In conversation with fellow Musa, Sara Faring
It’s my pleasure today to introduce Las Musas blog readers to Alex Villasante, the brilliant author of one of my favorite YA novels of 2019—The Grief Keeper.
The Grief Keeper is the tender, moving, and compulsively readable speculative tale of seventeen-year-old Marisol, a young Salvadoran who flees her country with her little sister after their brother is murdered. Marisol is offered a chance at asylum in the U.S. if she agrees to participate in a dangerous experimental trial: she must take another’s grief into her body.
A Junior Library Guild selection, an Indies Introduce pick, and a Barnes & Noble debut of the week, THE GRIEF KEEPER has been called an “engrossing debut” by Publishers Weekly and a story that “will grip readers and provoke empathy” by Kirkus Reviews.
Alex, thank you for speaking with me. Without further ado...
What was the very first seed of THE GRIEF KEEPER? Was it a question you needed answered, an image that wouldn't leave you, a character whispering in your head, or something else entirely?
The idea for THE GRIEF KEEPER came from two trains of thought I’d been mulling over – my parent’s immigration story, their experiences and sacrifices; and an article about a wearable device being tested that might alleviate the symptoms of PTSD in soldiers returning from war. These thoughts knocked around my head until they collided with a ‘What if?’ What if there was a way to take grief from one person and give it to another? Which begged another question: Who would be the giver and who would be the receiver? I followed this string of questions until I had Marisol firmly in my head. Then I followed Marisol to the rest of her story.
What fell out of the overstuffed closet in your brain (we all have one) that you knew you needed to include in this story? Did you come across any fascinating details while working on the book that you ultimately chose to exclude?
Oh, my overstuffed brain! I’m always adding details and characters and scenes that tumble out of my head in the first draft. Most of those superfluous ideas, I manage to weed out (back into that brain-space you go! Eight ghost brothers bent on revenge maybe needed for another book!) but there was another pair of siblings in this book – an adult brother and sister working through their own, very different, reasons for grief. My editor wisely saw that this pair did not add anything to the narrative, and worse, took tension away. OFF they went!
The sisters in this book shine so bright from the very first pages. What did you want to highlight in Marisol and Gabi's sisterly dynamic?
Siblings is a theme I come to again and again in my writing. There isn’t another person who will be closer to you in your life. Even if you hate your brother or sister – that bond of emotion is close and complicated. As I discovered who Marisol was, I wrote Gabi and their older brother Pablo, defining each sibling as they were in relation to each other. That’s how siblings grow, in shadows of others, in protection or competition, hatred or love or both. I wanted Marisol and Gabi’s relationship to be a centerpiece of the book because that is what motivates Marisol in the hard choices she makes.
What books, movies, and television shows do you like to think THE GRIEF KEEPER is in conversation with?
THE GRIEF KEEPER is an immigrant story, in the way YOU BRING THE DISTANT NEAR and AMERICAN STREET are immigrant stories – though these are very different. Exploring what it means to be other, what it means to feel apart, is at the core of my book. Also, as you and I have discussed, I’d say that NEVER LET ME GO by Kazuo Ishigurois a book I think about a lot in context with THE GRIEF KEEPER. (I love that book, it haunts me still. I am not putting my book on a par with that masterpiece, let’s be clear!) Like NEVER LET ME GO, THE GRIEF KEEPER explores what it means to be human, how we disregard humanity to the point of dehumanization for the sake of progress. It also questions who gets to benefit from technology and who suffers.
In the book, you beautifully and sensitively explore the way that this process of passing grief from one individual to another could be used to help the privileged and hurt the needy. As a reader, it's impossible not to empathize with GK's protagonist, Marisol, a young Salvadoran who seeks asylum in the US and is given a chance at that for herself and her sister if she agrees to participate in this very risky experiment. Detailing how this experiment affects the lives of teenagers is a visceral, intimate way of examining inequity in the world. What parallels did you hope to draw between Marisol's world and ours?
I see Marisol’s world and ours as essentially the same. The only difference is the technology. The forces that seek to make us despise otherness are here right now. The moral ambiguity that comes with having power, money and privilege is here too. Even the drive to protect the ones we love at any cost is here. We’re living in Marisol’s world. THE GRIEF KEEPER takes existing situations and turns them up a notch.
While working on the book, did you imagine a world in which the experiment was rolled out on a wider scale--where grief was eradicated in a privileged few? What did that society look like? What kind of role do you think grief plays in shaping who we are?
Oh God, I did think about that. I had, at one time, a more grandiose vision of this book as a sci-fi fantasy dystopian. Evil corporations, rebellious teens, conspiracy and murder plots (sidebar: I’d totally read this book if anyone wants to write it!) But ultimately, I decided I wanted to explore the personal effects of grief and sacrifice. I wanted to dig deep into the emotion and the connection and the consequences. I needed less plot twists for that and more hands reaching to touch each other.
While reading THE GRIEF KEEPER, I was so moved by Marisol's fierce protectiveness of her sister, Gabi--and by her desire to preserve Gabi's innocence. How would THE GRIEF KEEPER differ if it was narrated by Gabi? Would you ever consider writing a MG version from her point of view (I'm only asking because I'm desperate to read it)?
I love Gabi. She’s the character I didn’t know I’d love so much until her voice started singing out to me on the page. I think a book told from Gabi’s perspective would be lighter and more buoyant, because Gabi has the privilege many younger siblings have; they know they have someone who always has their back. Fair or not, that means they get to be more carefree. Gabi is also quite different in her personality. She looks for beauty. She likes speed and breezes in her hair and she likes loud. She’s much more of an extrovert than Marisol.
While working on the book, did you learn anything surprising about yourself that you might like to share?
That I could write a hard book. I had this idea initially in late 2015 and I submitted it to my agent, Barbara Poelle along with other book ideas that were less hard. THE GRIEF KEEPER became the fourth book I went on submission with Barbara, and the books before were good, interesting and all within what I thought of as ‘my wheelhouse.’ THE GRIEF KEEPER was decidedly outside of my comfort zone – so much research, so much heavy exploration of feelings. So many stories that had to be gotten right. I wasn’t sure I could do it. I not-so-secretly hoped that Barbara would choose one of my other ideas that were lighter and fluffier. No such luck. She told me (and other friends echoed her words) to write the hard book. I didn’t think I could. But I found out I was wrong!
What do you hope readers will take away from reading THE GRIEF KEEPER?
Everyone deserves love. It sounds so easy and most people would agree immediately with this statement. But when you actively apply it to people who are different from you; who look different or speak differently or love differently – that’s when it becomes harder. Believe that this is true and act accordingly. Everyone deserves love.
What's next for you, Alex?
Sleep? Ha ha. No. I’m going on tour with the Grief Keeper [Sara, want to include the graphic of where I’ll be in the blog post? I’ll attach it here] and I’m looking forward to talking to readers and gushing about all the AMAZING Las Musas books out in the world. There’s a spooky South American tale called THE TENTH GIRL that I cannot wait to get my hands on (seriously, where is my copy??) and I’m about to get edits on my second book any day now – though I can only share that my next book contains another strong, but unusual sibling story, a trip to the Hindenburg crash site and going to summer school for failing Religion.
Sara, thank you so much for these thought-provoking questions- I had a blast!
Las Musas books are proud to announce two new expansions to Las Musas family: Hermanas and Madrinas.
HERMANAS is a selection-based mentorship program for unpublished Latinx kidlit writers. It will connect unpublished writers with current Musas and Madrinas. Mentees will benefit from the craft and industry experience of their mentor and will have the opportunity to ask for publishing/marketing related advice and/or receive help with a specific manuscript.
