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.