“Where’s Papa going with that axe?” is the first line of the beloved children’s classic, Charlotte’s Web by E.B White. It’s also the first sentence that made me realize that individual lines of a story could have power.
At that point in my life, I read books for the story—to experience something fantastical and a little bit spooky (I was an avid Goosebumps reader). Still, after finishing a book, I don’t think I could go back and recite a single line from any of them.
This line, though, stopped me in my tracks and made me feel a lot of different feelings all at the same time:
- Fear: Where was papa going with that axe, and what would he do with it? Why was there an axe-wielding person in a kids’ book?
- Confusion: Where was the setup? The concept of en media res, or starting a story in the middle of the action, wasn’t something I knew about. I was used to reading books that took the first chapter to establish the setting, characters, and plot.
- Excitement: This was new and uncharted territory for me. I was used to reading a certain type of book with a certain kind of formula—this book broke that for me and set me on an entirely new reading path.
After Charlotte’s Web, I no longer read the back panels of books to know whether or not I wanted to read them. Instead, I would read the first lines of books and go from there.
So why bring this up? You might be asking, “Where’s Brystan going with this blog post?”
I bring this up not to just wax poetic about my discovery of the beauty of language or to discuss how reading great first lines inspired me to pursue writing (which is true, but I’ll save that for another post).
I bring this up to express that it made me a more diverse reader.
I was the kid that knew what I liked to read and read only that thing (did I mention I read a lot of Goosebumps?). Once I started reading first lines, however, I was more willing to branch out. It didn’t matter if the story was a fantasy, mystery, or a piece of classic children’s literature—if it had a great first line, I read it.
I visited worlds through stories that I never would have even thought to pick up before. The library became bigger than a single shelf for me—it eventually became a whole world of its own for me to explore, and that world only got bigger the older that I got.
If you have a young reader at home who only likes to read one genre or one author, that’s okay. Applaud them for reading. But, just in case they might be willing to branch out, I’ve added a list of youth books that have great first lines.
Also, since you’re never too old to be adventurous, here is a list of adult titles with great first lines, too!