First Lines from Literature: Part Two of Two

By Lois E. Huffman and Mia N. Small

In Part One, we told you about the Scribendi infographic “34 Compelling First Lines of Famous Books”? Many books written for younger readers also have memorable opening lines. Below are examples that pulled us into the pages of children’s books and (YA) literature.*

Can you identify the stories? (There is a key at the end of this post, but please don’t peek!)

  1. “Brrrrrrriiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinng! An alarm clock clanged in the dark and silent room.”
  2. “Claudia knew that she could never pull off the old-fashioned kind of running away.”
  3. “I am Ivan.”
  4. “Once there was a tree…and she loved a little boy.”
  5. “Sophie couldn’t sleep.”
  6. “There was a new student in Water Tower Elementary School.”
  7. “There was once a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself―not just sometimes, but always.”

You can find lists of “best” first lines in children’s and YA fiction at:

Opening lines can also be used to develop students’ literacy and language. Here are several ideas:


Guess the Text.   Give students strips of paper and invite them to write down their favorite first sentences from literature. Then have class members randomly select a strip, read the sentence, and guess the book or short story in which it appears. The person who contributed the opener might then try to convince classmates who haven’t already read the book to give it a go.

Off to a Great Start.   Share information from the Writer’s Digest article “7 Ways to Create a Killer Opening Line for Your Novel” or some of the strategies for writing great opening lines from Daily Writing Tips. (The exemplars from literature at the latter site might be useful with high school students.)  Then invite your learners to implement one of the techniques. Use author’s chair or peer sharing to get reactions to the lines that students pen. Work together as a class or in small groups to rewrite sentences if needed.

From Beginning to End.   Check out the first line generator at children/first-line-for-a-story.php. Here are several opening sentences created via the site:

She felt the door handle in the dark.

The car stopped. The tinted window opened and…

The fire was getting closer.

Invite students to write an original short story using a starter they generate at the site. Guide the writing process and help students revise and edit their pieces for sharing or publishing.

In what other ways will you take advantage of compelling first lines from literature to promote your students’ reading and writing?


1) Native Son by Richard Wright 2) From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankwiler by E. L. Konigsburg                  3) The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate 4) The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein 5) The BFG by Roald Dahl 6) Gooney Bird Greene by Lois Lowry 7) The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Jester

*This short list of opening lines is not intended to be representative of the diverse reading material available for PK-12 students. It simply includes some memorable books from our reading lives.

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Moving to Learn: A Follow-Up.

By Lois E. Huffman, Ph.D.

At the 2017 NCRA Conference, I facilitated a professional development institute titled “Get a Move On to Learn More Vocabulary.” During the workshop, we briefly explored the growing body of research that supports experiential learning and movement in core subjects. We then delved into specific action strategies for developing language and vocabulary.

To conclude the session, we addressed the importance of school and classroom cultures that build in opportunities for physical activity. Here are additional resources for why and how to develop movement-friendly learning spaces:

How to Support Wiggly Students

This article provides practical ideas for kinesthetically scaffolding students who will benefit from moving more in the classroom. (Please be aware that sensory tools and fidgets do not include spinners and other toys that are likely to distract students and interfere with learning.)

No Grade is Too Early for Flexible Seating

The elementary teacher who wrote this blog post recommends having different work spaces and clear guidelines for behavior. He also offers strategies to support the transition to a flexible classroom.

Flexible Seating in Middle School

As summarized in the one-sentience subtitle, this piece offers “tips on giving students a choice about where and on what to sit – including ideas about seating charts and classroom management.”

School Program Encourages Students to Hit the Gym When Struggling to Concentrate

Many teachers have instituted brain breaks to reenergize students and improve focus and cognitive processing. Another option is to set up a workout circuit in the gymnasium that allows students to devise their own fitness regimen.

Time to Play: Recognizing the Benefits of Recess

This recent American Educator article focuses on the importance of recess for children’s intellectual development, health, and wellness.

I hope this information is useful in your efforts to incorporate more tactile learning, one of the “5 Trends in Literacy Education for 2017.” “Coupling physical activities with literacy instruction boosts muscle memory and better helps students to retain the concepts being taught.”

Happy reading, moving, and learning!

Photo by Jonathan Denney on Unsplash

A POWM for National Poetry Month

By Lois E. Huffman, Ph.D.

No, that’s not a typo in the title. A “POWM” is a short poem that packs a punch! One example is “Helen Keller” by Langston Hughes.

Helen Keller

In the dark,
Found light
Brighter than many ever see.

Within herself,
Found loveliness,

Through the soul’s own mastery.

And now the world receives
From her dower:
The message of the strength
Of inner power. 

                Langston Hughes

Hughes “pow”erfully reminds us that, like Helen Keller, we have the capacity to persevere amidst less-than-ideal life circumstances. In pushing onward despite our fears, we inspire others to do the same.

Do you or your students have a favorite POWM? Why does the poem impact you so? How do you share your POWMs with others?

April is National Poetry Month―an opportune time for promoting the beauty and power of poetry. Here are some articles and resources on poetry that may be useful:

PreK-Grade 2

Playing With Poetry in the Primary Grades

Grades 3-5

Poetry Lesson: How to Notice (Words, Structures, and Conventions)

Grades 6-8

Making Room for Poetry in the Common Core Era

Taking Poetry Writing Into Digital Spaces

Grades 9-12

Poetry Across the Curriculum (Poetry Pairings)

The Cure for Senioritis? Poetry!  (RIP, Maya Angelou.)

