Wednesday, February 9, 2011

February Secret Agent #38

TITLE: Marula Ridge
GENRE: Middle Grade

The bus struggled uphill, belching black smoke with every grinding gear change, carrying Simon on a journey to the top of the escarpment. Never before had he ventured this far from Marula Ridge, the farm where he'd been born.

He'd climbed aboard at dawn, excited to be leaving his old life behind, but already he missed his home, his mother and his little brother, Gideon. He hadn't listened when they begged him not to go. He'd been so eager to follow Nelson Mandela's call to arms; so determined to join the guerrilla movement fighting to free his people.

Now twinges of uncertainty began gnawing at his belly. How could he, a fifteen-year-old farm boy, help overthrow the mighty Apartheid regime? He must have been crazy to believe such a dream.

The old black man sitting next to Simon fished a paper bag from the inside pocket of his jacket. Carefully, he folded back the edges, revealing the neck of a bottle. With shaking hands, he unscrewed the cap and raised the bottle to his lips. The sharp smell of alcohol assaulted Simon's nostrils, overpowering the stench of sweaty bodies and diesel fuel that filled the bus.

Smacking his lips, the man offered the bottle to Simon, but he smiled and shook his head. He must stay alert. When they reached Igoli, he would have to find his way to the address that his friend, Moses, had given him. He tried to imagine what the city would be like - Johannesburg, Igoli, City of Gold.


  1. Some really nice details/images here! Love the premise and time period. One thing--if he's 15 years old, I think that makes this a young adult novel, not middle grade. Best of luck with this!

  2. I like this - the sights, smells, and noises of the bus (and its passengers) are all vibrant. It offers up a lot of wonderful sensory details and yet still offers action. I'd agree with the above poster that this is a young adult work due to the age of the protagonist. Even if Simon weren't fifteen, the vocabulary choices and grammar constructions are above a MG reading level. The subject matter is also quite sophisticated.

    This reads like a polished, thoughtful, and powerful piece of work. I'd certainly like to read on.

  3. This one is my favorite. Thanks for taking me on a journey to a place and time I have no direct experience with. In the writing books MG = 12 to 15 and YA = 15 to 18. You're fine. Being on the cusp is a great marketing decision. let your agent, who you will surely get, decide. I love your writing style. Your hooks are embedded with love. Missing his family, the old man and bottle (signifying coming attempts at corruption), the city of Gold (hope)..

    Best of luck,

  4. I was intrigued by the subject. At first I thought he was just leaving home but then I read futher and sat up in my chair--instant interest!

    My only issue was the voice. I know it's third person but it sounds like the author's voice and not a 15-year-old boy's. I'd like to hear his voice. I doubt he'd say the 'mighty apartheid regime.' Was there a real slang term for that? What did the people call these tyrants? A little research on that would take you far. If you had the kid's voice then I'd read on for sure.

  5. This is an interesting subject, not one I've seen many books about (admittedly, I don't read many MG books though). The only I would say is that I didn't make a strong connection with the mc. The descriptions in the first three paragraphs drew me in, but then the fourth paragraph lost me. If there was a way to shorten that and tie it in with the distraction talked about in the 5th paragraph I think it'd be stronger.

    I'd keep reading.

  6. My first thought, was "Oooh! South Africa!" I was excited by your setting and the potential conflict you've set up. I also think it's good, solid writing.

    My hesitation is with starting on the bus, and since this is all I've seen, I don't know if this is useful feedback. However, unless something huge happens on that bus or journey, I want to see him getting off it or see him setting foot in the City of Gold for the first time.

    That being said, the drinking man smacking his lips, the smells, the sights . . . you've done an excellent job of putting me right into the scene. I'd keep reading.

    Good luck!

  7. Great premise for a book. I do agree that the character, voice, and writing fits a YA reader. I really like your writing and imagery, although I might rework the sentence "How could he, a fifteen-year-old farm boy, help overthrow the mighty Apartheid regime?" IMHO it sounds unnatural, like it was put there to explain backstory up front. (But maybe you added that sentence for this post because you only get 250 words.) You write beautifully. Good luck!

