That One Line

So you’re reading a picture book to your kiddos or perusing the new pb shelf at the library or paging through new releases at the bookstore, and you’re blithely going along – yes, oh cute, uh-huh – when you come to a line that grabs you by the glottis. Whoa, Nellie, you think. What’s this?

It’s that one line. The one that’s surprisingly subversive or makes you laugh out loud or pierces your heart or makes you shout, “BRILL!” because you didn’t see it coming. I wrote an entire post about one line in Kelly DiPucchio’s GASTON for the TeachingAuthors blog. You can read that here, if moved to do so.

For me, a few more of those one liners that affected me (in these cases, making me laugh aloud) are:

From Mo Willems’s GOLDILOCKS AND THE THREE DINOSAURS: “Sure enough, five minutes later a poorly supervised little girl named Goldilocks came traipsing along.” Poorly supervised. Har.

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From Pat Zietlow Miller’s SOPHIE’S SQUASH – from Sophie’s mother, after watching her daughter feed, hug, and kiss her precious squash, Bernice: “Well, we did hope she’d love vegetables.”

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From Mary Amato’s THE CHICKEN OF THE FAMILY – when Henrietta’s big sisters are trying to convince her that she’s a chicken, telling her that one of their jobs is to pluck out her feathers each morning before she wakes up: “It’s why we get more allowance than you do. Right, Clare?”

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But the first time a line stopped me in my tracks was the most powerful. That was while reading Kevin Henkes’s JULIUS, BABY OF THE WORLD to my kids 20 years ago (20?!! gulp). What a cute story, I thought as I went along. That Lilly, what a character. Ooh, I like what he’s doing with repetition…. Then I came to this page, on which baby hater Lily feels the need to warn an expectant stranger: “You will live to regret that bump under your dress.”

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Wha–? I blinked. Reread. Wondered, Can they do that?! They could, and they did. Who knew emotions that honest were allowed in children’s books? Not me.

Lily’s cheeky call to that stranger affected me deeply. Until then, I’d been sitting on the fence for three or four years – Should I try writing for kids? Naw, I don’t know how. But maybe I could learn. But, naw…. Lily shoved me off the fence and sent me stumbling down the path that led me to … well, to myself.

How about you? Is there one line that inspired you or made you laugh or forever changed your writing or your life?

P.S.  You can still enter  to win a copy of Linda Ashman’s new book, LITTLE BABY BUTTERCUP!  You have until the 15th.

P.P.S.  Don’t miss this interview with our own Tammi Sauer! Woot! Way to go, Tammi.

Jill Esbaum

Jill Esbaum

Jill Esbaum is the author of many picture books. Her latest is If a T. Rex Crashes Your Birthday Party. Other recent titles are Elwood Bigfoot– Wanted: Birdie Friends!, Teeny Tiny Toady, and I Am Cow, Hear Me Moo! Coming soon: Frankenbunny. Learn more at http://jillesbaum.com.

64 Comments:

  1. The “wow” line from LILLY’S PURPLE PLASTIC PURSE is repeated throughout the book with various characters [Lilly, her teacher, her father] saying it: “Wow!” said Lilly. That was just about all she could say. “Wow!”

    • I love that one, too! And my daughter was the perfect age for that book when it came out. Translation: I had to find her a plastic purse.

  2. I loved your choices, but I can’t think of one line off the top of my head. I enjoyed your post and ordered up a couple of these books from my library. Thanks for the post.

  3. What a great post! A good one liner is priceless! I loved your examples. I’ll be on the look out for more and hope I can create one (or two) of my own some day:)

  4. Also from Pat Miller’s SOPHIE”S SQUASH–“Don’t listen to her, Bernice.” From THE SHRINKING OF TREEHORN after the long speech from the principal–” But I don’t have any problems,” said Treehorn. “I’m just shrinking.” And from THE PAPER BAG PRINCESS–“Ronald,” said Elizabeth, “Your clothes are really pretty and your hair is very neat. You look like a real prince, but you are a bum.”

  5. From The Little Blue Truck by Alice Schertle: “Now I see a lot depends on a helping hand from a few good friends!” It makes parents willing to read the book over and over and over again! Awesome post 😀

  6. LOVED this post! Now I’m going to be noting the lines that really make me laugh and think!

  7. Super post, Jill. I now want to work “grab you by the glottis” into every day speech. My stop you in your tracks line that made me want to write PBs was Doreen Cronin’s famous “Duck was a neutral party, so he brought the ultimatum to the cows.” I love that line from Click, Clack, Moo!

  8. Oh, I just loved this post. One of the picture books I adore for its language is Henry Allard’s There’s A Party at Mona’s. Almost every page has “that one line” – it’s hard to choose a favorite. I think the best are the slightly subversive, subtle ones whose sarcasm may strike adults more than children. Or Helen Lester’s A Porcupine Named Fluffy: “Fluffy didn’t know what a rough time was, but he didn’t like the sound of it at all.”

    • Wow, how cool when there are too many good lines in one book to choose a favorite! My brain is stuck in 5th grade, so I love the subversive, sarcastic ones too.

  9. Great post. Now it has me wracking my brain. I know there are lines that whacked me upside the head with their brilliance and maybe it is too early in the morning, but I can’t think of them right off the bat. I’ll come back to this after coffee…

  10. Now I feel hungry. For more great lines, that is. Could we have a post like this one again? Someday? Pretty please?

  11. From my favorite book of all time, Bootsie Barker Bites, the main character says of Bootsie: That night, I dream that Bootsie accidentally falls off the edge of the world. I tray to save her, but it’s too late.
    There are scads of outrageous lines in Monsters Eat Whiny Children.
    One thing these “one lines” seem to have in common is that they work for kids–and adults.

