The first line of a book tells you a lot about the adventure you’re about to go on. Margaret Owen, author of the YA fantasy novel The Merciful Crow, is a big believer in opening lines. Her debut has a fantastic one: “Pa was taking too long to cut the boys’ throats.” With a killer first line like that, it’s no wonder this is one of our must-reads of the summer. To celebrate the book’s release, Owen lists some of her favorite first lines in YA novels, and shares what she loves about them.
I’ll be the first to admit I’m an insufferable snob about a book’s first line. Do I think it makes or breaks a book? Not really. Do I have high standards for what makes a good opening line anyway? Absolutely. A good first line grabs your attention and tells you what kind of book you’re in for. A killer first line grabs your attention, stuffs you into the backseat of the first paragraph, and drives off with you before you have a chance to catch your breath.
When I sat down to put together a list of the best first lines in YA, I knew that was an impossible task, so forgive me if I’ve left out your favorite. Instead, I’ve pulled six first lines that are each top-notch in their own way, and I’m going to tell you why.
The Impossible Normal
The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf
First line: “By the time school ends on Tuesday, my mother has died seventeen times.”
One of my pet peeves in opening lines is a fake-out. If your first line is “Today, I drowned a man” and then we find out that you’re talking about a gingerbread man you dunked in a glass of milk, that’s disappointing (and a kind of macabre way to think about your snacks). However, this first line takes that fake-out and flips it: The impossible fact that Melati’s mother has died seventeen times is expertly juxtaposed with the matter-of-fact tone. That conflict gives you no choice but to read on!
The Bad Omen
Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson
First line: “Night fell as death rode into the Great Library of Summershall. It arrived within a carriage.”
Right away, we know a couple things: We’re not in our world, we’re in a pre-Industrial Age setting, and “death” isn’t an exaggeration but instead a tangible thing that is heading directly for our narrator. One of the techniques of raising suspense is to shift the audience’s question from “what is the threat?” to “what will the threat do to our heroes?” and we see that executed perfectly here. Death has arrived; what does that mean for the narrator?
The Curtain Rising
The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton
First line: “We all turned sixteen today, and for any normal girl that would mean raspberry and lemon macarons and tiny pastel blimps and pink champagne and card games. Maybe even a teacup elephant.”
It doesn’t all have to be death and murder, and The Belles proves that in spades. The magic of this opening is in how deftly it establishes two things. First: the luxurious, opulent world the book is set in—macarons! Champagne! Miniature elephants for pets! And second, the knife hidden under all the taffeta: the girls who make up the “we” are separate from this world. You’ll notice a pattern of all these lines raising questions; The Belles steers us to ask why these girls are set apart, and read on to find out.
The Object Out of Place
The Girl From Everywhere by Heidi Heilig
First line: “It was the kind of August day that hinted at monsoons, and the year was 1774, though not for very much longer.”
This is another line that proves the stakes don’t have to be deadly to be gripping. This sentence is like a glass of iced tea spiked with gin: You think you know where it’s going until the twist at the end. (I probably shouldn’t make alcohol metaphors in a listicle on YA books. Kids, don’t drink until you’re 21, or I’ll get in trouble. I’m pretty sure that’s how the law works.) The point is, this is a particularly elegant first line that knows how the readers think it’s going to end, and uses that to snare the readers before they even realize they’ve been caught.
The Shot Across the Bow
Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova
First line: “The second time I saw my dead aunt Rosaria, she was dancing.”
This is one hell of a first line. It doesn’t just raise questions, it raises the dead! You could know absolutely nothing about the book, read that line, and get an extremely accurate idea of the kind of ride you’re in for. It’s also vivid and intriguing, setting up a mystery that you have no choice but to unravel.
The Bleeding Edge
Scavenge the Stars by Tara Sim
First line: “The first thing Silverfish had learned onboard the Brackish was how to hold a knife. Not the useful kind that could gut a man, but something smaller, duller, and better suited for a child’s grip.”
I’m cheating a bit here, because this isn’t out yet, but this is an extraordinary first line on a lot of levels. In just a few words, it paints a stark portrait of our heroine: She’s been proficient with a knife since she was a child, and she’d find her blade more useful if it could gut a man. Priorities! It also subtly prompts other questions: Why is that what she learned first? Why is she on this ship? What made her this way? This is an opener that pulls a knife on you and dares you try putting the book down.
Margaret Owen was born and raised at the end of the Oregon Trail, and now lives and writes in Seattle while negotiating a long-term hostage situation with her two monstrous cats. In her free time, she enjoys exploring ill-advised travel destinations and raising money for social justice nonprofits through her illustrations.