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NEPM brings you interviews with New England authors of books young people may enjoy.

In New Novel, Latinx Character Experiences Racism And Teen Drama While Moving 'Between Two Worlds'

The next selection in our Books For Young People series is "Don't Ask Me Where I'm From," a novel that is for and about high-schoolers. 

Early on, we learn the main character has been accepted into METCO, a desegregation program in Massachusetts that's sent students from Boston and Springfield to suburban schools. 

In the book, 15-year-old Liliana Cruz is dealing with that transition, along with boy drama, best friend drama and family drama, says author Jennifer De Leon.

De Leon, a resident of Southborough, says — like a lot of young people — Liliana is searching for her footing.

Jennifer De Leon, author: She has always lived in Boston, so she's never had to interact actually with other communities and people from different backgrounds. So she's the total fish out of water when she gets to Westburg High School. And it's this tricky thing because she is seen as the outsider, but she doesn't yet know so much about her own identity.

Her parents are from Central America, but she's never asked them, "Hey, why did you come to Boston? How did you end up here? What's our family's story?" So at the same time that she's experiencing micro-aggressions and even some racism, in the book, she still hasn't really learned her family's story and her family's history. So all of this kind of comes to a head in the novel, and it's a chance for her to learn more about herself.

Carrie Healy, NEPM: Do you have the book handy — could you read a paragraph from it? This part describes where she is from and what her background has been before she gets bused out to one of those "W communities" for the different high school experience.

One of the top stories on the news: a rival gang shootout at a nearby park. A bystander had been killed. We knew the gangs did their thing and we knew not to wear certain colors in excess, but still. Knowing this happened just three blocks away wasn't exactly comforting. Then, as if that weren't bad enough, the news switched to an image of the president and “the wall” on the southern border, like between the US and Mexico. Whaaat? An actual wall? For, like, hundreds of miles? Mom began praying superfast in Spanish, her eyes screwed shut.

So this is a work of fiction. But you included some actual events. So why use this moment?

Well, I guess it's how they say fiction is stranger than real life. Is that what they say? ... Real life is stranger than fiction. That's what it is!

And in this case, I felt that I didn't have to embellish because the news and everything that was happening in the world at the time that I wrote this was wild enough and dramatic enough that that I didn't have to kind of reach too far into my imagination.

The cover of the young adult novel by Jennifer De Leon, "Don't Ask Me Where I'm From."
The cover of the young adult novel by Jennifer De Leon, "Don't Ask Me Where I'm From."

And one thing I knew I wanted to do from the outset was write a story that reflect the reality for one teen girl, Latinx, living in Boston, growing up with parents that were born in Central America. And that, I felt, was enough to propel me into the kind of world of the story. And with the events happening, there was so much that I could choose from.

So did you have to step outside your own comfort zone very far in order to create the Liliana character?

I was born in Boston and grew up in a suburb outside of the city. And every weekend my family and I would go back to the city and spend the entire weekend with relatives and my grandmother. So I felt like Liliana actually, literally moving between two worlds, only I was going the opposite direction.

Because I had this experience of being one of few students of color, I constantly straddled that line. I never felt fully comfortable or, I guess, at ease, in each world that I was in. And I longed for a book like this where I felt like I could see my experience reflected.  

I know the language of teen was exquisitely done in here. If I had handed this to my 15-year-old, he would have gotten it. Meanwhile, I was Googling some of the words, saying, "What are they talking about?"

Yeah, teen. It's like a whole other language! And especially urban slang. And it's changing, it's constantly changing. But I think what helped me was my experience in the classroom [as a teacher in Boston]. I felt like I could draw from that. But I did also have some teens read the manuscript because I really wanted to get it right.

Check out more of NEPM’s Books For Young People series here.

Carrie Healy hosts the local broadcast of "Morning Edition" at NEPM. She also hosts the station’s weekly government and politics segment “Beacon Hill In 5” for broadcast radio and podcast syndication.
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