  12. I loved reading this post, Jill.

    The first that immediately comes to mind for me is Audrey Vernick’s IS YOUR BUFFALO READY FOR KINDERGARTEN? It’s jammed-packed with great lines like these. Here’s my favorite:

    “Snack time! Your buffalo is probably looking forward to sharing treats with a classmate. But he may be the only one who eats grass, then throws it up in his mouth and eats it again. Remember: Everyone’s special in his or her own way.”

    Another fave is (surprise!) in Mo Willems’s LEONARDO THE TERRIBLE MONSTER:

    “One day, Leonardo had an idea. He would find the most scaredy-cat kid in the whole world…
    And scare the tuna salad out of him!”

    I’ve read these books dozens of times, but I still laugh every time. 🙂

  13. Great post and wonderful examples!
    You immediately made me think of James Marshall’s GEORGE AND MARTHA books: he really hit his stride with this sort of line in that wonderful series…

  14. Thanks for the reminder about the importance of a perfect throw-on-the-brakes sentence, Jill.

  15. What a fabulous post. Loved your one-liners and those in the comments. That one about vomiting buffalo just cracked me up.

    One that always makes me laugh is in David Ezra Stein’s INTERRUPTING CHICKEN: “Don’t panic! It’s just an acorn!” Words to live by!

  16. “You said no backsies,” said Frances.
    A BARGAIN FOR FRANCES by Russell Hoban

  17. Love the one line phrases. Kids say the darndest things. I should be writing down some of what my students say and hold on to them for my manuscripts. Thanks!

  18. So many good ones listed in the comments, as well as the post. Love that line from Julius. The line that instantly popped into my head after reading this was when the dragon in Julia Donaldson’s “Room on The Broom” says “Just this once I’ll have witch without fries!”

  19. What a great post, Jill! So many good ones… One for me is in MARTIAN ROCK that I would read to my son, “By now they were homesick, filled with despair and fresh out of socks and clean underwear.” Ha. Who knew Martians need them. Another is from SPARKY when the girl is talking to her pet sloth, “You’re it, Sparky,” I said. And for a long, long time he was.” Aww.

    • I don’t know MARTIAN ROCK, Liz. Putting it on my “gotta get that” list. Sounds fun! And SPARKY is one of my favorites from last year. 🙂

  20. Great post, Jill! My all-time favorite pb line is: You are not my Mother. You are a snort.

    • Thanks, Susan. Another one of my kids’ favorites, especially when read in a funny bird voice. 😉

      • I learned from that one line; see things differently and say so. The little bird doesn’t say you are a machine, no, he hears a sound and that IS the object in his mind. That’s really helped me make my own work stand out.

  21. Soooo funny, Jill! I love one I just read today from Bob Shea and Lane Smith’s 2014 KID SHERIFF AND THE TERRIBLE TOADS: “Then he rode into town. Slowly. On a tortise. -page turn- Give him a minute.” The illustration shows him just slightly farther than he was in the previous spread.

    • Oh, Bob Shea. In a class by himself, isn’t he? Hilarious. I haven’t read KID SHERIFF yet, but heard lots of great things. Another one going on my list.

  22. GREAT post, Jill. And thank you for quoting from SOPHIE. Mylisa: I love that line from the PAPER BAG PRINCESS, too. I have two more nominees. From CHESTER’S WAY by Kevin Henkes: “They circled Chester and Wilson and yelled personal remarks.” I remember laughing so hard when I first read that. And, from ALEXANDER AND THE TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, NO GOOD, VERY BAD DAY: “The cat wants to sleep with Anthony, not me.” I always thought that summed up the ultimate indignity from a child’s point of view.

  23. “Some days are like that. Even in Australia.” Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. That did it for me. Lovely post.

  24. First of all, Katy: xoxoxox!

    And I LOVE this post, Jill. LOVE it. The first one that came to mind is from And Then It’s Spring by Julie Fogliano (art by Erin E. Stead) A sign reads “Please do not stomp here—there are seeds and they are trying.” It just kills me every time.

    Also, every line by Bob Shea.

  25. …”and they are trying.” Adorbs.

    And have you seen the video of Bob Shea reading Dinosaur vs. The Potty? Choke-inducingly funny.

  26. A line that always makes me smile comes from Bubba the Cowboy Prince by Helen Ketteman. At the ball she hosts to find a man, Miss Lurleen watches the guests arrive and says “There goes another ten dollar Stetson on a five cent head.”

  27. Love this post! I, too, fell in love with Lilly and her snarky comments years ago, and of course your other examples are gems, too (bravo, Pat!). I have another favorite line from a Mo Willems book, referring to Trixie in the later stages of a tantrum: “She went boneless.” Such a perfect description. Wonderful interview with Tammi, too–thanks for sharing the link!

  28. Loved this post! There are so many great examples from books I love in the post and in the comments. I just want to add that in I WANT MY HAT BACK, it was equally shocking and satisfying when the bear said, “I would not eat a rabbit.”

  29. How to Hide a Lion by Helen Stephens

    “They went inside so Iris could hide the lion properly. They had to be quiet because moms and dads can be funny about having a lion in the house.”

  30. Thanks for posting! I appreciate your insight!

  31. From THIS IS A MOOSE by Richard Morris, illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld:
    “I’m the moose’s grandmother. When I was his age, I wanted to be a lacrosse goalie.”

    And just about every line in Mini Grey’s TRACTION MAN just cracks me up.

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