Mentees should be Latinx (comfortable identifying on the female spectrum) authors who would like guidance on a specific Middle Grade or Young Adult project for a period of six months.
We will be selecting up to five Hermanas. Priority will be given to marginalized community members and those who can demonstrate advanced progress on their MG/YA projects.
APPLY TO BE AN HERMANA
MADRINAS is comprised of Latinx established authors who would like to provide advice, mentorship, collaboration, camaraderie, and more among our growing collective. Our As Musas they will be able to ask their fellow Musas for help promoting their new projects and of course, a sounding board for whatever they may need.
MEET THE MADRINAS & LEARN MORE
LAS MUSAS started in the Fall of 2018 as a collective of women and non-binary (identifying on the female spectrum) Latinx MG and YA authors coming together in an effort to support and amplify each other’s debut or sophomore novels in US children’s literature.
Since then we have continued to grow and change as we build from this seed and interact with the publishing community. Because of this we hope the Hermanas and Madrinas programs will help us continue to expand our community and reflect the rich variety of voices in the Latinx community.
- Las Musas
Five friends cursed. Five deadly fates. Five nights of retribución.
This week Ann Dávila Cardinal stops by the Musas blog to talk about her debut novel FIVE MIDNIGHTS! FIVE MIDNIGHTS is a YA horror novel set in modern day Puerto Rico which uses the myth of El Cuco to examine topics such as identity, loss of faith, and substance abuse. But first a little more about the book...
If Lupe Dávila and Javier Utierre can survive each other’s company, together they can solve a series of grisly murders sweeping through Puerto Rico. But the clues lead them out of the real world and into the realm of myths and legends. And if they want to catch the killer, they'll have to step into the shadows to see what's lurking there—murderer, or monster?
OK, Querida! Let's get started!!!
1. What was the first image or visual that sunk its teeth in and wouldn't let go?
I love this question! Honestly, it was the amorphous image of El Cuco. I know, that sounds contradictory to the question, right? But when I first found out about him, that he was present in many different Hispanic cultures under different names, I kept asking people, "but what does he look like?" Most people just shrugged, some had their own images. But the idea of him not having a set shape was SO intriguing to me. Because ever since I was little, my imagination was always WAY scarier than reality, so I imagined him like the English boggart, taking the form of the thing you feared most. I loved that they found Naomi Romero's illustration of him for the cover because I think she really captured the visual that was in my head.
2. Speaking of monsters. Some people in the genre believe that the monster must never be visible - or at least not fully - in order to keep the tension up. Are you of this camp and how did you wrestle with keeping your monster amorphous being while keeping the dread a very tangible thing?
I actually had a lengthy discussion about this with my brother George. There was a scene where El Cuco took the form of a huge snake, and I got very detailed about it, describing the muscled body, the triangular head. George felt that level of description took away from the tension for the reason you mentioned. Since he's a psychoanalyst and understands much more of the human mind than I do (and has a dozen years of horror reading on me) I took his advice and went less specific in the end, more of a formless evil but with snake-like qualities...the sound of scales scraping, slitted yellow eyes, that sort of thing. He was right: it upped the tension. So I guess my answer is that I'm coming over into the less visible camp...slithering over, you might say.
3. I feel a bit of my chef side coming out with this next question. As I was reading I kept getting hints of classic tales and authors like dash of flavor coming out. I'd read a page and think, "oh here's a hint of King here," in the best way. What are some of your influences as you were writing this?
Oh, influences as I was writing it? I mean, I think at this point in my life I've had so many years of gathering influences that their voices are all in there, you know? I mean, what horror writer isn't influenced by Stephen King? Whether they admit it or not. I was a huge fan in my youth. And Anne Rice, Interview With a Vampire came out when I was 13. Gorgeous Gothic literature (don't even mention the movie to me. Sheesh! Tom Cruise as Lestat?).
But mostly when it came to horror it was movies that influenced me the most. I was lucky to be around for what I feel is the absolute heyday of horror cinema. And a childhood friend of mine, Maitland McDonagh, is a horror film critic, so she brought me to more films than I can count. Some great, some awful. I would answer the phone and find myself talking to Robert Englund (Freddy Krueger) or Michael Rooker (Merle in The Walking Dead) who were calling for their interview (both have really sexy phone voices, BTW). Fifty-six years of these story-lines, literary and cinematic, wound their way into my psyche, so I'm not surprised they're visible in my work...or that I have spent years in therapy.
4. ...you talked to Robert Englund!?!?! WHAT?!?! We need to sit down and just walk through everything and also help me get new glasses. So, as someone who also juggled multiple storylines - how did you keep personalities separate? How were dynamics particularly important for the story?
Oh, it was just a hello and a "Hi, can I speak to Maitland McDonagh?" type thing, but it was enough for me to fangirl out! But Michael Rooker called me "Darlin'." Sigh.
Keeping the personalities separate wasn't the hard part for me, it was during the revision process, my agent or editor would say, "Lupe needs some more substance" then I would beef up Lupe, and then Javier would seem one-dimensional. It's kind of like when you fix up one room of your home, the others suddenly seem shabby. I eventually hit on the right balance, though. But it is a balance. And the dynamics between the two were so important because to me they represented the two cultures that I was stretched between as a kid. I think that's something that a lot of teenagers can relate to these days. They sometimes fight, but mostly compliment each other.
5. Speaking about culture. I notice that Lupe shares your last name (Dávila) and the moniker of Gringa-Rican in the book. Can you talk a bit about if and how you spoke to that feeling of being between two places and what it meant for Lupe to carry your last name?
It’s so interesting. It wasn’t until you sent this question that I realized Lupe had that name before I did! I was born Ann Marie Hagman. My dad was a Swedish/Irish/English 6’2” gringo. I was named after my great aunt, Ana Maria Dávila. We were born on the same date. But my father thought Ana Maria was too “ethnic.” I’m still disappointed my mother caved. When I got married, I took my husband’s Native American name, Cardinal, and used Hagman as my middle name.
After my mother died I held tight to the Dávila side of me, a way of keeping her around. When I started writing this book six years ago, I gave the character my maternal family name as an homage. Then I realized I’d worn the Hagman name for 55 years and I felt more Dávila. So I changed my middle name to Dávila. In traditional Spanish families we would keep all these names anyway.
When I called my Tío Esteban to tell him I was legally a Dávila now, he said, “you always were, Sobrina.”
6. Puerto Rico - of course - plays a big role in Five Midnights. It is also squarely in the present delving into a lot of the social, economic and emotional status of the island. Can you talk a little bit about your approach, any hesitations you may have had or how setting can often become another character?
Oh, so many hesitations. I've never lived on the island for more than a few months. I know that when you hit that one thing, that "Wait! no one uses that expression in Puerto Rico! That's more a Mexican expression!" you lose readers. They no longer trust you. So I worked hard on that and had many many other eyes on it, people who live and work on the island year-round.
And when setting a book on Puerto Rico, how does it not become a character? Good Lord, the pull from that land is extraordinary. It's a drug that gets in your veins and you think about all year long (particularly during the long hard winters!). And it would be irresponsible to not address the more difficult situation the island is in these days. Even pre-Maria it was a tough time. I saw it start in the 70s and 80s when my mother's town started to change. It was farmland, bucolic, then drugs came in and I learned the term tiroteo when I was a small child. It was hard to watch because I wasn't seeing it every day, when I came back I would be shocked at the changes, and my aunt would be surprised, because she was like that frog in the proverbial boiling water, it happened slowly so she didn't notice it encroaching on her private jungle.
