Crystal Maldonado’s third book, and most recent foray into contemporary YA, is The Fall of Whit Rivera (Holiday House, Oct. 10), a cozy and inspirational blend of romance and self-realization that follows the title character, a bisexual Puerto Rican American teenager, as she grapples with a recent diagnosis of polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), a chronic illness that affects all aspects of her life. Nevertheless, she’s committed to throwing the best ever Fall Fest, her school’s celebration of all things autumnal. Maldonado spoke with us via Zoom about the inspirations behind the story, her love for boy bands, and the joys of the fall season. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You are the self-described author of “rom-coms for fat brown girls,” books that are effectively about identity and visibility. How important is that for you?
I could not think of something more important when it comes to my work: the visibility of these main characters, and their willingness to take up space, not just in the stories but also on bookshelves and on the cover of books, where we’re seeing these girls who don’t typically get their stories told. For me, that is the driving force behind a lot of my stories: this idea that there are so many of us who can relate to feeling like our bodies are not “ideal for society” or feeling like our skin is too dark or our hair is too curly or insert whatever insecurity here. We’re living our lives, and we deserve to be able to see versions of ourselves exist and depicted in books and in movies and on TV, really getting to celebrate all the good things that happen in our lives and have that validation for our identities and our experiences.
The characters in this novel are so rich and complex, and they have a multitude of intersections as part of their identity. It all feels very natural and integrated into the story.
I believe the ability to have these characters live in multiple worlds is important, because of that intersectionality. None of us is just the one thing: We are first-generation immigrants, or we are daughters of immigrants, or we are women; we’re dealing with our sexuality, or we’re white passing. We’re all these things, all at the same time. And to be able to have characters who embody those things is essential, especially when I can try and bring some nuance to what that means for some of the characters. In The Fall of Whit Rivera, we see Whit’s invisible chronic illness, and she’s initially grappling with that quietly. She’s putting on this brave face, and she decides to focus on this perfect homecoming dance, the Fall Fest. That’s relatable, because we do get to decide what’s at the forefront of our lives in certain periods. For many of us, that’s just life; it’s how we adapt, and that’s part of who we are. And it doesn’t have to be the central thing in our experience. Of course, there are periods of our lives where that is the focus—but not always. Having the ability to tell these stories that make room and take up space for all the varied experiences that we encompass is crucial, especially when we’re dealing with young readers.
To that point, is there any part of the book that you see yourself in?
A few parts of this book really relate back to my own life. So, first, I am such a fall girl. I grew up in Connecticut, and most of my adult life I’ve been in Massachusetts. We have that quintessential autumn, the changing leaves and the apple and pumpkin picking, and all of that. I’ve always loved that season, so for me, it’s all tied together. And then, like Whit, I also have PCOS—I’m dealing with the illness but, equally, trying to push past it and have this exterior of everything’s fine and nothing’s going on. I had to come to terms with just being OK—not being perfect and embracing where I am in life.
Whit has a younger sister named Lily, and she’s autistic. And we get to see who Lily is beyond this diagnosis, too. We have these two big diagnoses in the book, and they take different forms. For Whit, her PCOS is front and center. And for Lily, being autistic is like one teeny tiny part of who she is. I grew up with a younger cousin who was never officially diagnosed with autism. But a lot of the traits that Lily has, he shared with her. And we loved boy bands as we were growing up. We loved the Backstreet Boys, we loved ’N Sync. I gave that to Whit and her younger sister: their shared loved for the fictional band Intonation as a mirror image of what we were experiencing when we were growing up.
You have a fan fiction background. How did that inform and shape your writing?
This is a perfect segue, because I was a boy band fan fiction girl; I wrote a lot of fan fiction about the Backstreet Boys especially. Fan fiction is so underappreciated as an art form. There are some phenomenal writers out there writing fan fiction, and for me it was how I got my feet wet in writing. I was able to explore writing an actual story that had a beginning, a middle, and an end. And it’s all about sharing with others who appreciate and love the thing that you love. There’s an amazing energy that comes with that, because everyone already loves the baseline of what you’re writing about. But there’s also this terrifying fear of getting something wrong. There’s this element of getting comfortable with sharing your work with others and receiving feedback, for better or for worse. It really helped me grow as a writer to be able to experiment and make mistakes, to share and see what it was that made readers happy.
How does that relate to writing your own work?
When I transitioned to writing original characters, there was something exhilarating about it. I wanted to express appreciation for the fact that there’s room for books like Whit Rivera, where the main character is not this perfect person; she doesn’t necessarily fit the mold of what a main character might look like. I am so appreciative that there’s a willingness to embrace these characters who are messy, or who don’t always have the right answer, and to watch them as they grow, change, and become people who are better and know themselves more than they did at the start of the book. I’m very grateful for that and thankful that I get to explore these identities, and intersections of identities, in ways that I never dreamed I’d be able to when I was a teenager.
Ana Grilo is co-editor of the Hugo Award–winning blog The Book Smugglers.