In this debut middle grade adventure by author Carlos Hernandez, the fourth release in Disney’s Rick Riordan Presents imprint, the titular characters bond over family issues, Cuban food, and Sal’s ability to open portals between dimensions, which could conceivably destroy the universe. PW spoke with Hernandez about the origins of the book.

Where did Sal and Gabi come from?

Sal & Gabi Break the Universe uses characters that I had written as adults but [this time] as middle schoolers. The adult Gabi Reális a reporter who studies cryptozoology, such as unicorns that leak through from another dimension, as seen in the story “The Magical Properties of Unicorn Ivory.” The adult Sal Vidón appears in a story called “The Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria,” which was published in Interfictions 2, edited by Delia Sherman and Christopher Barzak. That was also the title story for my collection of short stories, which was published by Rosarium Press. Obviously, these versions of the characters are somewhat different from their younger selves, but that’s where they originated. That’s the bonus of writing in a multiversal setting.

And that collection is what brought you to Rick Riordan’s attention?

Rick read it, and thought, “Hey, Carlos might be a good fit for my imprint.” He introduced me to Stephanie Lurie, his editor at Disney. She’d brought in the first few authors for the imprint, including Roshani Chokshi and J.C. Cervantes, but I was Rick’s first find. He’d been asked by his fans to address other mythologies, like Indian or Mexican, but he didn’t feel comfortable doing so, so he looked for other authors to write Percy Jackson-like stories instead. I wanted to do something different, though, something that talked more about culture and which was more science fiction. So the Rick Riordan Presents imprint expanded to accommodate that. I gave Lurie a 20,000-word write-up and outline, and here we are. I feel super lucky to be able to reach such a large audience and be in the company of such great writers.

Your previous stories were aimed at adults. Did you ever plan to write for children like this?

Actually, it wasn’t one of my aspirations. I have a PhD in English, and I always thought I’d end up writing literary science fiction or fantasy for a small audience, and if it was critically well-received, that would be okay with me. So it took me a while to think of what I’d write for this sort of thing. It turns out I’m a seventh grader at heart, because it was very easy to slip into the younger Sal’s voice. You never know what’s inside you until you probe, and apparently, I had this 13-year-old kid waiting to get out as soon as he had the chance.

Sal doesn’t feel like your average teenage boy. He has a big heart, he’s not afraid to show emotions, and he’s prone to public acts of contrition. Were you trying to present a counter to toxic masculinity?

I think right now we are in a time when people are using that language a lot, and rightfully so, to call out certain behavior. As a teacher, I see a lot of 17- to 19-year-olds, and I get high school seniors in my classes sometimes, and what I’m seeing is a level of openness and affection among male and male-presenting people, which is super-heartening. Sal isn’t just aspirational. He reflects, I think, a sea change happening in the younger generation which has opened up to allow for a lot more nuance and flexibility and kindness among those who adopt a male identity. So that idea of being decent, which I hit a couple of times in this book, is super important to me, not because I want it to happen but because I’m already seeing it happen. As a culture, it’s not only our job to point out what’s wrong, we need to celebrate what’s right. I see a lot of hope in the new generation.

This book avoids a traditional sense of conflict, with no actual villain for your heroes to face. Was this intentional?

I wanted to get away from the typical “person vs. person” story, and write a “person vs. the cosmos” book, because I don’t think we get enough of that. We have too many easy villains. We have too many targets for our anger and fear and desire to be victorious. The real world is more nebulous, and kids are smart; they know that you can’t reduce things down as easily as you do in fiction. So my challenge to myself was to do this in a way that felt exciting and lively, to tackle the idea of “what do I do in the world? How do I exist?” without pitting people against one another. I come from a literary tradition where you put characters in motion, put problems in front of them, and see what happens.

One of Sal’s defining characteristics is his Type 1 diabetes. What made you give him that trait?

Latinos in the United States are one of the fastest-growing groups for diabetes, both Type 1 and Type 2. The Latinx community has this huge problem, and it’s kind of alarming, and I wanted to showcase it. And if you’re a Type 1 diabetic like Sal, you can never turn it off. You’re looking at every food item and thinking of intake and how risky is this decision. For Sal, I avoided some of the new technologies that help you monitor and control your blood sugar levels, and went old school, so he’s poking his finger all the time. That relates back to his desire for control and factual information, and also appeals to his sense of performativity as a stage magician. I think our society does poorly with people who have chronic conditions, and we treat them as lesser or limit them. I wanted to challenge that.

One thing which stands out about Gabi is her collection of Dads, not all of whom are male-presenting or even human, with names like Dada-ist (an artist) and Cari-Dad (a female cardiologist). What inspired this?

I wanted to present the idea of chosen family. We have the families we’re born with, and you have no choice in that. But then you have the people you meet in the world and form a connection with, who can help you reach your full potential. I wanted to celebrate that. For Gabi’s family, the title of Dad is a hilarious affection they’ve taken on as a private joke. It’s about those people who are sometimes closer to us than the ones actually connected by blood. If you do it right, and choose them well, that’s how you end up with someone like Gabi Reál, who manages to be student body president, good at making friends, able to deal with bureaucracy, and always on the move.

Family plays a huge role in your work, especially here, from Gabi’s dads to Sal’s American stepmother.

We see a lot of awful or missing or dead parents in fiction. So many stories for children feature terrible adults. They’re idiots, or evil, or incompetent. I wanted to present good adults instead. They don’t have to be perfect or stellar, but at least they’re trying. The world is still full of mystery and ambiguity and hard choices, and there are still plenty of problems to deal with. At least Sal and Gabi have their families to support them. I wanted Sal to have a good relationship with his stepmother as well. She has to deal with so much, especially when Sal keeps bringing back versions of his dead mother. She takes it in stride and tries so hard.

You said you wanted to talk about culture in this book. How has your own Cuban-American heritage influenced your writing?

The Cuban-American experience is an interesting one in the United States, because of all the Latinx groups, the Cuban experience is the most privileged. There was a time right up until the end of the Obama administration when, if you were coming from the island of Cuba and you put one foot on American soil, you were invited into the country. That created a way for Cuban immigrants to gain a foothold unavailable to most other groups. Miami, where this is set, is a place where they’ve had agency and opportunity and the ability to start businesses. It’s almost like an alternate reality Cuba if it hadn’t been devastated by economic and political policy over the years. It’s basically the Cuban identity in two parallel universes, which feeds into the multiversal aspect of this series.

And that brings up Sal’s school, the Culeco Academy of the Arts. Is this based on a real institution?

I borrowed from various sources, such as the magnet school for the arts that my wife attended. But I also went pretty extreme. I wanted to create a Hogwarts meets Fame experience, where students from the Latinx communities could have an opportunity to celebrate life and have great opportunities to feed their imaginations. Oftentimes, what you see in fiction is poverty and the difficulty of making it through the day, so I wanted to offer something different. I wanted these children to be able to play and be in a school that respected their abilities and fostered their talents. Art school is such an exclusionary privilege, so my secret revolutionary act is to say “we can put all sorts of people in these kinds of schools.”

What’s next for you?

Book two is called Sal & Gabi Fix the Universe, and it should be out in 2020. I packed a lot of ideas into this book, so next time we’ll get to explore some of those concepts in more depth.

Sal & Gabi Break the Universe by Carlos Hernandez. Disney/Riordan, $16.99 Mar. ISBN 978-1-368-02282-8