The first time Melissa de la Cruz tackled immigration in her writing, it was her autobiography “Fresh Off the Boat,” which hit YA shelves in 2005.
“It was a very small book,” said de la Cruz, who is best known for her young adult fantasy and romance novels. “There was not as much hype or interest. But now 11 years later, I’m publishing [a new book] and it’s got trumpets and a huge market.”
De la Cruz’s new novel, “Something in Between” published this week, and it parallels her autobiography very closely. In the book, 17-year-old Jasmine de los Santos, a Filipino immigrant, has just won a prestigious scholarship to any university of her choice. But then Jasmine finds out that she is undocumented. The novel follows her as she tries to juggle her quest for citizenship with her pursuit of higher education and her first romance.
Like Jasmine, de la Cruz was also born in the Philippines, and she moved to the United States when she was 13 years old. De la Cruz’s experience wasn’t quite so harrowing as her protagonist’s, but it did take her 20 years to finally receive her green card after much bureaucratic red tape. It took even longer for her, born in the Philippines, to become an American citizen at the age of 40.
She said that even though there were editors and readers looking for stories about the immigrant experience in America back in 2005, the interest — and need — is much greater now.
“It’s kind of fun to see the culture come around to that and have this experience again in a different way,” de la Cruz said.
In a phone interview, de la Cruz talked about what it’s like to tackle real life topics, why young-adult is her favorite genre and why it’s important to be optimistic.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
This book is a really different direction from many of your previous books.
I did write a lot of really fun, almost chick-lit books, and I really enjoyed writing them and maybe I got a little burned out. Then I wrote a lot of fantasy because I’m a big sci-fi nerd, so I gave up writing contemporary fiction to focus on the fantasy for a while. Going back to contemporary felt like coming home. It’s a little more serious, not kind of fluffy and candy, which is what I like to write and eat.
I’ve been in YA almost 20 years now and as I’ve become older and also as I’ve become a mom, I did want to write books that had a little bit more to say about teenagers rather than just pure entertainment. I didn’t want it to feel like an after-school special. I don’t think you need to lecture to teenagers.
What is it about YA that really attracted you to the genre?
A lot of what makes a good YA writer is just empathy. . . . It’s not even writing for kids, it’s writing for the kid in you.
When I found [the YA genre] I thought, “This is what I do. This is what I write.” I love it because it’s about a time in your life when anything is possible. It’s all about idealism and opportunity and you’re so excited and everything is brand new. This is a really fun place to be, instead of this adult jadedness and cynicism. When you grow up you realize what the world is really cracked up to be and it’s a little disappointing, but when you’re a kid it’s so exciting. Everything is so discoverable. I think it keeps me young.
This book is so relentlessly optimistic, despite its difficult subject matter. How and why did you write it that way?
That optimism is mine. It comes from my point of view in life and my personality so it has my optimism, idealism and cheerfulness. When I got my own green card, it came from having worked hard and gone to Columbia. I just think there is luck in the world, and you never where it’s going to come from. It’s such a seemingly hopeless and depressing situation that I wanted to write a book that was positive.
Who is your audience — teens who have similar experiences or readers who may not know that this is happening?
It’s definitely for both, and definitely for kids in the suburbs who have a nice life who don’t know what life is like if you’re undocumented.