Wednesday, July 25, 2012

July Secret Agent #6

TITLE: Clementine
GENRE: Middle Grade realistic fiction

My mama’s young
Said she was 13 or so when she had me; that makes her about 27 now.
A baby having a baby,
she said.
Told me she didn’t know what to do with me
Hadn’t ever been around any other babies
For a long, long time, hadn’t been around anyone except Daddy,
she whispered.
Daddy is older
Tall, covered in ropy muscle
Strong, leaving bruises on mama’s face and body
Quiet, saying things only once, and you’d better listen when he talks.
Listen hard.
I am Clementine.
Half-child, half-woman.
Mama taught me to read, write, and do some math.
She only went to school through third grade,
but she has a trunk full of books at the foot of the bed she shares with Daddy,
books that Daddy brought her as peace offerings.
For every fight, every raised fist, every flowering bruise,
Daddy presented Mama with a book.
Those little paper apologies crowd her trunk,
Whispering the words that Daddy will never speak.
I’ve never seen all of Mama’s books
She only brings out the ones she wants me to read.
When I first learned to read, Mama let me borrow her
book about the little red hen baking bread.
I would hold the slick, colorful paper between my fingers,
Wondering how the hen’s bread tastes.
Now that I can read nearly anything, Mama lets me borrow her
good book, the Bible.
Now, I hold the thin, fragile paper between my fingers,
wondering where God is.


  1. This pulled me in - I read it three times! I love how the significant lines like "Daddy is older" and "I am Clementine" are set apart so you can go back and read just those and be told the story again.

  2. Really lovely language here - and nice use of imagery. I'm not sure I would keep reading though. It's just personal preference, but it seems like it's going to be a pretty cheerless book, judging from the opening. I wish I knew a little more about Clementine and a little less about her parents. I wonder if it's a novel in verse, it seems like it.

  3. This is beautiful and I want to keep reading.

    I confess I'm worried that the story will be more about her parents (so much hinted in "For a long, long time, hadn’t been around anyone except Daddy, she whispered.") than about Clementine. And I'm worried that it will be a story entirely indoors. Still, I would keep reading.

  4. This is beautiful prose. Reminds me of a non-fantasy version of McKillip's narrators.

    Also, I have an immediate sense of the MC's ignorance and yet buy into the amazing prose at the same time. It's like raw emotion poured onto the page and the unconventional structure really helps to make it feel authentic.

    I would love to read this book. I wonder if MG is the right audience; it's so deep and raw for a young reader of that maturity...

  5. This is truly a lovely piece of writing. As for whether or not it's MG, we would have to read the full MS to decide.

    As a MG writer myself, I believe that we should not be afraid to address hard topics, nor should we be afraid to write in a more literary, lyric style for kids. That being said, there are certain considerations regarding your audience, and writing without all the funny/action packed elements that are so often used in MG fiction means you have to work harder as a writer. But, given the skill you exhibit with this excerpt, I feel you are capable.

    Keep it up!

  6. I've fallen for this piece despite how intense the topic is in beginning, it's beautiful prose and capture of emotion, I'd want to read this.

  7. I thought you set up the situation nicely. We know Clementine's situation and get a feel for who she is, as well as her family.

    But no problem is mentioned, and you might get it in on the first page by moving the books. (Loved the reference to the Little Red Hen.)Perhaps give us a hint of what it is Clementine wants, or what the problem will be, so we have a reason to read on. As is, there's no hint of where you'retaking this.

  8. This seems to be a novel in verse. Beautiful writing.

    It pulled me in, but I am an adult. I wonder if a middle-grader would be as smitten.

    Good job.

  9. I agree with the others about the beautiful writing. Interesting descriptions and issues.

    But I personally didn't connect with it, mostly because I have a hard time reading novels in verse. But I also wonder like the previous commenter did, if a middle-grader would be interested in it.

  10. I thought this was beautiful. I don't read MG at all, and not very much YA, but I agree that it already feels quite mature for MG.

    I've also never read a novel in verse, if that's what this is. And if it IS, I don't think I'd have any problem with it because it's very approachable verse. Literary without feeling esoteric as poetry sometimes can, and the free verse makes it so the focus is really on each word and the story rather than the rhyming scheme.

    I would definitely keep reading.

  11. This is absolutely gorgeous. I love that the voice is strong from the very first sentence.

  12. This is a very hypnotic and different style of writing. For that reason alone, I kept reading. However, I'm not sure if I would stick with it after a few pages. For me, personally, the prose would get old. It's a great initial hook though!

  13. I think this would be a wonderful short story. There is so much information compacted in and within the sentences that it just would not sustain itself over the course of a novel. I love the idea that books are given as peace offerings and the library grows....that's extremely powerful. But, just like a nuclear blast, the intense power is concentrated in a short space of time and does not linger. I feel for novel length, this might be problematic but for shorter form? - absolutely beautiful.