Initially when I wrote about Puerto Rico I portrayed it as idyllic, heaven, the way it is in my heart. But that's not fair either. That's exoticizing it. I love it with all its brightness and dark corners. I love it with all my heart.
7. You deal with a lot in this book, from colonialism, substance abuse, faith and loss of faith, culture clashes and family. Did it feel like too much at times? Why was it necessary? I promise after this I'm going with fun questions!!
Oh boy! You are asking the tough ones! But that is fitting given the content of the question. I mean, yes, it’s a lot. Some of that was intentional, and some just came organically when telling the story, like loss of faith. That just happened naturally while telling Javier’s story. I think loss of faith is often a prerequisite for addiction. Not always, but often.
And substance abuse was just part of my daily life as a child. I had to hide the car keys sometimes, and clean the house and do the laundry. When you’re young and you can’t rely on the adults in your life you don’t have a lot of time to feel sorry for yourself, you just do it. I hope i can reach a reader growing up in a similar situation and give them some kind of hope.
You asked if all these things were necessary. I don’t know about that, but I think all those things are there because they’re part of my own story. And no matter how hard I try to write away from that, it always bleeds through one way or another.
8. Let's switch this up a bit and do some fun ones! How about what are some of your favorite horror texts or movies and why?
Favorite horror...that's a tough one. In terms of books, loved The Ruins by Scott Smith. Great book, the movie...not so much. Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay. Very different kind of horror, more sociological based. I actually had coffee with him at BookCon this past weekend and grilled him as to what he thought was actually going on in that novel and he wouldn't answer. In terms of young adult literature, anything Daniel Jose Older writes makes me happy, and Zoraida Cordova's Brooklyn Brujas series is FIRE. Love her work. But my favorite young adult horror of all time was The Forest of Hands and Feet by Carrie Ryan. It's ten years old and is still the most gorgeous writing in the genre.
Movies...I loved Bird Box based on the novel by Josh Malerman. And A Quiet Place. Both made me think, a lot. Which is always something I like. And Get Out which was ground breaking in SO many ways. Of course I love the classics, anything by David Cronenberg or Guillermo del Toro. And as far as television, I'm a zombie enthusiast, but my love of Walking Dead is waning, I"m sorry to say. Though it will always have a special place in my heart and the first season is BRILLIANT. And I'm really in to the Danish series The Rain. Very interesting.
9. LAST QUESTION!!! If you could write from the POV of any monster - tell their story, get in their head - who would it be and why?
I would be Chupacabra, but since I LOVE goats, I would be goat KISSER rather than a sucker. Besocabra? Snort!
Buy a copy of Five Midnights wherever books are sold or borrow it from your local library!
For those looking to lay out on la playa or hammock this summer with a nice tall glass of limonada and an awesome pile of must-read Latinx debut and sophomore kidlit books, you need look no further than Las Musas. Scroll down for a list of all of our great middle grade and young adult titles out in time for summer and get your Las Musas reading on! Salud!
LAS MUSAS - MIDDLE GRADE
STORM RUNNER by J.C. Cervantes
Perfect for fans of Percy Jackson and Kane Chronicles
A contemporary Maya mythology adventure from Rick Riordan Presents! Zane Obispo’s backyard volcano is the one place where he can escape other kids who make fun of his limp. But he soon learns that it is actually a centuries-old prison for the Maya god of death, whose destiny is directly tied to his. A destiny that thrusts Zane into an ancient prophecy that could mean the destruction of the world unless he can find a way to stop it.
ANA MARÍA REYES DOES NOT LIVE IN A CASTLE by Hilda Eunice Burgos
“A Latina Little Women with a modern Washington Heights Flair” -Julia Alvarez
Ana María hopes to attend New York City's best private academy, but her parents can’t afford that with four daughters and another baby on the way. So Ana María must nail her piano piece at the upcoming city showcase to win a scholarship. She practices through distractions and interruptions, including a family trip to the Dominican Republic, and, with help from family and friends, figures out what truly matters.
THE WIND CALLED MY NAME by Mary Louise Sanchez
Perfect for fans of Esperanza Rising and Little House on the Prairie.
The winds of the Great Depression blow Margarita Sandoval, a ten-year-old Hispanic girl, away from her ancestral New Mexico home to Wyoming, and she is determined to make a new friend there. But when her Papá risks losing his job, possibly because of her new friend, Caroline, Margarita invokes a Wyoming saint to intercede, and he more than answers her prayers.
BLIZZARD BESTIES by Yamile Saied Méndez
Perfect for fans of Sit, Stay, Love and Allie, First at Last.
Vanesa Campos can't wait for winter vacation and her week at Pinecloud Lodge promises to be perfect. Never mind that glamorous Beck writes off Vanesa right away; twins Emma and Eric are ready to join the fun out in the snow. But when the flakes start falling, and Vanesa's little brother, Hunter, might be stranded out in the blizzard, she will have to team up with all the kids - plus one giant dog - to rescue him.
A SPRINKLE OF SPIRITS by Anna Meriano
Perfect for fans of Meg Medina and Coco
Leonora Logroño is finally learning her family's bakery bruja magic, but trouble bubbles up again when her dead grandmother appears in her room! It turns out that spirits are popping back to life all over town, and Leo will need help to solve the mystery of what caused the chaos--and how to stop it! The Logroños return in a new story featuring a heaping helping of amor, azúcar, and magia.
THE MOON WITHIN by Aida Salazar
Perfect for fans of Judy Blume and Sandra Cisneros
Celi's life swirls with questions. About her changing body. Her first attraction. And her best friend's exploration of what it means to be genderfluid. But most of all, her mother's insistence she have a moon ceremony when her first period arrives. It's an ancestral Mexica ritual that their community have reclaimed but Celi promises she will NOT be participating. Can she find the power within to take a stand for who she wants to be?
SILVER MEADOWS SUMMER by Emma Otheguy
Perfect for fans of Pam Muñoz Ryan and Elizabeth Enright
When Carolina’s family moves from Puerto Rico to upstate New York, Carolina is stuck attending summer camp at Silver Meadows Farm with her bossy cousin Gabriela. Luckily, Carolina makes a friend of her own, Jennifer. The two girls stumble upon a long-abandoned cottage in the woods, which becomes their secret haven. When the kids discover the cottage might be destroyed, they come up with a plan to save it. Will it work?
LAS MUSAS - YOUNG ADULT
THE RESOLUTIONS by Mia García
Perfect for fans of Erika L. Sánchez and Emery Lord.
From hiking trips to never-ending group texts, Jess, Lee, Ryan, and Nora have always been inseparable, but with senior year on the horizon, they’ve been growing apart. So Jess makes a plan to reinstate their New Year’s Eve tradition with a twist: they assign resolutions to each other. Amid first loves, heartbreaks, and life-changing decisions they test the bonds that hold them together.
WE SET THE DARK ON FIRE by Tehlor Kay Mejia
Perfect for fans of The Handmaid’s Tale and Zoraida Cordova
At the Medio School for Girls, distinguished young women are trained as wives for affluent families far removed from the political uprisings of the lower class. Daniela Vargas is the school’s top student, harboring a dark secret that might send her back to the fringes of society. But when she is asked to spy for a resistance group will she give up everything she’s strived for in pursuit of an equal Medio—and a chance at forbidden love?