All Grades

Five Poetry Tips

More sites and ideas are in Karyn Gloden’s 2015 NCRA Reading Corps post “April―National Poetry Month.”

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First Lines from Literature: Part One of Two

By Lois E. Huffman, Ph.D. and Mia N. Small

Have you seen the Scribendi infographic, “34 Compelling First Lines of Famous Books”?  In her commentary for Daily Infographic, Anaya Lage writes,

“I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,’ but did you know the entire first line for A Tale of Two Cities is much longer? The first sentence in the book is a whopping 119 words.

On the other hand, Fahrenheit 451 opens with an easy to remember one-liner: ‘It was a pleasure to burn.’”

Which of the famous books with compelling first lines have you read? Did all of them live up to the promise of their opening sentence? In case your favorite opener didn’t make the Scribendi infographic, check out the American Book Review’s 100 Best First Lines From Novels and The 50 Best First Sentences in Fiction from Gawker Review of Books.

Depending on the work, “a great first line can be funny or meaningful or sad or somehow all of the above. Some great lines are flowery and beautiful, while others are direct and to the point.”  (

Master horror writer Stephen King, who has spent months or even years crafting an opening sentence, believes it “should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.” (

Below are the opening lines from books that have stuck in our minds.* Can you identify the source of each quotation? (We’ve included a key at the end of this post. No peeking!)

  1. “At dusk, they pour from the sky.”
  2. “At night, I would lie in bed and watch the show, how bees squeezed through the cracks of my bedroom wall and flew circles around the room, making that propeller sound, a high-pitched zzzzzz that hummed along my skin.”
  3. “First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey.”
  4. “First the colors.”
  5. “In that place, where they tore the nightshade and blackberry patches from their roots to make room for the Medallion City Golf Course, there was once a neighborhood.”
  6. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  
  7. “There was a time, not very long ago, in the desperately poor New York City neighborhoods of Brownsville and East New York, when the streets would turn into ghost towns at dusk.” 

How might you use memorable first lines to promote students’ reading, writing, listening, and speaking? We will explore some teaching ideas for this in Part Two.


1) All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr   2) The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd   3) The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien   4) The Book Thief by Markus Zusak   5) Sula by Toni Morrison   6) Book of John in The Bible (New American Standard) 7) The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

*These openers are not intended to be representative of the diversity of fiction and nonfiction books in our country today. This short list just includes books that popped into our heads after seeing the infographic mentioned at the outset of this post.

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Read Your Way Around the World

By Lois E. Huffman, Ph.D.

The travel bug bit when I studied in Switzerland as a college sophomore. Long weekends and breaks allowed me to take in the sights of western Europe. Since then I have traveled to many states and more countries.

I love learning about world cultures. Even if time, money, or safety concerns preclude actually going to faraway places, it’s possible to visit via reading. That’s why I was excited to see Book Riot’s Around the World in 80 Books: A Global Reading List. (The featured nations are the most populated ones on the planet.)

Like me, you’re probably familiar with a number of the recommendations—either the book or the movie version:

So many of the titles on the global reading list sound intriguing. Below are some I plan to check out (The descriptions are from Kate Scott who compiled the list.):

Germany – The Quest for Christa T. by Christa Wolf 

One of David Bowie’s top 100 books, The Quest for Christa T. follows two childhood friends from World War II to the Eastern Bloc in the 1960s.”

Japan – Woman on the Other Shore by Mitsuyo Kakuta

A friendship develops between a stay-at-home mother and a single, free-spirited career woman.”

Romania – The Land of Green Plums by Herta Müller  

During Ceaușescu’s dictatorship, a group of young people set out from their province for the city in hopes of a better future.”

South Sudan – God Grew Tired of Us by John Bul Dau

The memoir of a ‘lost boy’ of Sudan who walked one thousand miles from his home country to Ethiopia and back again before making the journey to Kenya and finally emigrating to the United States.”

United Kingdom – White Teeth by Zadie Smith

A suicidal World War II veteran gets a second lease on life when he marries a beautiful but toothless Jamaican woman half his age while his friend and fellow vet, a Muslim Bengali, enters into an arranged marriage with a feisty woman.”

All of these books are from countries where I know people through work with international graduate students, teaching English overseas, or my own travels. Which of the books on the list have you read? Which ones interest you? What books from other nations would you recommend to colleagues? (In my opinion, a must-read book that’s not on the list is A Man Called Ove: A Novel by Fredrik Backman. It’s set in Sweden, which happens not to be among the world’s 80 most populated countries.)

While the Book Riot compilation is for adults, there are also armchair travel lists for young people. I especially like the New York Public Library’s listing, Around The World in 80+ Children’s Books. Which of those books have you used in your teaching? Which are available in your school or classroom library?

Are there any books that should be added to that list? One that immediately comes to mind is Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian. I learned about it when I was in Oxford, England. My American colleagues and I were told that the book is typically read by Year 7 (Grade 6) students in Britain. (The story is about a young boy who escapes an abusive situation in London when he is evacuated to the English countryside during World War II. There is also a movie based on the book.)

Enjoy your travels! You might even decide to write about them like Ann Morgan did in The World Between Two Covers: Reading the Globe. Morgan realized she was a “literary xenophobe” so she read the English translation of books from almost 200 countries.

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Globe, Abstract Background from