Successful Queries: Agent Suzie Townsend and “A Death-Struck Year”

This series is called “Successful Queries” and I’m posting actual query letter examples that succeeded in getting writers signed with agents. In addition to posting these query letter samples, we will also get to hear thoughts from the writer’s literary agent as to why the letter worked.

The 71st installment in this series is with agent Suzie Townsend (New Leaf Literary) for Makiia Lucier‘s historical young adult debut, A DEATH-STRUCK YEAR (HMH Books for Young Readers, March 2014). The book received both a School Library Journal Starred Review and a Library Media Connection Starred Review. It was named as a 2014 ABC Best Books for Children Selection, a 2014 ‘Indies Introduce New Voices’ Selection, a 2014 Publishers Lunch ‘Buzz Books’ Selection, and a Spring 2014 Kids’ Indie Next Pick.

(How many literary agents should a writer send their work to?)


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Dear Ms. Townsend:

In the fall of 1918, Cleo Berry is completing her studies at St. Helen’s Hall, one of the oldest boarding schools in Portland, Oregon. When soldiers arrive at nearby Camp Lewis, they transport the Spanish Influenza, a mysterious strain of flu that strikes down young men and women with swift, shocking brutality.

Schools, churches, and theaters are shut down. Cleo disobeys her headmistress’s quarantine order, choosing to wait out the epidemic, and her family’s impending return, in the relative safety of their empty home. But it isn’t long before the Red Cross launches a plea for volunteers. For deeply personal reasons, Cleo finds she cannot ignore the call for help.

Her duties are clear — to search the neighborhoods and report cases of influenza to the grand auditorium, which has been transformed into an emergency hospital. There Cleo meets Lieutenant Edmund Parrish, a medical student who bears the permanent scars of war. In the coming weeks, the death toll mounts, and reality sets in. There is little help forthcoming from an overworked medical staff and a strained ambulance service. If Cleo is to help save lives, she must find the courage to navigate alone in a city turned ominous with fear.

A DEATH-STRUCK YEAR is a young adult historical novel, complete at 56,000 words.

My articles have appeared in the Portland Oregonian, Bookmarks Magazine, and Library Journal. I have a BA in journalism from the University of Oregon and an MLIS from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where I studied literature for children. Additionally, I am a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators.

I have attached my complete manuscript. Thank you for your consideration.

Makiia Lucier


Now, historical YA is actually pretty tough. It’s tough to get the teenage sensibility just right while also staying true to the historical time period. As a result, I was wary when I realized it was historical YA. I wasn’t opposed to it, but it wasn’t something I was looking for either. For me to take on a historical project it would have to be something with amazing characters and really great plot and outstanding writing.

Then I got this query.

Here’s what I loved about it:

First: Spanish Influenza! I love that this is a time period I haven’t seen too many times before, but at the same time there’s a high stakes backdrop. (And can I say that when I read this for the first time, I was constantly freaking out when someone sneezed next to me on the subway.)

I also was really struck by the writing and pacing in this query. Makiia introduces the stakes (the flu that kills!) and then she sets up Cleo’s personal experience with it in a way that gradually built the sense of urgency. I felt so grabbed by the “personal reasons” (why would she put herself in danger!?) and this Lieutenant with scars of war (I admit I sort of love a guy with emotional baggage–at least in books).

I read the manuscript and loved it. There were parts that made me weep and of course, Edmund is rather swoony, and Cleo…I just loved her.

I wasn’t the only one. I sold this to Harcourt Children’s. The book is one of the ABA picks for New Voices.

(Book Payments and Royalties — Your Questions Answered.)


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