THE LAST 8 by Laura Pohl
Perfect for fans of The 5th Wave and Illuminae
Clover Martinez has always been a survivor, which is the only reason she isn’t among the dead when aliens invade and destroy Earth. After surviving the apocalypse, Clover finds The Last Teenagers on Earth at the former Area 51. Instead of heroes, the group is more interested in hiding than fighting back -- and if Clover wants to save Earth, she must convince the others to fight with her.
THE TESLA LEGACY by K.K. Pérez
Perfect for fans of X-Men and Marie Lu
Young scientist Lucy Phelps is thrust into a centuries-old battle between rival alchemical societies when a fateful encounter in the Tesla Suite of the New Yorker Hotel unlocks her dormant electrical powers. One side wants her help and the other wants her dead. Unfortunately, carriers of the genetic mutation―including Nikola Tesla―have a greatly reduced life expectancy. Even if Lucy can outrun her enemies, she can’t outrun herself.
DON'T DATE ROSA SANTOS by Nina Moreno
Perfect for fans of Jenny Han and Gilmore Girls
The women in Rosa’s family are cursed: her abuela is exiled from Cuba, her mother is reckless, and Rosa is forbidden to go to the sea. Rosa dreams of finally seeing their island, but her study abroad plans crumble amid political changes just as she crashes into a quiet boy from the docks.
FIVE MIDNIGHTS by Ann Dávila Cardinal
Perfect for fans of Shadowshaper and Labyrinth Lost
Five friends cursed. Five deadly fates. Five nights of retribución. If Lupe Dávila and Javier Utierre can survive each other’s company, together they can solve a series of grisly murders sweeping through Puerto Rico that lead them into the realm of myths and legends. Five Midnights is a “wickedly thrilling” (William Alexander) novel based on the el Cuco myth set against the backdrop of modern-day Puerto Rico.
THE GRIEF KEEPER by Alexandra Villasante
Perfect for fans of American Street and Mitali Perkins
When her brother is murdered, and her sister’s life is threatened, Marisol Morales flees El Salvador, and crosses the US border. After being detained by ICE, Marisol is given a stark choice: Be deported or participate in a clinical trial and become a grief keeper—taking the trauma and pain of others into her own body. It’s a risky experiment, but if it means keeping her sister safe, she will risk anything.
ALL OF US WITH WINGS by Michelle Ruiz Keil
Perfect for fans of Anna-Marie McLemore and Francesca Lia Block
Xochi is on her own in San Francisco where she meets tween genius Pallas and is hired as a live-in governess. When Xochi and Pallas’s riot-grrl ritual inadvertently summons a pair of ancient creatures bound to right the wrongs of Xochi’s childhood, Xochi must risk her place in her new family to save the mother that abandoned her and find a way to send the creatures home before the fog quenches their fierce magic.
Don’t Date Rosa Santos is an incredible debut from author, Nina Moreno about a Cuban-American young woman, Rosa lives with her Abuela in Port Coral, a small coastal town in Florida, where you can’t turn your head before one of the gossiping viejitos spreads the word. Rosa is your regular teen, well, except for the fact that she (along with the other women in her family) has been cursed by the sea and can’t fall in love with a man with a boat for fear he will meet his untimely demise.
But other than that, Rosa’s just enjoying her senior year of high school, trying her best to learn about/own her Cuban heritage despite the fact that her Abuela refuses to talk about their history, trying to decide where to go to college, and hanging with her bestie, Ana-Maria, at her parent’s bodega, El Mercado, which serves the best Cuban sandwiches, croquetas, and Cuban coffee around. Things are going just as they should until Rosa’s mom comes back into town after being gone for months and she is not the only unexpected visitor in Port Coral. Alex Aquino, a sexy guy with tattoos, a mysterious disposition, and a boat that catches Rosa’s attention from the docks.
Rosa tries her hardest to stay away from the sea, but it calls to her, and eventually, she has to respond, which leads to an adventure you don’t want to miss filled with gorgeous, lyrical prose, romance, a quest for self-discovery, and an ensemble cast of characters who jump off the page and right into your heart. So, what better way to get acquainted with the book than to chat with the cast themselves? Without further ado, let’s dig in!
Abuela, let’s start with you, why did you choose to settle in Port Coral after leaving Cuba? What do you love about it? What do you miss most about Cuba?
Pero, this is about Cuba? Nadie me dijo eso. The sea brought me here and this is where I stayed. Next question.
Can you talk to us about the spells/potions people request most often? Are there any you refuse to make?
Everyone wants better luck or easier memories, because they have pain and tired bones and don’t eat real food. Why is everything sandwiches now? So they come to me when they really need good food from home. But when they need more? I can do that too.
Lilliana, you grew up in Port Coral same as Rosa what drew you to painting? If you were to turn Port Coral into a mural, what would you paint?
Graffiti? Don’t look at me like that, Mami. I love painting because I love that it means making a mess while creating something beautiful at the same time. And Port Coral is basically already a mural, this place is almost too pretty.
Rosa, how would you describe Abuela and your mom’s parenting styles?
*laughs* Oh, wait, you’re serious? They’re night and day. And also more similar them either of them would like to admit. *ignores both of their looks*
Follow up question, Rosa, what’s the best bit of magic you’ve picked up from the Santos women?
To always be mindful of my intentions. That one can apply to a lot of things, but is especially important with magic. Also grow mint and rosemary, eat your grapes at midnight on new years, and only light candles in odd numbers.
Ana-Maria, what do you think you’ll do to keep yourself occupied if she goes to college outside of Port Coral?
Hey, I’ll be busy too. I’ve got my drums and plans and am applying to the community college...wait. My parents aren’t going to read this, right?
Ok, I’m starving, can we talk for a moment about El Mercado? Ana-Maria, what’s the best kept secret on the menu?
A croqueta sandwich. Don’t tell my dad I told you if you order it though. He’s not an off-menu kind of guy.
Rosa, Abuela, Lilliana, what are YOUR favorite El Mercado treats?
Rosa: the new pastelitos! They’re so flaky and sweet. I don’t know who’s baking them though.
Liliana: Chicharrones drenched in salt and lime.
Mimi: The lechon asado is very good.
Rosa, let’s keep it real, what was your first thought when you saw Alex?
Rosa: Oh, the new guy? I thought, “cool tattoos.”
Ana: Because you could only see his arms. You should have seen her face when he turned around.
Rosa: Um, well, yes. He has a very good face.
Alex, can you give us an in-depth description of your tattoo sleeve with some meaning behind the images?
It’s the blue waves of the sea. I’m happiest out in the water, and I like to be reminded of it when I look at my own skin.
Alright well, it’s been great to get to know all of you a bit more, one final question, if you can go around the table and answer: What does the sea mean to you?
Mimi: (Doesn’t answer but her gaze goes out the window.)
Liliana: An old dream.
Rosa: A mystery.
Ana: Beach day.
Buy a copy of Don't Date Rosa Santos wherever books are sold or borrow it from your local library!
Las Musas are thrilled to host the exclusive first look at the cover of THE TRUTH IS, the second book by our very own musa, the acclaimed writer of THE DISTURBED GIRL'S DICTIONARY, NONIEQA RAMOS. It hits shelves September 3, 2019 by Lerner/Carolrhoda Lab. Check out the synopsis below, and keep scrolling to read an excerpt from the novel!
Cover Design by: Lindsey Owens • GIF Design by: Jose Padron
Fifteen-year-old Verdad doesn't think she has time for love. She's still struggling to process the recent death of her best friend, Blanca; dealing with the high expectations of her hardworking Puerto Rican mother and the absence of her remarried father; and keeping everyone at a distance. But when she meets Danny, a new guy at school--who happens to be trans--all bets are off. Verdad suddenly has to deal with her mother's disapproval of her relationship with Danny as well as her own prejudices and questions about her identity, and Danny himself, who is comfortable in his skin but keeping plenty of other secrets.
