When a small press published "Juliet Takes a Breath" a few years ago, the work of young adult fiction first found critical acclaim from online LGBTQ and Latina publications before soon winning awards and attracting scores of dedicated readers.
The book tells the story of Juliet Milagros Palante, a queer Puerto Rican from New York who leaves her family for a summer of self-discovery after a stressful coming-out. It’s a semi-autobiographical piece of fiction for its author, Gabby Rivera, who went on to write Marvel Comics’ first LGBTQ Latina superhero in 2017.
Rivera’s debut novel became so beloved that Dial Books for Young Readers, a teen line from Penguin Random House, re-released the book this month. It’s getting a 100,000-copy print run, a national book tour and, in 2020, an edition translated into Spanish.
Rivera is in St. Louis this week for a book signing. Local comics editor and illustrator Steenz Stewart will interview Rivera at Left Bank Books in the Central West End on Wednesday. The event is free and open to the public.
St. Louis Public Radio’s Kae Petrin spoke with Rivera about her work.
Kae Petrin: Were you surprised when readers responded so strongly to "Juliet Takes a Breath"?
Gabby Rivera: I was pleasantly, happily surprised, but not shocked. I was just glad that the story of Juliet Milagros Palante, a 19-year-old baby dyke from the Bronx, was resonating with so many folks — and not just a story that lived in my computer that only made sense to me. I was really pleased and just profoundly happy that folks are connecting to her.
Petrin: Who did you want to reach with this book?
Rivera: My number-one focus — of anyone that I'm writing to — is definitely a queer kid of color. Like, that is the main vibe for me. Juliet is Puerto Rican and from the Bronx, but I just imagine a whole bunch of queer kids of color trying to figure themselves out and reading all sorts of books. Everything that I've put into Juliet is for those kids, you know, for our kids.
Petrin: With the broader republication that it's getting right now, do you see the book finding a different potential audience?
Rivera: The republication of this book means that it gets to go into so many hands. And I also want to imagine a world where there are so many allies. Where you have like your straight cousin walking by this book and the bookstore, and being like, ‘Wow, that's for my prima. I know she's having a tough time.’ Or like, white lady teacher in the Midwest sees his book and is like, ‘Oh, I know like two students that this would be perfect for.’ And again, that same audience, that same group that I love, and I care for — the queer kids of color — are the central people.
Petrin: How does the book pull from your own experiences?
Rivera: "Juliet Takes a Breath" is hilariously autobiographical. It follows Juliet — chubby, nerdy, brown Puerto Rican kid trying to figure out her sexuality and what it means to be a woman. What does it mean to be a woman in the body that she has? She's still kind of worried about what her family, what her mom’s gonna think. She's anxious, right? All of these things that I very much am.
And also, Juliet comes out to her family. And she’s gutted by the fact that her mom is heartbroken. And she carries that with her. So it's not like this novel that forgets the family and makes it seem that if you just leave, everything will be OK. It's like, no, she cares about her family, and her mom, and they care about her. Me and my mom, we had a similar situation where, like, ‘Are we ever going to find each other again? Is it ever going to feel like it did before I came out?’ So yeah, there are some big moments in this book that are definitely based on my personal experience.
Petrin: With republication, the book is also being translated into Spanish. Why is that important?
Rivera: Oh my gosh, I am so excited that "Juliet Takes a Breath" is going to be published in Spanish. A woman came up to me and she's like, ‘I'm part of a group called Somos Familia.’ So, ‘We are family.’ And her group helps Latino, Latinx parents come to understand having LGBTQ kids.
And I just — man, my heart like exploded. Because I was like, ‘Yo, this book is coming out in Spanish!’ And we just looked at each other. And we were like, ‘This is going to be a bridge, right? Like this book is going to help be part of the bridge that connects Latino parents and Latino kids together, right?’
If the language is Spanish, and there's not enough ways to talk about being LGBTQ in Spanish — or maybe kids don't know it, maybe parents don't know it — here is a story. There is nothing better than a story to help people find each other.
I wish I could have talked to my grandparents about being queer and being LGBT in a language that we both shared. Instead, I feel like my grandparents passed away and like I never got to talk to them about who I really was.
So I feel like Juliet is going to be that light, that light for families that want to build stronger relationships.
Petrin: So you worked on the "America" comic series for Marvel for a few years. And now you have this new comic for younger readers coming out — "b.b. free." It's still a coming-of-age story, but set in a science fiction, post-climate change world. Why did you decide to tell your next story in the aftermath of climate change?
Rivera: Well, one, I mean, the aftermath? We're also living in this, like, wild climate change time right now. Teenagers all across the globe are just enraged that we're not taking the threat of climate change as immediate. Right? So there's that aspect of it.
And also, I mean, what a wild place and landscape to set sci-fi best-friend, road-trip adventure, right? In what may be familiar. It's still the "Fractured States of America." So there's still this element of having been the U.S. at one time.
But now everything's different. Now the ocean looks different. Now there's like red algae clouds. There’s what will happen, or what I imagined could happen, if we don't take any of this climate change stuff seriously.
So it's like a fun place to be wild in imagination and also a moment to say, like, ‘Hey, this is like, based also in reality, right?’ Like, the reason there's red algae blooms in the ocean is because the temperatures are rising, and those red algae blooms suck oxygen from the ocean — but like, make it fun. And also use it as a backdrop. B.B. Free — she's 15 years old, she is ready to take on the world, and she's navigating phenomenal cosmic powers.
Petrin: Anything I didn't ask about that you want people to know?
Rivera: That I'm a Virgo, and I love my mom.
Follow Kae on Twitter: @kmaepetrin
Send questions and comments about this story to email@example.com