Friday, October 14, 2011

Carte Blanche: First and . . . Foremost?

--by Michael Carte (first published in
Booklist, October 2011)

“‘Hell!’ said the Duchess.”

No, this isn’t a column about what Mark Twain delicately called “the warm place,” nor is it about the landed gentry. No, it’s . . . well, let mystery novelist Agatha Christie explain:

“I believe that a well-known anecdote exists to the effect that a young writer, determined to make the commencement of his story forcible and original enough to catch the attention of the most blasé of editors, penned the following sentence: “‘Hell!’ said the Duchess.”

I don’t know about that, but I do know that a “forcible and original” first line is inarguably of paramount importance to the novelist; indeed, Christie’s explanation is the first line of her own novel Murder on the Links.

There’s no doubt that juxtaposing hell and a duchess makes for a doozy of a first line, but it’s small potatoes compared with some of the following more famous ones: “Call me Ishmael,” from Moby-Dick, or “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,” from Pride and Prejudice. Or howsabout “A screaming comes across the sky.” That’s from Gravity’s Rainbow.

Those are the top 3 of 100 memorable first lines conjured up by the editors of American Book Review. I’m sorry to say that only 2 of the 100 are from books for youth: number 12 is “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter.” That is, of course, from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Number 47 is a bit less familiar but nevertheless memorable: “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” What’s that from? No, I’m not going to tell you; search it out for yourself.

In the meantime, you’ll just have to trust me that both of these first lines came from well-established, successful writers. Ah, but what about first lines from first novels? Can you imagine the blood and tears that a tyro writer sheds in trying to think up a memorable, forcible, and original first line for his or her first effort?

Some come a cropper, of course, but others are more successful. And since this is a column for an issue with a Spotlight on First Novels, I thought I might select and share a few first lines from children’s and YA firsts.

Here’s the opener from one of the most famous children’s books of all time: “Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, and what is the use of a book, thought Alice, without pictures or conversations.” Thus beginneth Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Memorable, yes, but a tad long, don’t you think? But we need to cut Lewis Carroll some slack here; he was, after all, a Victorian.

How about an Edwardian, then? Here’s the first line from Kenneth Grahame’s immortal Wind in the Willows: “The mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring cleaning his little home.”

Hmmm . . . so far we have openers about books with no pictures and spring cleaning. Not exactly heart-pounding material. What about something more contemporary? Here’s one: “When Mrs. Frederick C. Little’s second son arrived, everybody noticed that he was not much bigger than a mouse.”

Now that’s a heck of a first line, Brownie. No blood and thunder but intriguing as all get out. Read it, and you can’t resist reading the second sentence. That E. B. White sure knew his apples about the first, second, and all the other lines in Stuart Little.

Here’s another from an internationally famous book: “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” Not exactly memorable that one, though there is a subtle implication that something distinctly abnormal is going to follow. And so it did: the whole Harry Potter saga, in fact; for this first line is, indeed, from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

So far we’ve focused on children’s books; what about some young-adult titles?
Here are a few of them, beginning with the two that started the genre: “When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.” Yes, that’s from S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders.

How about this one: “He waited on the stoop until twilight, pretending to watch the sun melt into the dirty gray Harlem sky.” If you guessed Robert Lipsyte’s The Contender, you’re right as rain.

“Now, Bix Rivers has disappeared and who do you think is going to tell his story but me?” Another intriguing first line, this one from Bruce Brooks’ The Moves Make the Man.

Here’s one from one of my all-time favorite books; I don’t have to tell you which one, since it contains one of the most famous names in all of YA literature. Here’s the sentence: “The reason Weetzie Bat hated high school was because no one understood.”

And here’s one more: “It is my first morning of high school.” If good books are supposed to capture universal experiences, this is one good book. And so it is. It’s Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson.

So here I am at the end of the column, and I’ll bet a pin that no one has paid any more attention to it than a sleepy student in first-period Latin. Not because I’m boring. Perish the thought! But, instead, because I distracted you with that challenge to identify the book from which came the line “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” OK, OK. It’s from C. S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Happy? Now, go back and reread the column. And pay attention this time, willya?

Michael Cart is the author of Young Adult Literature: From Romance to Realism (ALA Editions, 2010).