R.M. Romero’s new YA novel, A Warning About Swans, features a shape-shifting heroine who longs to live as a human—until her freedom to transform is stolen from her. Written in free verse, the historical fantasy evokes the dark side of fairy tales while exploring contemporary issues of gender fluidity and body autonomy. PW spoke with Romero by phone from her home in Boulder, Colo., where she was raised, about her dedication to caring for Jewish cemeteries in Poland, her family’s roots in magical realism, and how liminality is at the heart of the human experience.

You’ve just returned from your annual trip to Poland, where you help maintain Jewish cemeteries. Your first novel, The Dollmaker of Kraków, takes place in that country. What’s your connection to Poland, and how did you start doing this work?

I don’t have any family connection to Poland, but I’ve always been very interested in history. When I was nine, I read The Diary of Anne Frank and was fascinated by it. I started to do my own research about the Holocaust. I wanted to find out what happened to this person I’d been on such an intimate journey with. When I was 11, I asked my parents to let me watch Schindler’s List, and that led me to become especially interested in Poland, and especially in Auschwitz, which is in the Polish city of Oścwięcim. When I was 18, I decided to go to Poland to visit Auschwitz. Being there allowed me to connect what I’d read with the reality of what happened; you’re surrounded by death when you’re there. It’s very vivid.

I also visited Kraków on that trip. The city was untouched by World War II, so it still has a fairy tale quality with its 13th-century buildings. Its legends still seem alive. For example, the legendary dragon Smok felt very real to me because the cave that was supposedly his lair still exists under the Wawel Castle. It took me a long time to process everything I felt and experienced during that first trip. It wasn’t until nine years later that I was able to write about it in The Dollmaker of Kraków.

I didn’t return to Poland until 2016, when I’d sold The Dollmaker of Kraków and went back to do some additional research. While I was researching, I came across a Baptist organization called the Matzevah Foundation (matzevah is the Hebrew word for “headstones”), which cares for Jewish graves throughout Poland. I was intrigued by their work and contacted them. I began working with Matzevah in 2016 and since then I’ve helped maintain the cemetery in the town of Auschwitz twice, as well as several cemeteries near Lublin and Warsaw. Before Russia invaded Ukraine, I also worked with the group in cemeteries outside of Lviv.

What was your path to writing that first book? Did you always want to be a writer?

I started telling stories when I was very young. From what I remember, they were all fantasies, usually based on my favorite books and movies at the time, such as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I started writing novels when I was 11; those were always focused on girls who saved the day with their magic, since in the 1990s there were so few fantasy stories that focused on heroines.

When I went to college, I studied history and education, intending to become a high school history teacher and write during the summers. I had never shared my writing with anyone, but by the time I was in my 20s I felt like I’d reached a plateau, so I enrolled in the Stonecoast MFA program at the University of Southern Maine.

I had written a first draft of The Dollmaker of Kraków for NaNoWriMo in 2014, as an adult novel, and it became my thesis project at Stonecoast. I started querying agents a few months after I got my degree and quickly got a “revise and resubmit” offer from Jenny Bent of the Bent Agency. [Romero’s current agent is Rena Rossner of the Deborah Harris Agency.] Jenny thought I should focus on making it a middle-grade book. Since the character of the doll, Karolina, was a little unclear, I started to age the manuscript down through her. I also removed one of the adult characters and focused on the child who discovers that Karolina is alive. We then sold the manuscript in one weekend to Beverly Horowitz at Delacorte. That was in March 2016.

You’ve said that you believe all your work is magical realism because that’s how you view the world. Can you talk a little more about that?

My mother’s family is Irish and my father’s family is Cuban. I grew up hearing fantastical family stories on my father’s side about things like miraculous escapes that felt magical even though they really happened. For example, relatives suddenly appearing at my grandmother’s old house in New Jersey in the middle of the night, seemingly out of nowhere—though in actuality, they had fled from Cuba.

Then there’s the story of one of my ancestors, who arrived in Cuba by sneaking onto a ship out of Spain several hundred years ago. When he was discovered, the crew wanted to throw him overboard—until they realized he could read and write. None of them could, so the crew agreed that he could stay if he helped them with a contract. As the ship approached Cuba, he decided to disembark before the final destination of Havana. The day after he left, a hurricane tore through the Caribbean and sank that ship, leaving no survivors. Talk about a strange and miraculous escape!

Another strange thing about the Cuban side of my family: one of the meanings for the surname Romero is “guardian of shrines.” And everyone knows what I do now….

Your books are somewhat linked thematically by dark magical elements and intersections between the dead and the living, but they’re all quite different and take place in distinct historical eras. What do you see as a commonality between the three books?

There is a fairy tale undercurrent to all of them. The Dollmaker of Kraków has Polish folklore and echoes of the original Nutcracker story by E.T.A. Hoffman, which is much stranger and darker than the ballet’s more sugary storyline. The Ghosts of Rose Hill has both Czech and Cuban folklore and elements of modern horror, while A Warning About Swans has echoes of Swan Lake and the stories of the Brothers Grimm. In all of my work, characters are dealing with tangible world issues that young people are facing today but there is always a sprinkle of fairy dust, too.

In all of my work, characters are dealing with tangible world issues that young people are facing today but there is always a sprinkle of fairy dust, too.

A Warning of Swans seems to have clearer fairy tale roots than your previous two novels. What took you in that direction?

One inspiration came from visiting King Ludwig II’s Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria in 2008—the castle in Sleeping Beauty was inspired by it. There are fantastical murals there that depict scenes from Wagner’s operas, because Ludwig was obsessed with Wagner. And for me, as a Jew—I converted in my 20s—Wagner is problematic. So I decided it would annoy Wagner if, in my story, a Jew was the one who paints those murals.

In this book, though, I also return to the theme of the animal bride—the woman who has her body stolen. The spark for much of A Warning About Swans was the difficulties faced by people who can become pregnant and queer people over the past few years when it comes to having control over their own bodies. Because at heart, animal bride stories are about someone whose body has been stolen by a man. The selkies and swan maidens in these kinds of tales aren’t allowed autonomy; they’re forced to physically conform to the expectations of men who want to own them. And unfortunately, this is happening a lot in the United States now, from the Supreme Court overturning Roe vs. Wade to the anti-queer and specifically anti-trans laws being passed by many states—including my own, Florida.

What’s coming after A Warning About Swans?

Little, Brown is publishing my middle-grade prose novel Tale of the Flying Forest this fall; it was my “lockdown book.” It’s the portal fantasy of my childhood about a girl who has to travel through an enchanted flying forest to find and rescue her long-lost twin brother. And I have another YA novel in verse coming from Peachtree Teen next summer, Death’s Country. It’s based on the Orpheus and Eurydice myth and takes place in Miami, but it’s a polyamorous triad instead of a couple.

What are you working on now?

I’m currently revising a middle-grade fairy tale about a pair of siblings trying to find a cure for a magical pandemic in the aftermath of a climate change disaster. It’s Wednesday meets Ship Breaker. If you can believe it, I started writing it months before anyone had ever heard of Covid-19! I’m also drafting a YA horror based on the work I’ve done investigating mass graves with forensic archeologists. Every forest in Poland feels haunted by violence, so it feels natural for me to write another, much darker ghost story.

A Warning About Swans by R.M. Romero. Peachtree Teen, $18.99 July 11 ISBN 978-1-68263-483-7