Authorology: 12 authors share the best first lines in YA


Welcome to Authorology, where twelve authors talk about their favorite parts of YA books.

It’s the first month of the new year, and the first month of Authorology, where we get to know what some of our favorite authors consider the best in YA. Since this is the first month, what better way to start than with the best first lines in YA?

Elegant simplicity of Lies We Tell Ourselves.

lies we tell ourselves robin talleyThe opening line of Robin Talley’s Lies We Tell Ourselves works through sheer, deceptive simplicity. “The white people are waiting for us,” Sarah thinks as she approaches Jefferson High School and in doing so she establishes her place in her narrative world. Here, we have two communities defined by racial difference and a simmering, ever-present fear waiting just around the corner. Even in the contrast between the faceless mass of whiteness and the personal “us,” Talley captures the power imbalance at play. We don’t yet know how big the “us” will be or that Sarah is just one of ten students integrating a Virginia high school, but it already feels like we—the readers— are entering a viciously uneven battle that the character herself can’t fully comprehend. Lies We Tell Ourselves demonstrates that same elegant simplicity that I admire in the first line of Adam Silver’s More Happy Than Not. I guess I’m just a sucker for an opening sentence that introduces a character, a world, and a conflict, all in one fell swoop.

Rachel Davidson Leigh, author featured in Summer Love

David Copperfield kind of crap.

Kathleen Glasgow's personal copy of Catcher in the Rye.

Kathleen Glasgow’s
personal copy
of Catcher in
the Rye

I can’t stick with a novel unless I can stick with the voice. Voice means everything to me. It doesn’t have to mean likeable or cute or funny or tragic. Voice does have to mean: interesting, inquisitive, original, take-this-trip-with-me-you-won’t-regret-it. And that voice has to appear right away in the first few lines of a book. The match must be lit.

I think I’m going to kind of cheat, because the book I’m choosing wasn’t considered YA when it was written, but it certainly would be today. I mean, really, who can resist:

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

the catcher in the rye j.d. salingerYowzah. That’s right, I chose J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, the little book about 17-year-old Holden Caulfield that took the world by storm in 1951. I was thirteen when I first read my mother’s musty old paperback and it was the first time I’d heard a voice that truly spoke to me. It was the first time I read about another teenager who was depressed, suicidal, confused, lonely, and lost in the world. Didn’t matter that that Holden’s fictional life had happened eons ago and had almost nothing to do with my lonely existence in the desert. The moment I read those lines I knew I was not alone. Didn’t matter that he was guy. Didn’t matter that he drank cocktails and went to a prep school and lived in a glittering, bustling city. It only mattered that that first line sounded like no one else I’d ever met in a book, but yet: sounded like me, somehow.

That opening line is an unholy supernova of pain and attitude and I will love this whole painful, tragic, awful, kind-of-funny book until the day I die. And every time I listen to the voices of a Theodore Finch (All the Bright Places) or a Mim Malone (Mosquitoland), I can hear Holden in there, too, slouching with his cigarette, nodding in begrudging approval.

Kathleen Glasgow, author of the upcoming Girl in Pieces

Mars Evacuees by Sophia McDougall.

mars evacuees sophia mcdougall“When the polar ice advanced as far as Nottingham, my school was closed and I was evacuated to Mars.”

My latest book is about space, so I’ve been reading a lot of space books. This book, which is originally from England (and is one of those genre-less – possibly middle-grade, possibly YA – books they seem to publish more there than in North America), opens with a great “boom”, like the fanfare at the beginning of Star Wars. (I realized that many of my fave YA books start without a bang, but, rather, build up from usually quiet openings.) But this one hooks you in, and presents the themes and “facts” that will slowly be revealed as the story progresses.

Kevin Sylvester, author of MINRS

chime franny billingsleyChime by Franny Billingsley.

“I’ve confessed to everything and I’d like to be hanged.”

From Chime by Franny Billingsley. How could you not keep reading to see what was going to happen and what had happened?

Shanna Swendson, author of Rebel Mechanics

Quintana Of Charyn by Melina Marchetta.

quintana of charyn melina marchetta“There’s a babe in my belly that whispers the valley, Froi.”

From Melina Marchetta’s Quintana of Charyn. Melina Marchetta’s Lumatere Chronicles is easily one of my favorite YA fantasy series. I love how real it is, how the characters are flawed and perfect, how all three books pack such an emotional punch. And this line just stuck by me, from the first time I read it.

Marieke Nijkamp, author of This Is Where It Ends

Homicidal horses.

