Carlos Hernandez has no intention of buying a Mega Millions or Powerball lottery ticket. That would be greedy, he says: “I have already won the lottery—the publishing lottery.”
Hernandez’s first novel, Sal & Gabi Break the Universe (Disney/Riordan), has received four starred reviews. But it did not exist, not even as a spark in his writerly imagination, until he got an out-of-the-blue call from Disney editor-at-large Stephanie Lurie.
Lurie had been asked by her most famous author, Rick Riordan, to find out whether Hernandez had anything to say to young readers after Riordan read Hernandez’s The Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria (Rosarium), a short story collection for adults.
Lurie took Hernandez to lunch at the Bryant Park Grill in New York City. He did not know who she was, but he certainly knew who Riordan was. Over Cobb salads, “she asked me if I had ever considered writing middle grade fiction,” Hernandez recalls. “I told her, ‘I am considering it right now.’ ”
Hernandez, an associate professor of English at the City University of New York, did not need more persuasion. Since Riordan had liked his short stories, he took characters from that collection and aged them way down. He turned Gabrielle Reál, a Cuban reporter who investigates the supernatural for a publication called The Uncanny, into the hard-charging editor of the school newspaper at an arts magnet school in Miami.
Hernandez created a childhood for another adult character, a physicist named Salvador Vidon who arrives at the Culeco Academy for the Arts as an aspiring magician and runs smack into Gabi’s ambition.
The two middle schoolers bond when they realize they both have an inexplicable ability to see holes in the space-time continuum, an element of the story that blends the magical realist tradition of Latin American literature with Hernandez’s love of science fiction. Working with stories that accept the idea of alternate realities frees him from a lot of constraints, he says. “The nice thing about writing multiverses is that you don’t have to worry about consistency in the same way,” he adds.
Sal and Gabi also share a wise-beyond-their-years knowledge of life’s fragility: Gabi’s baby brother is critically ill, and Sal has type 1 diabetes, the disease that killed his mother. Hernandez says that a class on disabilities studies at Binghamton University, where he earned his PhD in English in 2000, sensitized him to the increasing prevalence of diabetes in the Latino population, especially among young people. “People with diabetes are people, too, and I wanted kids to know that not only can they manage their condition but they can rise to the level of being the main protagonist in a story,” he says. “They can be heroes, too.”
Hernandez lives in Queens, N.Y., but he grew up in Sarasota, Fla., the son of Cuban immigrants. There is an ample amount of Spanglish in Sal and Gabi’s story, as there is in Hernandez’s own speech. Being bilingual, he says, is actually one of his greatest assets as a writer. “All languages are full of wild metaphors—it’s raining cats and dogs?—but you notice them more when you speak two languages, when you have to translate the idioms of one language into another,” he notes. “I would not be the writer I am without the imaginative backdrop of Spanish.”
The inclusion of so many of the cultural traditions of Cuban-Americans is what made Hernandez’s writing work within the parameters of Riordan’s imprint, which was created to provide a platform for mythologies and cultural stories that have been underrepresented in literature for young people. “The whole purpose of the imprint was to introduce new voices,” Hernandez says. “My story is not based on myth. The culture is the feature.”
Hernandez is using those same elements to finish a sequel. After all, Sal and Gabi break the universe in the first book; Hernandez knows he has to make it right. Sal & Gabi Fix the Universe is scheduled for a 2020 release. “I am bashing away at it right now,” he says.