Read the dynamite first chapter of THE TRUTH IS:
The Book of Love is blaring on my alarm radio app and I know
to turn that shit off before my moms hears it. Once upon a
time in a land ten years from divorce court, my parents danced
to it at their wedding. They had met during study hall when
they realized they were the only ones studying, and the rest is
history. Now it’s all math: who owes what to whom, an endless
game of long division. I’m still playing the song though,
because I don’t get it.
Because seriously, who wrote the Book of Love? Who gets
to decide whom, and why, and when? I’m fifteen and I’m supposed
to fall in love like any minute now. It’s biology. My moms
is a nurse, so she knows this better than anyone.
I don’t know what scares me more, falling in love with
someone or my mother finding out.
The way I see it, love is just like your period. One day you’re
bleeding out of nowhere and it hurts, and that mess goes on for
mostly the rest of your life.
My best friend, Blanca, didn’t see it that way though. Blanca
had been waiting to fall in love her whole life. If you can call
fourteen years of living “whole.”
She always thought we’d get married at the same time in
Central Park. Honeymoon together in San Juan.
My moms flicks the lights that are already on. “¡Despierta,
levántate y brilla! Thank God for a new day. Wakey-wakey,”
she sings, opening and shutting my bedroom door fast.
I hurl my chancla at the door. Mornings to me are like holy
water to the devil.
Standing up, I trip over the baseball bat that my mother
has always insisted I keep by my bed. What can a bat do against
A holographic Jesus screensaver watches over me from
across the room. I gasp. “Ma! What the hell?”
“You toss and turn so much,” my moms shouts from the
kitchen, where the rich aroma of coffee calls my name. “He’s
protecting you from bad dreams.”
I scowl. Hurl my sheet over the computer, making Jesus a
ghost. Fling open the door. “So let me get this straight. Like
the white dude in the dress with the giant thorny bleeding heart
glowing out of his skin is going to get rid of my bad dreams?”
I know Mami is signing the cross: “Forgive her smart-ass
mouth, Lord. She gets it from her father.”
Anything that’s right with me comes from my mother’s
side, anything wrong from my dad’s.
I lock myself in my bathroom and shed my favorite vintage
West Side Story T-shirt that I will wear until it disintegrates.
Ah—cough, gag—she’s been burning incense again. Patchouli.
To protect me from bad spirits. With all this protection, I’ll be
lucky if I don’t die of asphyxiation before I leave the house.
Modern Christian music blares on the kitchen radio. Dudes
are full of uber emotion singing about Jesus. I wish I could feel
all pumped up like that about religion. But like how long has it
been since Jesus has been here? Two thousand years. I remember
waiting for my dad on the porch for hours when he didn’t
show up for a visit. Two thousand years is a long time to wait on
a porch. Yeah, I’m bitter a little bit.
When the water is steaming hot, I step into the shower
stall full of lotions and creams Mami stocks in here so I will
smell like the botanical gardens. Because all girls are supposed
to want to smell like flowers. Be a flower. It’s true I got stems.
Like my moms, I got the mile-long legs. She had to wear flats
around my dad so she didn’t tower over him. But just like stems,
I’m hairy. I don’t like sharp, stabby, prickly legs. Blanca’s legs
always felt like a cheese grater if it got cold. Mami keeps threatening
to wax me, por que we girls can take natural too far,
I lather up with my loofah, covering up the scar above my
knee with bubbles. I rub and rub, imagining the scar—the hole
torn in my leg and my life—has disappeared.
I step out of the shower into the mist. I love looking in the
mirror and seeing me in the clouds, immaterial. They don’t got
homework in the clouds, do they?
I picture my moms and me sitting on clouds after we both
die. “Pero, like, if you take one more class, you could be an
Once my hair—which Blanca used to call The Entity, like
she was one to talk—is braided to my satisfaction, I head to the
kitchen, where my moms is waiting for me with cafe con leche.
She likes to have a convo with me before she’s off to work. She
always sits straight, rigid, like a beautiful statue that survived
the volcano but got left alone in the ruins.
“Good morning, Verdad.”
I pull out my chair—across from Mami’s and next to the
place that’s been set for Abuelo for the past three years—and
collapse in it. “Couldn’t God put morning later in the day?” I
prop my head on my right hand and stir my coffee with my left.
“Did you get any sleep, mija?”
“Couple of hours. Did you get any sleep?”
“Verdad! This isn’t healthy for a young girl. You’re not
going to grow properly. You’re going to get acne.”
This from the woman who hasn’t slept since 2000, who
works at three different hospitals and builds Habitat for
Humanity houses in her so-called spare time. “Mom, this isn’t
healthy for a grown-ass woman. You’re going to start shrinking.
You’re going to get wrinkles.”
My moms stirs her coffee into a whirlpool that would suck
in the Titanic. “Verdad! Listen.” She grabs my hand and holds
me prisoner with her eyes. “A lot has happened. That we can’t
control. But what we can control is ourselves.”
That’s bullshit. I break free from her gaze and look away.
There are certain things you want to be true. My moms
wants it to be true that if you work your ass off, you’re gonna
have this great life. You’ll have the house, the car, the vacations. I
mean, I know I have it good. Mami is a nurse, but everyone in the
family calls her doc and hits her up for advice when they so much
as have a sniffle. She bought us a house and made sure I had my
own room and bathroom. We’re the ones the family descends on
for barbecues because we’re the only ones with a yard. We got a
car that runs most of the time. We got a YMCA membership. But
like what’s the point of a house if you’re never in it? A bed if you
never freakin sleep in it? My moms works 24/7 to keep us in the
house we’re in. The only place the damn car takes her is to work.
Mami sighs. She squeezes my hand and releases me. “You
know you need to play a sport . . .” I lift my eyebrows. This is
like telling an ostrich he should dance the tango.
“No no no!” she clarifies, images of me attempting volleyball
flashing across her eyes. “I mean you should . . . run. With
those long legs. You know, your dad used to run—”
“Used to?” He left us for another life. Got himself a new
house, a new wife, a stepdaughter. But most of the time it feels
like he’s still fleeing the scene of his earlier crimes. My dad’s
present does not have room for his past. I haven’t seen him
“Verdad! I’m just saying. You run after school. Do your
homework. That’ll get you tired. Get you to sleep.”
What my mother fails to comprehend is that I’m tired all
the time. Of everything. Tired isn’t the problem.
I nod. So she’ll stop talking and also because I’m falling
“Okay!” She slams her hands on the table.
My eyes pop open. I droop from one side to the other like
a rag doll.
“So I got to get to work. Give me the highlights from
She got no time for details. I don’t have any details anyway.
I don’t have no problems. I have no friends. Anymore. I don’t
want any. I have nothing to do except school and nowhere to
be except home. That’s fine with me. The real problem is my
moms will lecture me for the above lack of problems.
I shrug. “Violin practice was fine.” I have a school recital
tomorrow—my first without Blanca. “And yes, I aced my history
“Music to my ears!” My moms slaps the table again, making
the coffee cups dance.
“But I almost wish I hadn’t.”
“Well, this girl Nelly who’s in my class calls it the history
of propaganda. Yesterday she went off about how all we ever
learn about is Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. Rattled off
a bunch of names of African Americans I never heard of.”
My moms walks her coffee cup to the sink and rinses it.