The Scorpio Races by Maggie StiefvaterIt is the first day of November and so today, someone will die.

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater because it sets up the story, mood and voice so well. It’s both foreboding and hopeful, excited and fearful. It’s everything the Scorpio Races are.

Katherine Locke, author of Second Position

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

“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.”

the outsiders se hintonThe Outsiders is one of my favorite books of all time, possibly the book I’ve read more times than any other, and a book that has stayed with me since the first time I picked it up almost 30 years ago. (Yes, I’m that old.) Is it the very best first line? I don’t know. But I know I’ve read a lot of books over the last three decades, and this is the only first line of a novel I can recite 100% verbatim without having to check to see if I’m right. It’s a first line that has stayed with me forever, much like the rest of the book that follows it. If that doesn’t make it the best first line, I don’t know what does.

Ella Martin, author of Will The Real Prince Charming Please Stand Up?

Feed by M.T. Anderson

“We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.”

feed mt andersonI remember when I first read this opening line feeling both discombobulated and perfectly situated at the same time. Though I write contemporary, I love all genres, especially sci-fi/dystopian, and particularly if the voice is unique. This line, along with the subsequent paragraph (“There was shit-all to do at home;” “I’m so null;” “Lo-grav can be kind of stupid”) with diction that is both futuristic and familiar, drew me in immediately. Even though he is passive and ignorant, Titus has a strong voice – the world of Feed has a strong voice. I’ve read this book *at least* six times, and every time I re-read that first line, I smile.

E. Katherine Kottaras, author of How To Be Brave

You are going to die.

the book thief markus zusak***HERE IS A SMALL FACT ***
You are going to die.

Okay — it’s a cheat. These are lines, not a line. But this is my all-time most influential read: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.

Reading The Book Thief changed my life. It taught me that writing could be terse, spare and moving all at the same time. It was probably the first YA book I’d ever read that made me savor the words, rather than focus on the narrative. The language was stark and immediate. It was a revolution for me—and my own writing went through a seismic shift because of it.

Lisa Amowitz, author of Until Beth

Upstate by Kalisha Buckhanon.

upstate kalisha buckhanon“Baby, the first thing I need to know from you is do you believe I killed my father?”

And just like that I was hooked into Kalisha Buckhanon’s debut novel Upstate. It’s the rare opening line that exemplifies the saying “Every story is a promise.” And while I started the novel for the mystery, I stayed for the romance. As I read the letters exchanged between 17 year old Antonio and 16 year old Natasha while he does time for murder, I cared less about Antonio’s guilt or innocence and more about whether this first love will be the extraordinary odds. Rereading the opening line again once you’ve finished the novel, and you realize that it’s more than a hook. It’s laden with heartbreaking subtext that from dares you to care about Antonio and Natasha – as individuals and as a couple – before you even knew their names.

Sofia Quintero, author of Show and Prove

Looking for Alaska.

looking for alaska john green“The week before I left my family and Florida and the rest of my minor life to go to boarding school in Alabama, my mother insisted on throwing me a going-away party.”

Best opening line: “Looking for Alaska” I don’t remember what [the exact sentence], exactly, but remember seeing it in my mind like a movie: a lonely kid with no friends sits there waiting for “friends” to arrive at his birthday party. No one shows. So he runs off to boarding school to search for his Great Perhaps. Such an immediate insight into this kid’s mind and John Green’s insightful writing right off the bat.

– Heidi R. Kling, author of Paint My Body Red

Books I haven’t read yet.

mosquitoland david arnoldOkay, so I’m starting this group of questions off with a secret. I have not read the book I’m about to quote the first line from. It’s on my ever-growing list of TBRs and I hope to get it read this month. But. BUT. I first heard this line from my friend Courtney Stevens when she was talking about this book with some teens on a school visit. This was MONTHS ago, right? And I STILL think about this first line. Still. I have no idea what the book is about, or how long it’s going to take me to read it, but I know, from this first line alone, that this is a book I NEED to read. I hope to read it on a snow day, surrounded by fire and hot chocolate and blankets, because I think this one is going to hurt. And I love books that hurt. So, without further ado, my favorite line, from Mosquitoland by David Arnold, is…..
“A thing’s not a thing until you say it out loud. I am Mary Iris Malone and I am not okay.”
I mean, just…goosebumps right? I have got to know who Mary Iris Malone is and why she’s not okay and then I have to figure out how to save her.
– Joy N. Hensley, author of Rites of Passage

What are your favorite first lines? Share them in the comments below!

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