Wednesday, September 14, 2016

An Agent's Inbox #9

Dear Jennifer Johnson-Blalock,

After reading your interview with David Slayton, I thought you might be a good fit for SIGN OF THE COCOA BEANS. Complete at 35,000 words, the tone of this upper middle grade is similar to THE BITTER SIDE OF SWEET but it's more focused on discovering Deaf culture like the TV show SWITCHED AT BIRTH.

When making a choice between saving a life and rescuing his neighbors’ crops, 12-year-old Tau accidentally sets fire to his African village. He loses all hope of gaining acceptance among the villagers who consider his deafness a sign of dangerous unintelligence. Only his brother, Sam, shields him from abuse and encourages the villagers to give Tau another chance. When Sam is taken by a menacing man, Tau will risk anything to find him.

With only one clue left behind--a burlap bag with a mysterious symbol--Tau follows their tire tracks to the nearby city of Bamako, Mali. He loses the trail and finds himself lost and afraid until he meets Koowa, a Hard-of-Hearing girl with albinism. She not only introduces him to Deaf culture, she secures his job in a candy shop. While he’s working in the store, a matching burlap sack filled with cocoa beans arrives with the supply shipment. He discovers the darker side of chocolate and, more importantly, Sam’s location: a cocoa plantation south of Mali.

Koowa agrees to help Tau rescue his brother, but in sight of their goal they are stopped by the border patrol. Stranded, they realize abduction by the same child trafficker who took Sam is their only ticket into Cote d’Ivoire--a place where children go to never return.

I am former ASL student, and I'm actively working with sensitivity readers to maintain the quality of the cultures found in this manuscript. Thank you for your time. 



Tau struck a match and lit the edges of the corn leaves until they curled away, taking the flames with them. Small embers grew into a billowing fire, engulfing the stems and creeping along the field. 

Tau wandered to his tree several yards away where he could feel the air if an unexpected wind arose. He slung his arm around the trunk and grabbed a branch, hoisting himself up higher and higher until he could watch the fire spread. Only bare cornstalks remained of his labors. Dying evidence of the sweat and aches he had sacrificed to grow food for his family and village. Kernels picked from dry cobs waited in barrels to sow next year.

The fire steadily consumed the field, gradually wrapping its long fingers around the next row of cornstalks. 

Ash will feed the hungry soil, he reminded himself. Tau could feel the warmth from the flames inside him, acknowledging his work well done. 

Then the winds changed.

A swift breeze swept into the tree, twirling loose leaves into a delicate dance--a dangerous one. Tau climbed down the branches and glanced toward the pile of farm tools. Rust caked the blade of the hoe leaning against the hut and the wooden handle was cracked. If he tilled the ground a few paces farther from the field, he could keep the fire contained. 

The breeze grew stronger, and as Tau grabbed the last branch he stopped. On the other side of the farm, the cornstalks stirred.


R.E. Cranney said...

From the start, I know I'm going to love Tau. Your query is beautifully written. The only thing I would change is "menacing man." It gives me the information I need, but could be stronger. Here would be a good place to use the description "child trafficker." I guarantee my eyeballs would pop out of my head if I read that at the start of your letter, and I wouldn't stop reading.

Great description in the 250. It's the kind of description that tells me I'm going to get emotionally involved and will go through a box of tissues by the end of the book. Or maybe two boxes of tissue...

I'm excited for this to be published! Good luck.

Unknown said...

I read the first chapter before the query. Both urgency and mystery gripped me. When I went back to the query, I fell in love because immigration issues are the focus of two of my WIPs. The above poster made a good point about child trafficker word choices. I love this!!

Jennifer Hawes said...

Your query has me intrigued! Child trafficking, deaf children, Africa. Lots of unique qualities. I think "child trafficker" should be stated early on in the query instead of "menacing man."

The 250 contains lots of great descriptors. I'd like to see it end on a more "menacing" note. Off in the distance, a man lurked, or stood watching, waiting...give us a feel of the suspense to come!

Jennifer Johnson-Blalock said...

Thank you for your entry, A.H.! This is an exceptionally well done query and excellent sample. Great personalization and strong comps in the opening paragraph--if you wanted to take it one step further, you could mention what I said in the Slayton interview that made you decide to query. I also agree with previous commenters that "menacing man" and "place where children go to never return" could be stronger. Finally, I really appreciated how you discuss sensitivity readers; I would clarify, though, that you're using readers for both the Deaf culture and the African aspects--with the beginning of the sentence, it's a bit unclear. But overall, very nice work!