“What does this have to do with your grade?”
“Nothing? It’s just. I mean think about it. What about
us? All we ever learn about is Cesar Chavez. And no offense,
but . . .”
“We ain’t Mexican.”
“Word. There’s over a million Puerto Ricans in New York
alone, but they ain’t one single one who did anything worth
writing about in any textbook?”
“What about that Sonia Sotomayor?”
“That’s one, Ma. White people get a thousand. We get one?”
She turns, leans against the counter, and folds her arms.
“Well, after you get your college education you could rewrite
all the textbooks if you like. And if you took another class, you
could get to college faster. Today could be the day you change
everything. Make a decision to move in the right direction.”
“Right.” Rewrite history. If only.
I stand up and push my chair in, careful not to scrape
against the wood. My moms is super proud of taking out the
nasty linoleum and installing the wood herself.
“All I’m saying,” my moms says, grabbing my hand, “is
have a good day. Okay?”
“Okay.” I wash our mugs and set them in the dishwasher,
our industrial-sized drying rack. I tie up the bread and reach up
onto the fridge. Hurling the bread into the microwave on top,
I expertly catch the bag of chips that falls out and toss it into
my backpack. Time to catch the bus. On my way out the door,
my moms sticks a piece of buttered toast in my mouth. And
I head to school wishing I could go back in time, to this day
a year ago, before what happened—happened. Back to when
everything made sense. I made sense.
Raised in the Boogie Down Bronx, NoNieqa Ramos is an educator, literary activist, and writer of “intense” literature. She wrote the THE DISTURBED GIRL’S DICTIONARY, a 2018 New York Public Library Best Book for Teens, a 2019 YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults Selection, and a 2019 In the Margins Award Top Ten pick. THE TRUTH IS will be released September 3rd, 2019 and more to be announced! She believes Halloween is a lifestyle not a holiday, books are wings, and like Whitney said, the children are our future. www.NonieqaRamos.com
Welcome to another thrilling installment of our blog featuring Musa Fabulosa, Laura Pohl and her debut novel THE LAST 8!
The Last 8 is a high-stakes survival story about eight teenagers who outlive an alien attack—perfect for fans of The 5th Wave. Clover Martinez has always been a survivor, which is the only reason she isn’t among the dead when aliens invade and destroy Earth as she knows it. When Clover hears an inexplicable radio message, she’s shocked to learn there are other survivors—and that they’re all at the former Area 51. When she arrives, she’s greeted by a band of misfits who call themselves The Last Teenagers on Earth. Only they aren’t the ragtag group of heroes Clover was expecting. The group seems more interested in hiding than fighting back, and Clover starts to wonder if she was better off alone. But then she finds a hidden spaceship, and she doesn’t know what to believe… or who to trust.
Foreword Reviews says of her debut, “The Last 8 is diverse and immersive science fiction...With its powerful world building and emotional twists ...The Last 8 is a beautifully fresh take on the idea of an alien apocalypse.” School Library Journal called it, “An extravaganza of nonstop action, with several surprising twists, this will have readers clamoring for more."
And without further ado, here is Laura!
I love hearing about the pop-culture movies that inspired THE LAST 8! Can you tell us which movies or shows influenced you while writing this action packed sci-fi bonanza?
I think one of my biggest inspirations was INDEPENDENCE DAY, which was one of my favorite movies as a kid. As I grew up, I always wanted to write an alien invasion story that had the same cool vibe, so that’s my go-to reference. After I watched ATTACK THE BLOCK, the idea solidified. You can write a sci-fi about a bunch of teens fighting off an alien invasion while still discussing real life issues.
How did you keep the tension throughout your novel? Was there anything you kept in mind as you wrote to make sure the reader kept passing the pages?
I’m one of those people who always tries to end chapters in cliffhangers. It’s always worked for me. Besides, alien invasion stories are tense — you never know who’s going to survive, and I wanted to keep that in mind while writing.
What books influenced you to write sci-fi?
I think movies influenced me more than books for writing sci-fi. I loved watching Steven Spielberg movies as a kid, as a teen I slowly started drifting toward sci-fi books. My parents are big fans of Asimov, so I always had his books lying around the house and that’s one of my earliest memories on reading sci-fi.
Was there a moment where your character--the last teenagers on earth--surprised you?
I think it surprised me how much they reacted differently to a single situation. Each of them has a different way of dealing with the end of the world, and it was very interesting that I got to explore those feelings of loss and heartbreak.
Clover is such an amazing Latinx character, what inspired you to make her Mexican-American?
I think it wasn’t as much as a single inspiration as it was the reality of thousands of Mexican-American kids growing up in the USA. I wanted to write a story that could also be about family, and Clover growing up with her abuelos has some traces of my own childhood when I spent holidays at the farm with my own grandparents.
How did the story change from what you envisioned to how it ended up?
The beginning changed a lot as I was writing it. First the alien invasion had already happened, then it happened on the page, then it changed again. Overall, I don’t think the tone of the story changed, though — it has always been a story about a girl dealing with how the world can take away so much, and how to power through difficult times.
It seems that creating eight main characters would be especially challenging: what, if any, hurdles did you have to overcome in order to pull this off successfully?
Oh, I sometimes forgot how many people were in the same scene, haha! I think that was one of the hardest parts, and balancing each character to make them relevant within the narrative. Each of them has a part to play in the story and I had to make sure to get it all right so they wouldn’t fade into the background.
Were there any characters that immediately clicked as you wrote them or did you write them knowing who would mesh and who wouldn’t?
I think my two favorites to write have always been Brooklyn and Violet. They’re easy to understand for me. Brooklyn talks a lot and deals with everything through joking, but she’s very sensitive at the same time. Violet is quieter but she’s someone who examines every single one of her decision and tends to be very rational in a time of crisis, which is always the way I dealt with things, even coming across as cold. Clover is much the same, so for me, it was interesting to explore that rational side of emotions and how you deal with them.
Without spoiling The Last 8 is there anything you can tell us about book 2?
Huuuh, the only thing I can say is that it has good Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy vibes, and I hope you all like it!
Give us a glimpse into a day in your life as a writer. What's that look like?
I wake up, get coffee, sit down to write. I prefer writing in the mornings, so I focus on getting stuff done before I get lunch. I do home office as well (I offer editing services and do copyediting), so I do my regular day job during the afternoons. I love having a routine, so I rarely stray from this format.
Who is your author crush and why?
I have so many authors who I deeply love! I think one of my biggest inspirations has been Susan Dennard — she has amazing writing advice that helped me get published, and I absolutely adore her Truthwitch series.
What is your wish for the future of Latinx in children's literature?
I hope we can get all types of stories out there. Not just stories about the experience of being Latinx, but latinx kids saving planets, the galaxies, dogs, being vampires, being whatever and whoever they want to be, without having to give up our unique identity to do that.
Why is representation is so important? What kinds of characters did you write that are underrepresented in YA lit?
I think representation allows us to reflect in our own existence and understand it through literature. It allows us a glimpse into ourselves and knowing we can tell stories, too, that we matter and that we’re important. While writing The Last 8, I wanted to write a character who was aromantic like me, who dealt with depression and anxiety, and who came from a similar background. It’s how Clover became my MC.
If a teacher is using your book in the classroom, what is an important point or lesson you'd want them to convey to students?
I think I’d love that the takeaway from The Last 8 would help more teens deal with their anxiety and depression. Clover survives through all of that, and it’s about moving one step at a time. I believe that mental health is something that we still need to discuss in society to break the stigmas around it, as well as provide help to all those who need it.
