy’s hand, and things only get more complicated. Suddenly, anti-romantic Izzy has gone from no men to two… and her heart is being pulled in all sorts of directions. What will she choose to do?
Opening: “Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.”
Do you feel small yet? I certainly do.
Arthur Dent’s day starts just like any day does. He gets up, brushes his teeth, and looks out the window to see yellow bulldozers pulling up in front of his house, preparing to knock it down. Next thing you know, Arthur’s laying on his back in the mud in front of the bulldozers. See, the problem was that the city didn’t tell him that this was going to happen, at least, not until late afternoon the day before (and even that appears to have been an accident). But, Arthur will soon have bigger issues on his hands, as his friend Ford Prefect, once though to be an eccentric actor, but now revealed to be an alien, arrives on the scene, informing him that the Earth is about to be demolished and they should go get a drink before hitching a ride on the last spaceship off the planet. What follows is a series of improbable adventures as Arthur and Ford travel along the galaxy (along with a few friends they picked up along the way) in their quest to find the meaning of life.
Opening: “First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys.”
Fall has always been my favorite season, and October my favorite month. So, of course, I love the sound of that opening line: “…a rare month for boys.” I wonder what the author could mean by that. I guess I’ll have to keep reading (and I hope you will, too!)
It’s the end of October, and Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show has come to Green Town, Illinois. Its darkness will destroy everything it touches, as it ushers in Halloween a week early. In the quiet darkness just after midnight, it whispers tempting promises of dreams and youth regained, and two young boys (born just before and just after midnight on Halloween) will discover the secret of its smoke, mazes, and mirrors. They will quickly learn the heavy cost of wishes…and the stuff of nightmares. Dark, scary, and indescribably beautiful, this is one of the best-known of Bradbury’s works, and an enduring classic.
Opening: “Jim Gaffigan wrote a book? Isn’t he the Hot Pocket guy?”
I can only assume that if you’re reading this book, you’re a fan of Jim Gaffigan (as is the case with 98% of readers of celebrity memoirs). So, presumably you’re hearing Gaffigan’s distinctive voice running through his Hot Pockets routine now. Or, if you’re one of those rare readers that will pick up a celebrity memoir regardless of whether you’re familiar with them or not, you might be wondering about this “Hot Pockets guy”. Either way, don’t you want to read more?
Dad is Fat is Gaffigan’s first book (he’s written more since), where he talks about comedy, marriage, and being a father. Of course, he never thought he’d actually be a father…just the weird uncle who lives alone and is also a traveling comedian. But, sometimes life throws you a curve-ball: he has five kids. The stories here are incredibly funny and Gaffigan reads the audiobook, so I highly recommend taking that route if/when you decide to check it out. Whether you have kids (and find his stories relatable) or don’t have kids (and find his stories scary), there’s a lot to love here.
Opening: “The dominion of man is drawing to a close. The age of demons is upon us. This, I recognize, is largely my fault and let me take just a moment to apologize for my part in it. I am very sorry I doomed the world.”
You can’t tell me that this doesn’t have you curious. Man has fallen, demons have taken over, and our narrator, one Dr. John Watson, is personally responsible (and very sorry). Wow!
A Study in Brimstone is the first of the Warlock Holmes books, a series of irreverent Sherlock Holmes parodies by G.S. Denning. Instead of being the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, the world’s first consulting detective, and Dr. John Watson, brilliant army surgeon (retired), it’s the misadventures of Warlock Holmes, the world’s stupidest sorcerer, and Dr. John Watson, a sickly, starving, half-dead army surgeon (retired) who has no idea what sort of roommate he has just taken on. The stories are funny whether or not you’ve read the original source material, but I’ve found that they only get funnier if you know the inside jokes, puns, and twists from the original tales as well.
Opening: “Mrs Gorf had a long tongue and pointed ears. She was the meanest teacher in Wayside School. She taught class on the thirtieth floor.”
So, I don’t know about the rest of you, but my first impression is that Mrs. Gorf must be some sort of goblin. A long tongue, pointy ears, and the meanest teacher in the school? Definitely. The second thing that catches my eye about this opening is that she teaches on the 30th floor. Which, of course, proposes the question: how many floors are in this building?
If you read the introduction (which I skipped in this blog post), you’ll learn that the building was built sideways. It should have been 30 rooms long, one floor, instead of 30 rooms high (one room per floor). The builder says he’s very sorry. But, the kids don’t seem to mind that much, since it means they have an extra large playground at recess. The stories in this book all take place in the classroom on the 30th floor. Each student (and teacher) gets their own chapter. It was one of my favorites as a child, and still funny as an adult. If you enjoy absurd adventures, funny short stories, and tales set in schools, then I think you’ll enjoy this one.