A world in one sentence

Priya Khaira-Hanks rediscovers the startling impact of opening lines in children’s fiction

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“Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” The first line of the book that-shall-not-be named contains so much more than a cursory introduction to character and setting. Uptight suburbia, twitching curtains, skeletons inside perfectly charming, rose-painted closets: all conjured in the defensive “thank you very much”, as Rowling greets her readers with a knowing wink and an irresistible invitation to find out why the Dursleys were wrong. In only twenty-one words, she creates a wry voice, a relatable universe, and one of the most globally recognisable opening lines in fiction — it’s from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, for those of you that live under a joyless rock.

The opening sentence of a piece of adult fiction is subject to many competing agendas: establishing genre, catering to the narrative arc and circumnavigating the fine line between an intriguing beginning and a shameless, cheap hook. Whilst this all may be present under the surface in children’s fiction, it is ultimately subordinate to the main goal: to create an escape. Parents are shouting, people are crying, things are happening you do not understand, and you are denied the adult escape routes of calling a friend, storming out of the house or pouring yourself a large alcoholic beverage. You need a book you can open and instantly be transported elsewhere. Hence, the opening lines of good children’s books are some of the purest and most masterful lessons in escapism that can be found.

If JK Rowling is the queen of this art, then Eva Ibbotson is its high priestess. She produced stellar specimens such as “Ellie had gone into the church because of her feet” (The Star of Kazan) or “There are children whose best friends have two legs, and there are children whose best friends have four— or a thousand, or none at all” (The Beasts of Clawstone Castle). Her gift for the pitch-perfect literary welcome mat in no way diminished toward the end of her career. Her final novel, The Abominables, was posthumously published from a typescript found among her papers and opens with “about a hundred years ago something dreadful happened in the mountains near Tibet”. Even now, reading this line creates a pleasing buzz of anticipation and excitement. The key is how the promise of faraway lands is combined with the nebulous threat of “something dreadful”. The Abominables is about climate change and animal cruelty. As with all the best children’s fiction, the surface whimsy is rooted in reality. The perfect first line, then, strives for the optimum blend of magic and mystery, which transports the reader but does not shy away from darkness. It is important for the otherness to be palpable, yet not in any way sugar-coated.

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Elizabeth Goudge achieves this delicate alchemy in The Little White Horse, where we meet Maria Merryweather, Miss Heliotrope and Wiggins, riding in a rickety carriage through the dark night. Goudge describes how “the carriage gave another lurch” and the characters console themselves with “those objects which were for each of them at this trying moment the source of courage and strength”. This first line captures the Gothic allure of a horse-driven vehicle barrelling through a mysterious landscape, whilst at the same time confronting how this would really feel, evoking the very real sensation of emotionally anchoring yourself on an object as the world around you seems out of your control. For Goudge, this coping strategy is not unique to humans — Wiggins the spaniel keeps himself sane by focusing on the remains of his last meal, preserved in his whiskers. Thus childlike open-mindedness is combined with real emotion, pulling the reader into an immersive story world without talking down to them.

Goudge’s realistic exploration of character interiority does not detract from the fact she is creating a universe in which her readers can forget their troubles and lose themselves. The joy of first lines is that they open up a more exciting world. This is true of Chris Riddell’s Ottoline and the Yellow Cat; as soon as we learn that “Ottoline lived on the twenty-fourth floor of the Pepperpot Building”, our eyes are opened to an entire city of chimerical architecture and girls with fairy-tale names. Mary Hoffman’s underrated Stravaganza series begins in a room overlooking a canal, where “a man sat dealing cards out on to a desk covered in black silk”, proving that the first line of a children’s book doesn’t have to be overtly fantastical to create that essential sense of difference. Like the slicing of Will’s subtle knife in the His Dark Materials trilogy, the sentence that opens a children’s novel is the rip in your current reality, through which a fully-formed new world is ready for you to step into.

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Poets and adult writers could learn a great deal about concision, world-building, humour and subtlety from the few choice words that open our favourite stories. They exemplify a skill that often goes unacknowledged: the ability to see, or rather to create, a “world in a grain of sand”. Whole universes can lie in the sentence that opens a children’s novel, and it is comforting to know they will always be there, waiting, for when everything gets just a little bit too grown-up.