  14. I found this compelling: each word seems carefully chosen and I was captured by the meter. I'm particularly struck by the idea of books and paper as apology. I'd love to read the rest of the book.

  15. I've read a few novels in verse (all YA) and write poetry as well.

    This is inspiring stuff.

    I think that even though there isn't much to "feel good" about, not every MG story has a purpose to entertain. There are kids out there who would identify with this--and that's important.

    However, because this is for MG, you will have to be vigilant over every word (some could be cut, for instance) and the reader is going to want to identify with more than just Clementine's circumstances. What else does Clementine do? What does she want?

  16. Excellent writing. I'm definitely pulled in to what's going on. Great descriptions. I generally consider middle grade to be 4th - 6th graders, and as a 5th grade teacher, I see this as too mature for most 5th graders. Perhaps middle school age (7th/8th grade) is what you're thinking? I would definitely keep reading.

  17. i also thought the writing was very lyrical and I was intrigued by Clementine's circumstances. I could be way off base here but I couldn't help making the comparison to the real-life case of Jacey Lee Dugan (the girl who was kidnapped at 11 and held for 18 years) and wondering if this could be a similar situation with the mom giving birth at 13 (the "or so" was a powerful statement) and not being around anyone for so long, getting past third grade, etc. back to the 13 or so- instead of using "that makes her 27" to convey Clementine's age, maybe you could point out that Clementine is around the same age her mom was when she had her as a more interesting way to state it. Not sure how that would fit in with your verse- I'm not familiar with the "rules" of writing in verse. I also wanted to mention that there is a very, very popular chapter book series called Clementine, which is 5 or 6 books into a series (all containing Clementine in the title). I know you are writing for middle grade, but where the two sections are likely to sit close together on a shelf in smaller bookstores or libraries, you may want to reconsider the title. The subject matter couldn't be more different, but even so. I also agree with an earlier comment that you might want to characterize this as "upper MG". Overall, very nicely done with both the writing and the subject matter.

  18. Only have time to comment on 2 or 3of my favorites entries this month, and your's is definitely one. Good job- I love stark, real stuff, and I think kids are more fascinated by this style than we realize.

    I have no idea what the rules of verse novels are--but why do I think "a baby having a baby" and "she said" should be on the same line? For some reason I falter and find myself re-reading this part each time. Some of the punctuation throughout also confuses me, but again, I don't know the rules of verse novels.

  19. Thank you all so much for your amazing comments! I appreciate all of your insight and will be referring back to what you've said as I revise.

    To answer a few questions, yes, this is a novel in verse, and I absolutely agree that it's upper middle grade or possibly young adult. As a teacher/librarian and mom, I really feel that some kids are able to handle things like this and others really need to see bits of themselves represented in the books they read. I think middle grade encompasses such a wide range of reading and maturity levels that I know some of the kids could handle this, but perhaps it does fit better in YA (and I can always tweak Clementine's age, too).

    Jennifer, I do remember reading about Jacey Lee Dugard a few years ago and it must've stuck with me because earlier this year, I had a dream about Clementine (and no, I'm not married to the name or title Clementine--I just like the thought of her mama singing the song to her).

    I didn't want to write this story--it was so harsh and just NOT where I wanted to go (I'd moved from YA writing to MG to avoid some of the "rated-M-for-Mature" issues). But Clementine haunted me, and I found that I HAD to write this story.

    Spoiler alert: Clementine doesn't spend the entire book inside. She's forced to get up and go outside or starve when her dad disappears for an extended period of time.

    Again, I can't thank you all enough for your thoughts! What an amazing community!! :)

  20. Very beautiful word choice and rhythm. I was definitely captivated by it. I could not, however, go through an entire novel so I think if this were a novella or short form piece it would work best. It is so sad that a 13 year old becoming a mom is part of the story and I think you would have to explain somehow in what was to come hoe her daughter is able to process language and want to tell her story. She must have had some other influence for example because obviously her mother was completely useless in that regard. Maybe an aunt or an uncle? a grandparent? Then, she would have a logical stimulus for escaping and rising above this trailer trash lifestyle.

  21. Beautifully written. It's a bold choice to write a middle grade in verse. I also think that the use of bold topics like abuse are a bold choice, one that might make it really hard for your agent to find a market for, thus making it hard to successfully pitch. This reads more like an adult fiction.

    I was pulled in but I can't imagine a whole lot of 9-12 year olds being as pulled in when they have all the really commercial, high concept books to choose from. I'd have to see where this goes. It might be more appropriate for YA if the MC gets older throughout the course of the novel.


  22. Thanks so much for your time and thoughts, SecretAgent! I appreciate you sharing your expertise with me.