Pura Belpré Honoree Lilliam Rivera’s bibliography to date traverses the spectrum of genres, shifting into new territory—and age categories—with deftness and ease. Now, Rivera turns to science fiction with her latest YA novel, We Light Up the Sky, which follows three Latinx teens in Los Angeles as they try to stop an alien invasion in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. PW spoke with Rivera from her home in Los Angeles about grief, the importance of documenting what’s happening in her writing, and unexpectedly becoming a plant person during the pandemic.
You’ve written young adult fiction in a variety of genres: contemporary coming-of-age for The Education of Margot Sánchez, dystopia for Dealing in Dreams, mythic retelling for Never Look Back, and now science fiction for We Light Up the Sky. What made you want to write science fiction? Was there anything specific that drew you to the genre?
I grew up reading Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, which is one of the first books I think I read that was science fiction and completely freaked me out. It’s just a scary, amazing book. And I reread it, of course, when I started writing We Light Up the Sky. I love that book so much because it talks about these big themes like colonization, what does it mean to take over a planet, who wins and who loses, and also just has really, really scary moments. That was the one book that I’ve always thought about. And I’d read all these other science fiction books that have been made into movies. I’ve always loved those kind of science fiction [stories]. And I love The Matrix, and I’ve watched a lot of the Tom Cruise kind of films. But it’s always, always led by this white male savior. So I knew I wanted to write a science fiction book, and I knew I needed it to be centered around brown and Black kids and how they would lead the way—which is what I feel they do anyway. So it was just a matter of time before I tackled [science fiction].
What inspired the premise of We Light Up the Sky?
It was definitely the idea of how a city is used by people who are in power, and who’s going to be saved and who isn’t going to be saved when there’s a crisis. And I could see it plainly, how it all played out during the pandemic, which is not something that I was writing towards, because I had this idea a while ago. But it became so much clearer to me. I’m always in awe of young people and how they are able to overcome this and lead these revolutionary movements, fighting against injustice, fighting against the power and these authority figures and staking claim. And I was thinking of a movie that I used to watch when I was younger, Rebel Without a Cause, and these three kids who don’t know each other and aren’t friends, and they’re lost in this city that just seems really strange and alien to them, even though they live there or they’re born there. And I kept going back to that idea of living in a city that does not seem welcoming to young brown and Black people and yet they are still trying to stake claim. Trying to [decide], “Do we save this city? Here’s a place that doesn’t offer us affordable housing, doesn’t offer us space to even go to a mall. It’s only meant for certain people.” And so that’s what I was thinking—brown Rebel Without a Cause meets an alien invasion/first contact story.
We Light Up the Sky is the one of the first YA books to be published that not only mentions Covid-19 but also explores what the aftermath might look like for humanity. What made you decide to incorporate the pandemic in the novel and its world?
Honestly, I didn’t think we’d still be in it. You know, when I was writing this, I have it set maybe two years after [the pandemic], thinking that it would be over. But I just feel that whenever I write any of my books, history is such an important part of it. For each of my books, there has to be some sort of documentation of what is happening. Even with Margot Sánchez I’m talking about gentrification at the start of it happening in the Bronx. There’s something historically tied to it. And if it’s contemporary, I have to mention what’s happening now. I have to mention Black Lives Matter. I have to mention that there were actual protests that happened during [the pandemic]. These huge movements were occurring at the same time that we’re dealing with a virus that no one really knows about. To me it’s important in all my work to find some sort of historical connection even if I’m going back in time because everything is tied. There is no such thing as just a building being erected and that’s it. There is history in there. People created it, people built it, you know? Like the mall, the Beverly Center [in Los Angeles, which is featured in We Light Up the Sky]. It’s a place where they take down these restaurants because they don’t want kids hanging out there, and they want to cater to really specific tourists. So those were all the things I was thinking about as I was writing it, and it’s important for me to document this because we’re still going through it.
Was it also important for the novel to have a character like Luna—who lost someone deeply important to them because of the pandemic—and explore what that means for them on the page?
Yeah, it was because I see it, I see how everyone is like, “Well, let’s get on with our lives. Let’s go back to what we used to do.” So there was no moment of, “Can we just mourn all the loss that has happened?” And I’m still mourning, I’m still hearing from people who are suffering, who are dying from [Covid-19]. There hasn’t been a moment. It’s like we’re not going to pause, we’re just going to continue moving forward and work and go to the office. That’s denial. And Luna was feeling that pressure [in the book while grieving her cousin Tasha]; her friends did not want to hear it anymore. But there’s no expiration date when it comes to grieving. I really believe it just shifts. And sometimes it hurts way harder and sometimes it becomes something else. So I wanted to honor that and to express that in a story that it’s okay, that we’re not supposed to go back to normal—nothing’s normal. We’re supposed to change and mark it, mark this time.
Was it a challenge to write during the pandemic?
It was challenging in a sense that I feel, like everyone, I was dealing with a lot of anxiety. Just trying to maintain my family life here and making sure that things were also okay in New York where most of my other family is. So writing this work was very different from the other books because it was strangely a blur. I felt alien. I felt everything was disturbing. I became a plant person! [Laughs.] I had never been a plant person. It’s not natural for me. I’m very much a city person. And it felt very much like I was writing in a blur-like, kind of surreal moment. So I think it made sense for me to write science fiction even though it’s set in contemporary [times]. The world felt very tilted in a lot of ways, so that’s how I felt when I was writing. I was writing off-kilter, if that makes sense.
In addition to writing YA, you’ve also done some middle-grade titles. What draws you to writing for young people?
I just love writing young voices. There’s so many different things that are happening in both middle-grade and YA that’s just exceptional. All of these opportunities that I’ve had, like Goldie Vance, which is set in a comic book world in the late ’50s and the ’60s—I get to play around in those worlds. I could do all this fun research. So to me it’s kind of like, “Oh, what kind of project will I get into? What can I learn about that time or what can I learn about these kids?” And I get to learn new things, so every new project is exciting to me. I feel blessed to tell these stories. And if kids find them entertaining or scary or heartbreaking, then I did my job as a storyteller.
What’s up next for you? Are there any forthcoming projects you can share?
My next project is a middle-grade book with Kokila [called Barely Floating] that will be coming out in the next two years. It’s about a girl who wants to be a synchronized swimmer, but her feminist mom is dead set against it. So that should be fun. I’ve seen the cover, and it’s so cute. I love the character. So now I’m just working on what comes out next when it comes to the YA world.
We Light Up the Sky by Lilliam Rivera. Bloomsbury, $17.99 Oct. 26 ISBN 978-1-5476-0376-3