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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

A Contest

With A Prize Only of Personal Satisfaction

Since we are nearing the end of the year, and prizes are being discussed and awarded all over the grand landscape of books for younger readers, I thought we ought to have a little contest here. We all know some of the great first sentences of adult fiction — "In the Beginning"; "Call me Ishmael"; if you went to college in the 60s as I did, surely you got "Stately, plump Buck Mulligan" or even (at the cool avant-garde — read through the whole thing in a few days and nights) "riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay" — the sentence that actually begins 628 pages later as "A way a lone a last a loved a long the" [extra credit available if you want to begin your post by identifying these four]. For our contest, how about picking the best first sentences in nonfiction for younger readers.

I suggest this becuase it is not as clear what makes for an exceptional opening to a nonfiction book. It is so easy to assume that the way to begin nonfiction is with some version of the journalists’ handy list of five questions: who, what, when, where, why. Perhaps that is so. But, then, what makes for an unsually effective way to spelling out those facts. But need we start with some kind of rap sheet set of identifiers? What other ways can we begin. Think of stories, there are so many stock phrases: once upon a time; it was a dark an stormy night; Grandpa, tell me a story. The stock phrases in nonfiction would be, In X, Y did Z. Or Y woke up, the battle was about to begin — those sentences that are essentially GPS devices, telling you where and when this book will take place. Can we do better than that? Who has knocked you flat with a great opening sentence?

Send in your top three, and tell us why. And I will allow wiggle room. Say you feel an author has written a great opening paragraph or page, where the unit is not the sentence, but the first statement, tell us why you think that is so. You can range far and wide, use old books (how does Hendrik Van Loon’s The Story of Mankind — the very first Newbery medal winner — begin?), your own books, maybe even adult books if you feel they can really teach us something. I am willing to accept historical fiction as a separate category — what makes for a great first sentence there, but since there is a great deal of HF for our readers, no adult books allowed. And we need to know why the first sentence is great for HF, not just fiction in general. 

Let the games begin.


  1. Jeannine Atkins says:

    I love these questions! One of my favorite biographical picture books is The Tree of Life by Peter Sis. I appreciate a biographer who can think of a new way to say “… he was born” and Sis’s book begins “Charles Darwin opens his eyes for the first time!” accompanied by an illusration of a wide-eyed baby, and we get the excitement of looking which is a theme. The second sentence is “He has no idea that he will (a) start a revolution when he grows up, (b) sail around the world on a five-year voyage, (c) spend many years staudying nature, and (d) write a book that will change the world.” Among students I’ve found strong opinoins for and against that second sentence, a real discussion-starter about the uses and limitations of summary.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    Great example, Jeannine. Notice also the use of tense and distance — he begins in present, close in, then shifts to the broadest, most distant, all knowing voiceover. Maybe a visual artist like Sis is more comfortable with those shifts of point of view.

  3. candice ransom says:

    Although I’ve written 50 or so nonfiction books for children, I wouldn’t dream of looking at my own work for a great first line. But here are my three favorites. My all-time favorite first line, for any children’s book, is Jean Fritz’s “And Then What Happened, Paul Revere?” “In 1735, there were in Boston 42 streets, 36 lanes, 22 alleys, 1000 brick houses, 2000 wooden houses, 12 churches, 4 schools, 418 horses (at the last count), and so many dogs that a law was passed prohibiting people from having dogs that were more than 10 inches high.” The list is such an appealing way to draw the reader in and who isn’t wondering what happens to all those 11-inches-and-over dogs?

    My second choice is “The Young Hans Christian Anderson” by Karen Hesse. “In the town of Odense, under a velvet sky, the wind invited the church bells to dance, it nuzzled cuckoos dozing in their beech-trees and sleepy ducks tucked up in their riverbeds.” This is another list, but the language is so rich and lyrical, I could live in that sentence, relish the internal rhymes, the specific details.

    My third choice is from “The Race to Save the Lord God Bird” by Phillip Hoose. If a reader has made it past the excellent introduction and prologue, the first sentence whets his appetite even more: “Dr. James Van Remsen pulls open a wooden drawer and hands me an Ivory-billed Woodpecker.” This too has specific details that draw the reader in, and knowing the woodpecker is extinct–or not?–adds to the intrigue of the first line.

    I’ve learned from writing out these examples is that specificity is the key. No weasel words or vague beginnings.

    Candice Ransom

  4. Marc Aronson says:

    I especially like the contrast here of two kinds of list, one in which adding descriptions to numbers and nouns would diminish the reader’s interest, and the other in which every noun dances, or is nuzzled, or tucked. The point being — figure out which kind of opening you are after, and nail it. But, Candace, why don’t you walk us through one of your own?

  5. candice ransom says:

    Okay, I’ll take the bait. I’ll use an example from an unpublished picture book biography about Margaret Wise Brown. After researching for years, I was ready to write. Two things eluded me: voice and format. If I could nail voice, format would follow. I wrote drafts from every imaginable viewpoint, including Margaret’s dog. I tried to trick voice by jumping ahead to format. In one draft I wrote each section mimicking a different still of Margaret’s books. Margaret, whose voice I heard in my head, laughed at that attempt. I tried a catalog-type opening, like Jean Fritz uses, but no luck.

    Margaret was a mercurial, eccentric personality that refused to be stuffed into a “normal” picture book biography format–character with something to overcome, conflict, plot, etc. Once I realized I had to let Margaret *go*, the voice came. Here is the opening:

    “The first time Margaret ran away she was four. As she pelted down the dirt road, freedom springing from the very soles of her feet, she was struck by a surprising thought. She wasn’t running away *from* her family, but *to* something bright and wonderful. It was her wild, green self.”

    The book moved from that point and I learned to guide rather than control.

  6. Marc Aronson says:

    I’m so glad you did take the plunge, Candice, — I love the running to, to the wild green self — sounds almost like beginning of a YA novel, or a graphic novel biography, or something Chris Raschka should run with in his own wild way.