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Great Opening Lines to Hook Young Readers

Jun 25, 2007 (Morning Edition)

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If you're interested in getting your child or teen to keep reading during the hot, long, lazy vacation, offer them these cool summer books. They all have great first lines as well as fast-moving plots, three-dimensional characters, and good, strong finishes.

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About Nancy Pearl

Since the release of the best-selling Book Lust in 2003 and the Librarian Action Figure modeled in her likeness, Seattle's Nancy Pearl has become famous among readers and NPR listeners alike. She is a regular commentator about books on Morning Edition and NPR affiliate stations KUOW in Seattle and KWGS in Tulsa. Her latest book is Book Crush, recommended reading for kids and teens.

'Tanglewreck'

Tanglewreck by Jeanette Winterson, paperback, 416 pages
Sometimes a good first line just opens the door a crack. Tanglewreck, Jeanette Winterson's first novel for kids, begins this way: "At six forty-five one summer morning, a red London bus was crossing Waterloo Bridge." It isn't until you read on a little more that you get to these lines: "The bus and its passengers were never found. It was the first of the Time Tornadoes." What we soon discover is that time is behaving very strangely in London – it's slowing to a standstill and then speeding up crazily. The Time Tornadoes (and disappearances) are happening with increasing frequency and intensity. Plus, a wooly mammoth, long thought extinct, is seen near the River Thames. What — or who — is behind these unusual occurrences? Eleven-year-old Silver, whose parents and sister disappeared a few years before, lives with her cruel guardian, Mrs. Rokabye, in an ancient, sprawling mansion called Tanglewreck (which holds powers and secrets of its own). Silver discovers that an ancient and mysterious clock, The Timekeeper, is somehow at the heart of the time distortions. Whoever controls the clock, controls time itself. To her peril, Silver realizes that two evil adults — Abel Drinkwater and Regalia Mason — are both desperate to find the Timekeeper for reprehensible reasons of their own. Along with her new friend Gabriel, whose father had a long ago connection to The Timekeeper, Silver faces terrible dangers and difficult choices. Fans of some of the classics, old and new, of children's fantasy (like Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time and Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials) will enjoy this as well.

'Each Little Bird That Sings'

Each Little Bird That Sings by Deborah Wiles, paperback, 276 pages
"I come from a family with a lot of dead people" is how Deborah Wiles begins Each Little Bird That Sings, a sweet (though definitely not sappy) exploration of a 10-year-old's realization that life is full of surprises, both good and bad. Comfort Snowberger is used to death. Her family operates the funeral home in Snapfinger. Comfort has attended nearly 250 funerals already — and is happy to give you hints on the appropriate behavior at such sad occasions. But when first her great-uncle Edisto dies, and then her great-great aunt Florentine passes away a few months later, Comfort starts feeling that her life is becoming too full of sadness. Plus, death aside, her best friend Declaration Johnson now seems to be her former friend, and her beloved dog Dismay disappears during a storm. And, she's forced to take care of her young cousin, Peach, who somehow always ruins every family get-together. Girls, aged 10 to 13, especially, will be drawn in by Comfort's first-person narration.

'Wemberly Worried'

Wemberly Worried by Kevin Henkes, hardcover, 32 pages
The charms of Kevin Henkes' picture book Wemberly Worried begin with the very first line, "Wemberly worried about everything." But they don't end there. Like many of us non-mice, Wemberly worries about big things, small things, and everything in between. She frets about things happening and about them not happening. She's especially concerned about starting nursery school. As the scope of her worries grows, so does the font size of the sentences, so sympathetic readers can see her anxiety increase exponentially. This is a good choice for young readers who will be setting off for their first day of school in the fall.

