Barely Floating (Kokila, Aug. 29) tells the story of Natalia De La Cruz Rivera y Santiago, a tenacious 12-year-old who dreams of becoming a synchronized swimmer. Brimming with self-confidence and determination, she lets nothing and no one stand in her way. But to realize her synchronized swimming ambition, Nat must contend with her parents’ hostility toward the sport, growing conflicts with teammates, and a deepening rift with her best friend. Lilliam Rivera’s new middle-grade novel is a buoyant tale of self-empowerment that our review says is “sure to make a splash.” Rivera answered questions by email; the exchange has been edited for length and clarity.
You dedicate this book to your “synchro water baby, Isabelle” and present synchronized swimming in the story as a source of community and individual fulfillment. What’s your personal connection to the sport?
My personal connection to the sport is through my oldest daughter, Isabelle, who in 2016 became a synchronized swimmer at the age of 7. For 10 years, she traveled all over California and even competed at the Junior Olympics with the L.A. AquaNymphs, a Black-owned Los Angeles team. L.A. AquaNymphs was diverse in every way, and I was so in awe of what the kids could do in the water. Synchronized swimming—or artistic swimming, as it’s called now—was such a huge part of both of our lives and became the inspiration behind Barely Floating.
Who is your ideal reader for Barely Floating?
Nat is a fat girl who loves herself and falls for a sport her parents are not happy about. The ideal reader would be someone who wants to laugh (Nat is pretty funny!), who wants to enter a new world (synchronized swimming is glamorous and hard!), and who wants to read a book about friendship and family and standing up for yourself. This middle-grade book is also a sports book, so readers will obsess over the competitiveness of it all. And lastly, if you love Lisa Fipps’ Starfish and Renée Watson’s Ryan Hart series, I think you’ll love Barely Floating.
What were some of the most formative books for you as a child?
I love adventurous young girls, so my early books were Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum. Barely Floating follows in their footsteps with 12-year-old Natalia De La Cruz, who is very confident and outspoken. She likes what she likes. It would be fun to imagine Nat meeting Alice and Dorothy, all three ready to go on an adventure.
What genre(s) do you read the most?
My reading choices are usually all over the place. For example, I’m currently reading Jane Eyre, a classic I’ve never read, new short stories by Argentine author Agustina Bazterrica, and the wonderful graphic book The Magic Fish, by Trung Le Nguyen. I don’t like to be tied down to writing in only one genre, so if you look at my history of books published, you’ll find dystopian worlds, superheroes, and contemporary coming-of-age stories. It’s fun to play among all these genres, and that’s how I view reading. I want to explore.
What books coming out this fall are you most looking forward to reading?
I’m looking forward to reading Brandy Colbert’s young adult novel The Blackwoods. It’s a multigenerational novel centering on the Black Hollywood experience. I also can’t wait to get a copy of debut author Letisha Marrero’s Salsa Magic. I’ve known Letisha for many years, and I’m so excited to celebrate her middle-grade debut.
William Rumelhart is an editorial intern.