Ten Great Openings to Recent YA and MG Literature by Jim Woehrle
The student slammed the book down on my desk and said, “I dare you to read that first sentence of the book and not want to read the entire chapter!”
He had just spent the previous 10 minutes browsing through our school library for his next book of choice reading. He certainly was bright but not a particularly motivated student. However, after reading the opening of James Dashner’s Scorch Trial, he was hooked.
It got me thinking about great openers in literature. They include my favorite novel of all time (“Whether I should turn out to be the hero of my own life…”), my favorite book in my current teaching load (“It is a truth universally acknowledged…”) and the book that got me truly hooked on reading back in 8th grade (“When I stepped 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.”). A really great beginning can do many things for a novel. It can set the tone from a standpoint of voice or theme. It can introduce a character in a vivid way. And it can set us readers down in the middle of the action. Here are 10 books – all in the genre of Middle Grade or Young Adult fiction released within the last few years – that should grab you right away.
- “The calendar said early March but the smell in the air said late October” – The Night Gardener, Jonathan Auxier. My winner for best late-autumn ghost story goes to this tale of two orphans who hire on as servants in a haunted mansion. No one understands the curse that hovers over the house and its family; and our heroes, Molly and Kip, must deal with a mysterious stranger who comes at night to water a particularly gruesome tree.
- “I’m typing about the stabbing for a good reason. I can’t talk.” – Paperboy, Vince Vawter. The best coming-of-age tale I’ve read recently is this story of an unnamed (until the last page) narrator who takes over his friend’s paper route during a hot summer in Memphis around the middle of the last century. The situations and characters are top-notch, but this book is especially noteworthy for the way in which Vince Vawter gets into the head of a character who stutters. The dialogue and the narration show how his struggles with speaking mask a sharp mind and generous heart.
- “Aliens are stupid. I’m not talking about real aliens. The Others aren’t stupid. The Others are so far ahead of us, it’s like comparing the dumbest human to the smartest dog. No contest. No, I’m talking about the alents inside our own heads.” – The 5th Wave, Rick Yancey. The best page-turner in the past year would have to be this story of alien invasion. Although it has multiple narrators, Yancey manages to make some of them unreliable but at the same time sympathetic. It has a terrific blend of character development and action.
- “There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.” – The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman. I like how the opening sentence doesn’t describe a person so much as it zeroes in on the hand and the knife, a disembodied image that fits perfectly this story of a boy whose parents die in the very first chapter and who lives in a graveyard full of ghosts. Of course, that killer whose hand occupies the first sentence isn’t leaving the novel. Not by a long shot.
- “The pastor is saying something about how Charlie was a free spirit. He was and he wasn’t. He was free because on the inside he was tied up in knots. He lived hard because on the inside he was dying. Charlie made inner conflict look delicious.” – Please Ignore Vera Deitz, A.S. King. Books about troubled teen relationships usually are far down my list of favorite genres, but A.S. King makes these kinds of conflicts – if not exactly delicious – then at least intriguing. We know right from the first page that Charlie has died. For the rest of the novel, Vera must come to grips with her loss while she slowly explains to the reader how it came about. The book moves beyond the typical soap opera into the surreal, when the narration is taken over by everyone from Vera’s father to Charlie’s ghost to an important building.
- “Sailing toward dawn, and I was perched atop the crow’s nest, being the ship’s eyes.” – Airborn, Kennth Oppel. Our narrator is Matt Cruse, whose surname gives a hint to the true love of his life, living and working in a giant airship in this sort-of steampunk adventure. The main plot involves Matt and a female companion searching for mysterious creatures that fly through the air like winged jaguars. That first line hints at the idea that Matt and the airship are one, a relationship that takes on extra resonance in the last third of the book, when the romance give way to an old-fashioned adventure yarn as Matt helps to rescue the ship and its crew from a swarm of murderous pirates.
- “It came as no surprise that our interplanetary archery competition was cancelled the day Bucky Littlejohn shot himself through the foot with a field point arrow.” – The Alex Crow, Andrew Smith. Although Grasshopper Jungle got more publicity and praise, I liked The Alex Crow better because the characters were more sympathetic and the story more ambitious. That first sentence from Chapter One hints at some of the major ideas, including science fiction and grim humor. The book hops among several time periods and locations but comes together by the end.
- “If I had to do it all over again, I would not have chosen this life. Then again, I’m not sure I ever had a choice.” – The False Prince, Jennifer A. Nielsen. For about two thirds of this novel our narrator, Sage, is training to impersonate a prince in order to bring stability to a kingdom that sounds a lot like medieval England. Then a plot twist occurs that adds depth to everything that comes afterward, as well as forcing the reader to look anew at all preceding events (even the first sentence).
- “What! Who are you? How did you get in here?”
“Hey, Boss. The name’s Nimona. Oh…huh…nice arm”
Nimona, Noelle Stevenson. My favorite fictional character of the last year is the title character of this graphic novel that was a finalist for the National Book Award. Nimona’s first exchange with her new boss (the splendidly named Ballister Blackheart) reveals the deadpan humor and sass that make this book such a page-turner.
- “I walk to the bus station by myself. There’s always a fuss over my paperwork when I leave. All summer long we’re not even allowed to walk to Tescos without a chaperone and permission from the Queen—then, in the autumn, I just sign myself out of the children’s home and go.” – Carry On, Rainbow Rowell. Simon Snow is a powerful wizard on his way to his final year at a British wizarding school, where he must face a powerful nemesis who wants to destroy the world of magic. The Harry Potter comparisons are inevitable, but no HP story had as much fun with the mundanities of wizarding logistics (like bus rides and papework); and none of those books had as complex a relationship as Simon has with his roommate/nemesis, Baz.
Jim Woehrle has taught English and journalism at Midland High School in Midland, Michigan, for 16 years. He advises his school newspaper. Although Shakespeare and Dickens are his favorite authors, a workshop hosted by Donalyn Miller inspired him to dive deeply into MG and YA literature. He lives in Midland with his wonderful wife and two children. He is on Twitter @jimwoehrle.