Buy a copy of The Last 8 wherever books are sold or borrow it from your local library!
Welcome back to the Musas blog! This week Musa Sara Faring (The Tenth Girl) sat down with K.K. Pérez to discuss inspiration, balancing multiple projects, and of course her sophomore novel: The Tesla Legacy.
THE TESLA LEGACY follows a precocious young scientist named Lucy Phelps whose fateful encounter in the Tesla Suite of the New Yorker Hotel unlocks her dormant electrical powers. As Lucy struggles to understand her new abilities through scientific experimentation, she is thrust into a centuries old battle between rival alchemical societies. One side wants her help and the other wants her dead, but both believe she is the next step in human evolution. Unfortunately, carriers of the genetic mutation―including Nikola Tesla―have a greatly reduced life expectancy. Even if Lucy can outrun her enemies, she can’t outrun herself.
How was The Tesla Legacy born—was there a special seed, planted long ago?
I’ve always been fascinated by the life of Nikola Tesla and David Bowie’s portrayal of him in The Prestige reignited my interest. Tesla’s life lends itself to steampunk fantasy because sometimes truth is stranger than fiction! In the back of my mind, I’ve always wanted to write kind of an homage to Penny from Inspector Gadget. Penny always saved the day (and her uncle, Gadget) and she had an awesome “computer book” that I drooled over as a kid. (Now I have an iPad!)
Did someone in your life inspire the super-sharp protagonist, Lucy?
I have several female scientist friends who Lucy is based on, but also I’ve always been drawn to geek girls or braniacs like Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Velma from Scooby Doo and Mac from Veronica Mars. I wanted to make the female brain the star rather than the sidekick.
You weave so much science and history into the book—what is your research process like?
I started with biographies and documentaries about Nikola Tesla himself. From there I began researching the key figures he worked with and had rivalries with such as his Current War with Thomas Edison, which led me to delve further into the history of science as a whole.
I also thought a lot about who my protagonist Lucy’s scientific idols would be and why, and started learning more about them. Once I discovered Newton’s interest in alchemy, I realized that I wanted to infuse my science fiction with a little bit of the mystical. I plunged myself into academic research surrounding the origins and history of alchemists and discovered that in the ancient world women were often alchemists and chemists.
As the alchemists say, Liber librum aperit: One book opens another.
You grew up in New York City—which parts of your experience seeped into the book?
The settings for Lucy’s adventures in Manhattan are a highlight reel of my favorite places in my hometown. There’s the High Line (although it was still disused when I was growing up), the murals at Grand Central Station, the Met, the Alice in Wonderland statue and Bow Bridge in Central Park. Like Lucy, I also hate the long crosstown blocks and think pigeons are judgmental rats with wings.
You are also in the midst of writing the final book in your gorgeous Sweet Black Waves trilogy (under the name Kristina Pérez). How do you make the mental transition from writing historical fantasy to sci-fi (with magic elements)?
The voice is quite different between the projects since SBW is epic fantasy and The Tesla Legacy is set in contemporary New York, but the research and planning for both is fairly similar. Without spoiling too much, for Tesla, I’ve decided which scientists throughout history would have joined which rival alchemist society and why. Even if that information doesn’t make it onto the page, I have it in my notes, and I approached the world building in the same way. For me, creating a convincing world is essential whether it’s high fantasy, historical fiction, or contemporary Manhattan. Each setting, society and culture is unique. In terms of switching between the voices, I have very different playlists for both projects that help me shift gears and I create mood boards on Pinterest.
Your work contains so many thrilling twists and turns—do you plan most of these in advance, or do they come to you as you write… as if by magic?
Totally a plotter. Sometimes a new idea will surprise me while I’m writing but I’m fairly dogmatic. I used to compete on my school chess team and I have a tendency to game things out pretty far in advance!
What’s next for you?
Wild Savage Stars, the sequel to Sweet Black Waves, releases on August 27th, 2019 and I’m hard at work on the conclusion to the trilogy.
Thank you so much Kristina and Sara!
You can buy a copy of The Tesla Legacy wherever books are sold or borrow it from your local library!
On this new moon, we are delighted to share a conversation Las Musas had with Aida Salazar about her just released debut book, THE MOON WITHIN. But first, enjoy this slide show of Las Musas' love for the book. Read till the end and comment for your chance to receive a signed copy of The Moon Within!
This book deals with menstruation, which many adults are still reluctant to discuss openly. What is one menstruation myth you absolutely wanted to debunk in this novel?
I didn’t want to debunk a myth per se but more of a general attitude towards menstruation that is absent of respect, reverence and love toward a natural phenomenon that half of humanity experiences. Patriarchal and puritanical views of menstruation have created a culture of silence and shame that has hurt many and that needs to be dismantled. My intention was to show a world where respect, reverence and love for our cycles was the norm, the expectation, and a way to push back against the negative and hurtful attitudes we’ve endured.
One character in The Moon Within begins the process of transitioning during the novel as they explore their gender. Why is it important to discuss menstruation in the context of diverse gender identities?
This book was written for blooming menstruators of all genders. I wanted the blossoming of the main character (girlhood into womanhood) to mirror the blossoming of her best friend into his gender, a xochihuah. Each blossoming is a universe apart but similar in its impact and understanding of their own coming of age during a tender age.
Most of the people who menstruate are girls or women and sometimes menstruators are gender expansive. Though I don’t go into Marco’s specific experience with menstruation and only really hint at it because I didn’t think I could authentically tell that story as a cis gender woman, I wanted to include in the book the notion that bodies, regardless of gender, can and do bleed monthly so as to expand understanding for readers that menstruation is not only a woman’s experience. Also, I included La Chuyina, the trans feminine character to affirm that womanhood too, is not dependent on bleeding.
What I could speak to was how clumsy and wrong we can be when we aren’t good allies to our gender expansive friends. I sought to challenge readers, my community in particular, in our often-bigoted views. I used Mesoamerican philosophy to help us remember that our pre-colonial ideas of gender were more fluid than the binary that is dominant today. I saw an opportunity to show how one community used a different approach, one that was grounded in Mexica spirituality, to show compassion and respect for gender expansiveness.
Your first two published novels will both be MG verse novels. What do you find most compelling about this format? Do you always write poetry?
Poetry has been with me since my first writings as a teen. Though I also write prose, I always aim for my prose to be infused with poetry and lyricism. This is the kind of writing I like to read and find most intriguing -- writing that is rich in metaphor, and unusual phrasing, writing that enters the emotional essence of a character to show us a truth about humanity that we don’t often see. I love verse novels for these very same qualities. There is a tension at play between elements that poetry gives us (economy of words, metaphor, simile, form, white space, etc.) and the standard elements in crafting a story (conflict, plot, character arc, etc.) I love the hybridity of this space, I love this tension. With verse novels you can’t spend too much time waxing poetic because you do have a story to tell but you can bring the poetic point of view into every speech, action and plot point as you go. Verse novels are a wonderful space from which to tell a story that is unique, vulnerable and compelling at once.
Music plays such a big part of Celi’s journey. It wasn’t just a layer, but it connected to her journey of identity and history. Why was music so important? How did you work it into the text?
I’m a firm believer in the power of the arts (music, theater, dance, literature, visual art, etc.) to transform lives. Writing radically transformed mine. It gave me a connection to my history, developed my own spirituality, and gave me entry into many universes of understanding. I would argue that this is true for most practitioners of the arts. I wanted to show through Celi how dance and music are gateways to understanding, are cultural markers, identity builders, strength builders, and how ultimately, they are radical acts of love. I wanted to show readers that the arts, their own imaginations and expressions, are a wonderful place in which to find agency and strength.