  8. Kalen O'DonnellFebruary 9, 2011 at 2:00 PM

    Hmm, I like this one, I do. Your writing is solid, and practiced, gives us a good sense of everything going on, setting, action, history. My concern is that it feels a little too...distant? for the subject matter, if that makes sense? Almost like reading a memoir versus being in the center of the story. And that's a totally valid and worthwhile approach, I just wonder if its the best one for your demographic. Also, subjective, and based on a small sample of the work. It just feels a little too reflective for a fifteen year old narrator and middle grade or even YA readers. I wonder if it would be possible to start the story with a conversation between Simon and other kids on the bus for similar reasons? Like, just off the top of my head i'd expect a whole host of different reactions to this situation, a lot of scared, nervous feelings, but also excitement, optimism, uncertainty....fifteen year olds jump back and forth along a wide spectrum of emotions in the best, calmest of times and this is anything but, so rather than an unsettling feeling in the pit of his stomach I'd love to see a conversation with his seatmate which allows Simon's emotions to jump all over the place through his dialogue, in reaction to what other people on the bus say and reveal about the situation and setting in their dialogue?

  9. Very good writing. The story feels "grown-up." And I can tell by the opening, that this is going to get very serious. Pretty powerful, a young boy going to fight for his people. Maybe it's just me, but I've seen City of God, so I could picture the setting very well. Anyway, good opening.

  10. This is a great premise, with plenty of hooks to keep the reader engaged. My biggest concern is with the voice. It just sounds way too sophisticated for a 15-year-old, so whilst I enjoyed the read I just couldn't relate it to your main character. Sorry! The retrospection seems to be your own voice rather than the kid's. The fact that you're targeting MG just exacerbates this for me.

    Fix this, though, and the story has great potential - I'd love to know where it's leading. :)

  11. I love the idea of a middle grade novel about defeating apartheid, I'd really like to read something set in this world. Your excerpt had a lot of tell versus show though. "excited to be leaving his old life behind" and "he'd been so eager" and "twinges of uncertainty began gnawing at his belly"'re telling me what he's feeling. I think you need to find a way to really show it, and your book would pop!

  12. Good solid writing; certainly a subject the reader could really get their 'teeth' into but I would like to feel a bit more connection to the MC. A more emotional opening hook where he can see his mother and brother slowly disappearing in the background might promote empathy with the MC.
    Like the use of 'gnawing' and the sights and sounds in the writing generally.
    Don't like the use of 'mighty' to describe Apartheid - the Apartheid years in South Africa were cruel and disgusting so IMO either delete 'mighty' or use an adjective that would reflect the boy's feelings of the regime.
    Keep going, it's a really interesting topic and you write well.

  13. Love the premise, as I'm all for educating middle graders about the world and its history.

    However, the writing felt overblown to me ("the mighty Apartheid regime," "alcohol assaulted," for e.g.) and this created a sense of distance from Simon. The final paragraph could be reworded to get rid of so many of the "he's." The final sentence has a nice rhythm to it.

    Thank you for sharing your writing. There's a potentially interesting story there.

  14. Definitely like this... unique and interesting setting and plot story already. I love the descriptions you have. REALLY like the last sentence, "what the city would be like... City of Gold."
    One thing, fourth paragraph about the older man with the bottle, I think maybe a sentence describing Simon's impression of him. Maybe Simon guesses different reasons for his shaking hands, etc. Just something to show more of Simon's thoughts.

  15. I agree with a lot of the comments. The issue at hand (Apartheid)seems more YA than MG, although I don't see any reason you couldn't do that subject for a MG audience. You would have to change the writing style I think.

    And the voice seems to be your voice, or a narrator's voice, but not the voice of a 15 year old boy. That, I think, is the main drawback here. Capture the boy's voice and this moves up several notches. You've got a great location and a great subject.

    One thing - he describes the man on the bus as a black man. I had assumed Simon was black also. If he is, he wouldn't have described the old man as a black man, just like white people don't describe other white people by saying "she was a white woman." Let him describe the man in other ways that let the reader know he is black. ANd even if Simon is white, you should have him describe the man, not his skin color.

  16. I thought the premise was unique. Potential there.

    But the voice sounds very adult. Perhaps try this from first person and see how that works--could make the protagonist seem younger than he's now coming across.

    The scenario seems more YA than MG to me.

  17. I agree that the premise here is intriguing, but I was not drawn in by the voice. 15 seems a bit older than MG.