'Ragweed'

Ragweed by Avi, paperback, 224 pages
Readers know from the very first line of Ragweed by Avi ("Ma, a mouse has to do what a mouse has to do.") that they're in for a humorous reading experience. Ragweed, a young country mouse, leaves his large family behind as he sets out to find adventure in the big city. He meets a group of cool mouse dudes and dudettes — green-furred Clutch (I'm thinking Courtney Love, here), Dipstick, and Lugnut (all members of an ultra-cool rock band known as the B-Flat Tires), as well as Blinker, a pet shop mouse who escapes from his owner to venture out on the mean streets of Amperville. Ragweed also encounters extreme danger in the form of — wait for it! — cats, particularly the wily Silversides, founder and one of two members of F.E.A.R. (Felines Enraged About Rodents). Silversides and her vice president Graybar will go to any length to get rid of their arch-nemeses, even to the point of destroying the mouse-only Cheese-Squeeze club. It takes all of Ragweed's native cunning, a good dollop of courage, and a fine mind to come up with a plan to foil the Felines First brigade. This introduction to Ragweed, who reappears in Avi's award-winning novel Poppy, is a good choice for a family read-aloud.

'Stormbreaker'

Stormbreaker by Anthony Horowitz, paperback, 256 pages
I've never met an 11- to 14-year-old boy who didn't enjoy (and race through) Anthony Horowitz's series of adventure novels featuring Alex Rider. After the death of his guardian-uncle, Alex is more or less blackmailed into working for the British intelligence service, which comes up with some pretty challenging situations for the young James Bondish spy. The books are probably best enjoyed by reading them in order, beginning with Stormbreaker, which has the terrific opening line: "When the doorbell rings at three in the morning, it's never good news." The story finds Alex investigating the nefarious doings of a computer company bent on taking over the world. Alex's nonstop adventures will keep reluctant readers turning the pages to find out what happens next.

'Feed'

Feed by M.T. Anderson, paperback, 320 pages
Who could resist the first line of the chillingly satirical Feed by M.T. Anderson? "We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck." That line sets the stage for the plot of this futuristic world that's become overrun with rampant consumerism. Computer chips are implanted in most babies at birth. There's no need to go to school, since you can Google any information you might need; there's no need to talk to anyone, since you can IM instantaneously. There's certainly no need to think, especially since the banner ads that float through your mind tell you exactly what you need to buy, do, and be to join the "in" crowd. But what happens when someone hacks into the computer feed that everyone is receiving? This is a terrific choice for both teen and adult book discussion groups.

'Millicent Min, Girl Genius'

Millicent Min, Girl Genius by Lisa Yee, paperback, 272 pages
You get a great sense of the entertaining novel that's in store when you read the opening line of Lisa Yee's Millicent Min, Girl Genius ("I have been accused of being anal retentive, an over-achiever, and a compulsive perfectionist, like those are bad things."). Millicent must learn to balance being a genius with the ordinary life of an 11-year-old. She's loving the college poetry class she's taking before she starts her senior year of high school, but since she's always more than happy to share how much she knows on every subject under the sun, she's never really had any friends. When Millicent meets newcomer Emily during volleyball practice and they begin hanging out, she's afraid to tell her new best friend the darkest secret of her life. How Emily and Stanford Wong, who's being tutored by Millicent, help her understand that a high IQ is only a part of who she is makes for an outstanding, very funny novel that both adults and 11- to 13-year-olds will enjoy (though probably for different reasons).

'The Teacher's Funeral'

The Teacher's Funeral by Richard Peck, paperback, 224 pages
With apologies to all the teachers out there, the first line of The Teacher's Funeral by Richard Peck is: "If your teacher has to die, August isn't a bad time of year for it." This lovingly nostalgic look back at turn-of-the-20th century Indiana features 15-year-old Russell, who doesn't see the point of spending time in his one-room schoolhouse when all he wants to do is hop a train to the Dakotas to work on the new threshing machines. But when his older sister takes over the school after his teacher dies, she's bound and determined that Russell graduate, no matter how much he hates going.

'Voyage of the Dawn Treader'

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis, paperback, 256 pages
The Narnia books by C.S. Lewis are so popular already that I only want to mention that the first line of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is one of those classic sentences that, once heard, stick in your head forever: "There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it."

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