What inspired you to write The Moon Within? And what do you hope readers will find in the story?
I was inspired to write The Moon Within as my eleven-year-old daughter began to ask questions about her changing body. As a Xicana feminist, I wanted to offer her a different way into the understanding of this important transformation than I had been given. I wanted her experience to be grounded in body-positive self-knowledge and self-love, in a connection to her ancestry, and the power that is inherent in all of that beauty. I’ve been a moon disciple for decades — marveling, exploring, and ritualizing our connection to her — through astrology, astronomy, spirituality, and the study of pre-colonial Mexican history. We held a ceremony to honor my daughter’s menstruation that was informed by this love of the moon. As a writer, I wanted to share our experience of this magical ritual through story with other children. While there are numerous nonfiction books about menstruation for middle grades, there is a gaping hole in fictional literature for this group. It is very likely (and I say this with a great amount of disbelief and grief) that The Moon Within is the first book in forty-seven years, since Judy Blume’s Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret, to center menstruation in its narrative. It is the first (again, incredulously and sadly) to ever fictionally reflect menstruation from the Latinx perspective. I was very intentional about sharing ideas of the beauty and power of menstruation Mesoamerican traditions teach us that departed from the often-negative views of our current patriarchal and colonized society. I wanted to reframe the conversation around menstruation by showing what would happen if we, in fact, honored and revered these processes instead.
I was happy to see that Celi was a relatively early bloomer, and I think a lot of girls of color will relate to that. Did you ever consider a different age for Celi, and how did you settle on eleven?
Early bloomers walk on a tight rope of these two massively different worlds. It is difficult to be wholly a child and yet your body does these wild things. Breast buds, pubic hair, smelly pits, moon cylces – it is all the more confusing the younger you are. My daughter entered puberty early (much earlier than I did) and I found it necessary to try to demystify it age-appropriately so that she could understand it without fear. As I began to ask around, I discovered that many women I knew or in my family had started as early as nine! This further affirmed my resolve to keep Celi at eleven and to show that this tight rope can be walked successfully for someone that young.
Thank you so much for joining us in the conversation. To purchase THE MOON WITHIN, visit Booklandia (a Latina-owned online bookseller) or other independent bookstores as well as major retailers where books are sold.
Enter a comment below for your chance to win a signed copy of THE MOON WITHIN!
Happy new moon!
I’m so excited to share the newest Las Musas debut, Tehlor Kay Mejia’s We Set The Dark on Fire. Tehlor and I met on social media as querying writers. We both live in Oregon and have become great friends. For this post, we decided to do a version of what we do most days—chat about books and life and politics and writing. As a starting point, I pulled a tarot card, concentrating on Tehlor’s amazing journey with this amazing book.
TEHLOR: Hi. I’m so excited
MICHELLE: Me too!!! I'm thinking about your book and I can't believe it's really out in the world.
TEHLOR: I honestly can't believe it either, it's so surreal.
MICHELLE: So I drew a card for you and it's the Queen of Wands! Which is kind of on the nose but really amazing!
TEHLOR: Right?? Very on the nose but also I'm so glad. It feels pretty optimistic…
MICHELLE: YES! She’s one of my favorite cards. So, the wands to me are about instinct and will. How does that resonate with you when you think about your journey with We Set The Dark on Fire?
TEHLOR: I feel like this journey has been almost PURE instinct and will for me, which is why I'm laughing about this card. There was kind of no indication in my life leading up to writing this book that what's happening now was possible, so a lot of it was based on trusting my instincts and having faith in myself and my work and being willing to push forward despite overwhelming odds and obstacles.
MICHELLE: If you look back, can you find the seed of that in your life before you became a writer? Where does that come from in you?
TEHLOR: I think I've always been a really determined person. I don't think it comes from a place of confidence necessarily, because that's something I've always struggled with, so it's probably more akin to stubbornness. The more the world seems set up to block me from doing something, the more determined I become to do it. In that sense, I guess this is the perfect business for me.
MICHELLE: That makes sense! Another aspect of the Queen is that she's an icon of personal power and sexuality, which is so perfect for We Set The Dark of Fire. What was it like to write a character like Dani, who is so reserved?
TEHLOR: I think a lot of writing Dani was based on my experience as a teen. I was really insecure about how I looked, but I got a lot of positive validation from the people around me for being smart and focused, so I traded one thing for the other. I thought if I could be smart enough and driven enough and perform well enough, I could somehow make up for needing to be validated in those other ways, and society was all-too eager to reinforce that by putting me in the "smart girl" box where you're kind of weirdly desexualized. Obviously, Dani's categorization is much more external because of the way Medio's society is set up, but I think there's the same sense of leaning into one set of expectations to try to shut down your desire to be seen as a sexual being. That can't last forever though, as Dani and I both eventually found out.
MICHELLE: I love how that binary shows up in the Primera/Segunda roles of the wife pairs in We Set the Dark on Fire. Externalizing that dichotomy into two wives who ultimately fall in love was a beautiful example of both how fractured we are by the patriarchy and how we can begin to move past it. Did you know right away that this book was going to be a love story as well as a speculative novel about patriarchy and class?
TEHLOR: Thank you! I did always know it was going to be a romance, but the players changed a little from the first conception of the story to the way it is now. I knew that a sexual and romantic awakening was going to be a big part of Dani's journey, but initially (I'll blame it on heteronormative socialization) I thought it would be her and her husband who fell in love. It took almost no time at all once I started developing Carmen as a character for me to realize she and Dani were the real love story, which left me free to explore toxic masculinity with Mateo without having to find a way to redeem him. I do love that you picked up on Dani and Carmen as two fractured parts of the feminine whole destroyed by the patriarchy, though. I hope their love story shows that even if you don't have a lover to show you the other side, we can bring those disparate parts of ourselves together and heal what a patriarchal society has broken in us.
MICHELLE: I love that! That’s totally the way I see it, too—as a story about finding wholeness. So finally, circling back to the Queen of Wands, when this card shows up in a reading, I'm excited because it shows someone really coming into their power. I've been thinking about the idea of personal sovereignty a lot lately and this regal image in connection with both the story of We Set The Dark on Fire and your journey as a writer feels perfect to me. During the time I've known you, you've had an explosion of personal growth and professional accomplishment. Was there something specifically empowering about becoming an author and writing this book? And what do you hope readers will take away?
TEHLOR: I think I've spent a lot of my life feeling small, as a result of other people diminishing me, and as a result of diminishing myself to fit into dynamics and relationships that didn't allow me the space to be fully myself. There was something about the process of writing this particular book, and the life stuff that was happening to me at the time -- divorce, moving, family stuff -- that made it sort of impossible to stay small anymore. I resisted it at first, as I think a lot of people do. It felt scary to step into it all and embrace it. But I do think exploring this story on the page and bringing these girls through their own transformations was really personal for me in a way I'm just now starting to understand.
As far as what I hope readers will take away, I hope people see that young women are too nuanced and fierce and complex to be reduced to the stereotypes they're so commonly associated with. I hope they see the power in being a girl when you really embrace all that it means to be one. But honestly, I really just hope every young woman who reads and enjoys this book finds one little thing she needs. Something that makes her feel braver or stronger or more seen. That's the best outcome I could possibly hope for.
MICHELLE: Thank you for doing this, Tehlor! I’m so excited for the world to meet Dani and Carmen and can’t wait to see what other adventures are ahead for you. Congratulations on your debut!
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