Writing Killer Kid Lit First Lines

Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 11.57.17 PMIf I had a nickel for every time I’ve rewritten the first line in the book I’m currently querying, I could afford to take you out for a fancy dinner and maybe a movie. I’ll admit I’m a bit obsessive in my determination to write the perfect opening. I’ve lost plenty of sleep over it, and unfortunately it’s only the tip of the iceberg in my writer’s mania. My first chapter has been thrown away and written from scratch several dozen painful hair-pulling-out times. Seriously, you should see the floor underneath the chair where I write.

Part of my angst in all this is that I have an engineer’s brain and a writer’s soul. In engineering, the work make be tricky but in the end you normally know if you’re right or wrong. In the writing world, you never know, unless you become a best-selling author. Even then, maybe especially then, you’ll still have a long line of critics discussing the problems with your stories.

In an attempt to reel myself in and let go of my obsessive quest, I thought I’d approach this problem like an engineer and research methodical ways for creating KILLER FIRST LINES. Maybe with a checklist, I can finally give my opening line a stamp of approval and stop the insanity. And get some sleep!

Killer Kid Lit First Lines Checklist

  1. Hook your reader by hinting at trouble and/or raising a question.
  2. Concisely tell us something compelling about the main character, preferably, or at least hint at the unique setting or theme.
  3. Show your writer’s voice.
  4. Support sentence number one with an equally great second line that follows logically and gives the reader more information to pull them in.

I’m going to stop there with my checklist because most of the advice that I found beyond these four items was about techniques for achieving the Best First Line Ever Written. Let’s look at a couple of those now.

fishing-rod-309776_1280Techniques for Hooking a Kid

There are dozens of ways to go about achieving a first line that will pass the checklist. But since I’m writing for kids––the most important audience on the planet––I’ll share the two that I think are most effective for them. For more great suggestions, check out the links at the end. 

  1. Shock or surprise the reader by saying something outlandish.
  2. Be funny.

Kids love to be surprised and laugh. Here’s an example of shock/surprise from a book my high schooler is reading right now.

Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 11.19.03 PM
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” ––
1984 by George Orwell

There’s so much genius in those fourteen words. We instantly know that the world in this book is different from ours, and we want to know more about their way of tracking time.

Here’s another example.Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 11.21.09 PM

“There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.” –-THE GRAVEYARD BOOKby Neil Gaiman

Try to read that sentence without a big frog clogging up your throat. I double-dog dare you.


Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 11.22.19 PMNow let’s look at a few humor examples. Who can resist chuckling at this first line from MATILDA by Roald Dahl?

“It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.”

Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 11.20.39 PMHere’s another, this time from CHITTY-CHITTY BANG BANG by Ian Fleming.

“Most motorcars are conglomerations (this is a long word for bundles) of steel and wire and rubber and plastic, and electricity and oil and gasoline and water, and the toffee papers you pushed down the crack in the back seat last Sunday.”

Both of those examples should appeal to the naughty kid inside us all!

Okay, writers. With the checklist and techniques in hand, I feel better about giving a thumbs up to my first line now. Check out the links below for more advice on writing opening lines and then go make some writing magic happen!

Do you have a favorite KidLit opening line you’d like to share with us? Leave it in the comments below!

Opening lines advice:







MICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade fiction and non-fiction. Connect with her on Twitter !


7 thoughts on “Writing Killer Kid Lit First Lines

  1. I spend a fair amount of time in bookstores and libraries reading first and last lines. Here are two of my favorite MG novel openers.

    A LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO by Richard Peck.
    You wouldn’t think we’d have to leave Chicago to see a dead body.

    RUNAWAY TWIN by Peg Kehret.
    Most people who have a life-changing experience survive a terrible injury or disease. My life was transformed by a craving for Twinkies.

    Thanks for this great post.

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