Saturday, December 4, 2010

#23 YA: Kwizera Means Hope (BAKER'S DOZEN AGENT AUCTION)

TITLE: Kwizera Means Hope

Having survived the Rwandan genocide in which her father and many schoolmates died, guilt now causes sixteen-year-old Cecile Kwizera loss of appetite, migraines, and nightmares. If she can't overcome the symptoms, she won't be able to keep her housekeeping job with a humanitarian organization which allows her to provide for her family, let alone save enough money to fulfill her dream of becoming a nurse.

I really did not want to pick tea for a living.

"It will just be temporary," Mama said. "Until you can find something better."

It didn't matter. Since the war, taking care of my family was more important than anything I wanted.

Anyway, how would I find something better if I had to spend all day in a tea field? I sighed and looked up at the Virunga volcano that seemed to float above the eucalyptus trees in the western sky. Another day out of school, another day further from my dream.

"Keep picking, Cecile," Mama yelled across from the next row. "If you don't meet your quota, Mr. Kabuga will fire you."

What she didn't say was that without this job, our family wouldn't have enough money for food. I hadn't been eating much anyway, but Mama needed to keep her strength up for picking tea and to nurse my baby brother. And my little sisters needed to eat, too.

Lucie and Therese came running down my row of tea plants, screaming and screeching, followed by a gaggle of boys and girls who should have been in school. Like me.

I grabbed Therese, the younger one, and spun her around in the air. Her shrill laughter filled the plantation. At eight years old she was still small enough for me to lift over my head. I couldn't do that anymore to Lucie, only two years older than Therese, despite the lack of food in recent months.

"Cecile!" Mama shouted, the frustration evident in her voice.


  1. I can't pinpoint why, but I found your opening page compelling. The prose was simple and matter-of-fact, but it's quite lovely that way.

  2. I like the opening, although introducing so many characters in such a short space of time can be a little overwhelming for a reader.

    I'd read on. The premise is an interesting one and you have an exotic, frightening location as the backdrop, and a topical subject that most people probably prefer not to think about to deal with.

  3. I really feel sorry for Cecile. I want to read more about her.

  4. The logline is quite good but the "let alone..." is awkward. This would read better as "which allows her to provide for her family and to save money so she can..." Also, you've made it sound like her goal is overcoming symptoms but I think it is actually becoming a nurse. The symptoms are more of the conflict that is making it difficult for her to achieve the goal.

    As for the excerpt, it starts off sounding like she's only discussing the idea of picking tea but then, all of a sudden, she's actually picking tea. Maybe you should tell us she's picking it first or change the second line to "Mama had said" so we know it happened before now.

  5. I wonder if the logline is really getting to the heart of the story. The way it's set up Cecile is not very active-- she doesn't have a choice to make it's just external forces weighing her down/holding her back. What does she *want* and why? (you start to hint at this in the last sentence).
    I think the scene itself is a little bogged down in back story to really pack the punch that it could. Consider putting us in the moment-- what Cecile feels, smells, experiences. If you experiment by cutting out the backstory the scene has a lot more urgency.
    One question to ask yourself is "why is Cecile telling this story now?" (think about her narrative distance).
    Very intriguing (though heartbreaking) premise.

  6. I enjoyed this because it's unique and the voice is very approachable. I do agree with Holly that the transition from talking objectively about tea to being in the field is a little abrupt, but (as she also suggested) you could probably smooth it out with a little work.

    To pick a few nits:
    - You don't need "the younger one" modifying "I grabbed Therese...and spun her around" because you re-clarify the sisters' ages in the next few sentences. I'd leave the action uninterrupted and delete that first reference to age.

    -I was a little confused about Mama's admonition, too. Yes, she's behind on her quota, but most families that work so hard to stay together don't mind a few moments of greeting when another family member shows up. The next few paragraphs (unshown) might resolve that more, but it seemed a little strange to me.

    That said, I did enjoy this and I really like a YA protagonist dealing with realistic problems - this sounds like a very strong project and I hope it gets good bids!

  7. I'm not sure why but I didn't really connect here. I was really intrigued by the logline and I love stories with distant settings, but I just couldn't really get into it.

    Maybe it's the "really" in the opening sentence, for example. I feel like Cecile should feel more strongly than she does. She's missing school and her dream, I assume the warn has torn her family apart... I would expect a stronger defiance to picking tea.

    I think it's a great premise and it definitely piques my interest, but I don't feel Cecile's voice is coming across as genuine as it could be.

  8. logline - Perhaps focus more of the wanting to become a nurse. That's the goal she's striving for. All the other stuff is what's getting in her way.

    Excerpt - I agree with cutting 'really' in parg. 1, it weakens her motivation. Sounds more like a whine than a determined decision.

    I'm not feeling like I'm there. This is a far away place for most of us, and some scene setting would be nice to give a sense a place. Show us that field. What does a tea plant look like, smell like? Does her back ache? Does she have blisters on her fingers?

    Everything you tell us in pargs. 6, 7, 8, is stuff she already knows. There's no reason to state it - except to inform the reader - and if you're explaining to the reader, you're no longer in the story. Show all of that through action and dialogue.

    All she does in this excerpt is look at the volcano and spin Therese in the air. Perhaps try less explaining and more doing. You have an interesting subject in an interesting location. Give us more story so we can experience it all.

  9. I thought this was well done. There's definitely a place for this kind of novel in the market, and I think you've nailed it. It reminds me of Nectar in a Sieve, or Chinese Cinderella.

  10. I'm with Amanda, I didn't connect here. I think there's too much telling and not enough showing. I want to know what it's like to be in that field with her, I want to really get into her head.

  11. I was drawn in by the logline.

    After reading I wondered how much research you've done. Most of us couldn't even begin to imagine the mentality of a teen living in Rwanda. While fiction, the authenticity of this delicate subject, relies heavily on research or experience.

    That said, I liked the excerpt (maybe less a character or two) and would like to keep reading.

  12. I think the premise is excellent and I'm curious to see what happens in the story.

    The 250 is well written and clear, and the dialogue works, but I felt like it lacked the sensory details I longed for. I have no idea what it feels like to stand in a tea field or if the ground is sandy or wet, or if she's bare footed or in shoes, but I want to know. Are the leaves rough against her skin?

    I actually didn't have to be told that her family wouldn't eat if she didn't work, that was implied by what she is doing and her thought about wanting to be in school. I suggest you show the hunger when they are eating meals and show what picking feels like here and how the family works together.

    I do feel sympathy for the main character.

  13. Having been lucky enough to be a beta reader for this novel, I can honestly say that I couldn't put it down. The writing is spare, yet lyrical. The author's experiences in Rwanda during these years fill the pages with authentic speech and characteristics, and a brutal honesty of what happened to individuals and families. The way she handles such a tragic subject, yet retains a sense of hope, is nothing short of magical.

  14. I bid 10 pages.
    -Sarah LaPolla, Curtis Brown, Ltd.


  16. Hooked! Nice voice, establishing immediate conflict while we still want to know why she's picking tea instead of in school (beyond their poverty). Nice bits of detail to flesh out the surroundings. Perhaps would have liked to know a little more how picking tea affects her physically (must be hard work), especially because the logline mentions her health problems in a less demanding job.

    If I read on to the next page, I'd be looking very soon for establishment of time period, given that this is historical fiction dealing with recent history.

    Also: very happy to see a person of color main character who isn't involved with slavery or civil rights (two oversaturated topics in children's books). I can't think of any YA novels set in this awful period of history, and it's a story that needs to be told.