Posted by: jeannineatkins | January 29, 2008

Favorite First Lines

Today I started teaching children’s literature to a group of mostly English majors at UMass-Amherst. For one activity, groups of four looked at twenty first sentences of children’s books I’d put on a handout. They worked together to see if they could cite the author and title, then chose a favorite first sentence or two and said why. Harry Potter and Little House on the Prairie didn’t get any votes for best first line, but From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg won several for: “Claudia knew that she could never pull off the old-fashioned kind of running away,” which made everyone curious through the vivid turn of phrase. One group voted for “Brian Robeson stared out the window of the small plane at the endless green northern wilderness below.” It’s got the main character, it’s got an already quite vivid place, and as their spokesperson pointed out, young readers who have never flown might be particularly taken in. She also mentioned she was personally swayed by memories of loving Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet, and having a sort of crush on its protagonist. It can be hard to sever analysis and feelings for a first line from memories of a book.

Of course it’s for a younger audience, but Winnie-the-Pooh won most votes for: “Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin.” We loved the way both sounds and images pulled us in. And if you like that sentence, you will probably like the book, which we’ll read soon.


  1. Yay for Mr.Edward Bear! That sounds like a great assignment.
    Our good friend is a prof at U.Mass/Amherst (engineering).

  2. That sounds like a fun activity. I wonder which ones my students would choose. I may have to find out!

  3. So is he or she the one trying to lure you to the Carle Picture Book museum? Or is there yet another reason you should visit?

  4. Cindy, if you want me to send you the twenty sentences, you can email me at and I’ll send as an attachment — with the answers, of course! You may want to wean them down. Your students might enjoy feeling retro. Oh, and when we look at picture books, I have a sheet of sentences just from them if you want — then they could get very nostalgic! Of course your students know each other — and with seventh grade energy, you could even turn it into a contest! — but this was also good as they had to articulate what made a good opening sentence (as well as getting the blast from the past)

  5. Yep, he and his wife are the very same ones!

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