Friday, November 28, 2014

(27) MG Historical Fiction: ESTER, CALLED MARIA

TITLE: Ester, Called Maria
GENRE: MG Historical Fiction

For thirteen-year-old Ester Cordova, being a secret Jew is a bit like a game until the Inquisition arrives in Portugal. To try to keep her family out of the Inquisition’s reach, Ester lies to her family, strikes a deal with enemies, disguises herself, but finally must obey her parents and do the unimaginable-- leave Portugal without them.

There are two of me. I watch myself, and I’m the one I’m watching:

Mama crouches at the trapdoor and hands Isaac down to Grandma. I’m next. The cellar is black except for a small lamp. I clutch my doll Fryda and squat beside Grandma. She cradles Isaac and gives him sips of wine. It dribbles onto his chin. She puts the cup in my hands. I swallow the rest. The bitter smell of sour grapes. Mama has a basket of food. Papa has blankets. He rolls me up in one. It’s hot, and my ears and nose itch. I feel Grandma beside me. I think it’s Grandma. From somewhere else, clomps, cracks, screams, smacks. The sounds get louder. My head hurts. I can’t move…

I shake the shadowy dream, slip on a petticoat, pull my dress over my chemise, cinch the bodice, then spit three times over my shoulder and hope it works. No bad omens today. Reaching over, I stroke Isaac’s warm brow until his eyes flutter open.

“It’s morning,” I whisper close to his ear. My little brother sits up rubbing his cheeks, and quickly we mouth the morning Jewish prayer, Modi Ani…. We’re done before Luzia comes in.

“Good morning, children.”

She hands Isaac his clothes. He wiggles under the covers to put them on.

“Maria, let’s see to your hair.”

“I can do it myself.”

“Of course. But would you like help?”

Luzia unravels my night braid, and we each take a comb to one side.


  1. I love the premise.
    The first two paragraphs were confusing to me. It was unclear the beginning was a dream until you mention it in the third paragraph. You might consider beginning the story elsewhere and weave in the information about the dream or family (Grandma and Mama) later in the story. I love Ester's superstitious nature and how you weaved this with her saying a Jewish prayer.

  2. Okay, this is a kind of story that I would read in a HEARTBEAT. But I agree with the previous comment: it's a little confusing to start. I went back to the first paragraph to try and figure out what I missed. Now I'm not saying you should strike the subtlety, but some clarity is definitely wanted right there at the beginning.

    Nevertheless, I am intrigued and I would keep reading.

  3. I really love the premise and the pitch, but opening with a dream is weak. We get confused and as dreams are by definition not real, it's only a tease and a false start.

    However, I am very intrigued by the story and I would probably read on. Good luck.

  4. I knew the MC was dreaming in the second paragraph when she says in the first sentence she woke from a shadowy dream.

    I also love the premise and the first person pont of view. Good luck!

  5. Hi there!
    I have to say, I really like the premise, and I LOVE your first line. I immediately get a sense of voice, and that voice carries through the rest of the sample.

    I would say, though, that a dream is shaky ground to start, and once that dream is over, the rest of the passage loses some of its intensity. Ack, it's so hard with only a first page because I can tell you've got the voice nailed and the story is going to unfold.

    BUT, in the interest of a strong opening, I'd say that you could have this memory without a dream. I would recommend considering putting the character into a more urgent situation, to contrast the quietness of the flashback. Then when you pull us out of it, you're not pulling us out of a dream into a morning, but out of a memory into a violent present. With subject matter like this, I think that would be immediately impactful.

    Just something to consider.

  6. I like the premise a lot. I think your pitch is great; however, I'd like to see a date so I can get an idea of exactly when this is.

    The dream opening didn't bother me, but I can see why it might not be a good way to start. Could it be a prologue instead of a dream?

    Also, I like the voice and the details that bring her world to life, such as spitting three times. I assume you tell us who Luzia is later on, but if you could put, "nanny," or whatever after her name when she enters the room, I think that would be helpful.

    Good luck!

  7. Your premise sounds fascinating and original, although I'd like to know when this takes place.

    Your first page is well-written and intriguing, but has a lot of info and a lot of characters crammed into it. I think if you're going to address a heavy, serious topic in MG, even more than usual, you need to make sure to keep the writing easy to read for your younger readers. Try not to introduce too many characters at once, and try not to have long, overly info-heavy paragraphs and sentences. I think it's helpful to keep it snappy and easy to read, even (or especially) if the subject matter is not.

    Also starting with a dream is almost never a good idea. Your first page must ground the reader, and a dream is not grounding. Clarity is crucial. I'd consider starting this differently, without the dream, and also let us get to know Ester more before you introduce so many other characters.

    This definitely sounds like a great story, good luck :)

  8. This premise is amazing! It's a part of history that's not well known. I found the beginning to be very compelling--the family going into hiding, until I understood it was a dream. It's hard for me to come up with suggestions on how to make it work without reading more. I think you have the premise and the voice down perfectly, it's just a question o finding the right start. But I would read this in a heartbeat!

  9. This is a great, unique premise and I would definitely pick it up! I get a clear sense of a long ago time, though it would be helpful to know when exactly it takes place. The dream didn't bother me so much as it helped paint the image of your MCs world. Good luck with this. I think you're off to a good start. :)

  10. Fascinating concept, and though there are many books out there about this era, I feel as though Ester really sets this one apart. I love that's going to go to any length to protect her family! She's an active and dynamic character, and that's compelling.

    I like your prose a lot, but I agree with the others that the dual-scene intro threw me off a bit. I had gotten so involved in the first scene, so when we quickly moved into the second one, I felt a bit disoriented. I think we need to be grounded in Ester's present-day world on this first page if we're truly to become sucked into her story right away. I'd suggested perhaps staying in the present, and integrating mentions of the memories into the narrative rather than using them as a separate flashback. Or maybe it's a matter of moving this dream to a later point in the story - I almost think it will make more sense in the narrative if we already have the context of why Ester is dreaming of it in the first place.

    This is a compelling start and I do want to know more. Good luck!

  11. Love this premise. Can't wait to read the rest!

    25 pages

  12. Love this! 50 pages

  13. 110 pages please

  14. not at 150, Rena ;)

  15. Fine, I bid 150


  17. CLOSED! Full goes to Joan Paquette. :)

  18. WOOHOO! *Finally* I can stop hitting refresh ;)

  19. Wait...what?? Something so strange happened. I saw 150 and I thought I won this. Ack!!! Crazy computer. Man. Really wanted this. :(