After what HarperCollins Children’s Books publicist Jacquelynn Burke described as “a heated, fast-and-furious auction” between 14 editors at 10 houses brokered by Alloy Entertainment, Balzer + Bray acquired the rights to publish Love in English by Maria E. Andreu. The YA novel is scheduled for release in February 2021 and its author is being compared by her new publisher to Elizabeth Acevedo, Nicola Yoon, and Ibi Zoboi.
Co-publisher Alessandra Balzer declined to disclose the amount negotiated to acquire Love in English, though she did say that it was a “major” two-book deal. Love in English is Andreu’s second YA novel (her first was The Secret Side of Empty, published by Running Press Kids in 2014).
Balzer described Love in English as a “fresh” take on the contemporary coming-of-age story. Ana, a 16-year-old immigrant to New Jersey from Argentina, is a poet who loves words, but now must learn a new language while trying to navigate teenage drama, American-style. Balzer noted that the book opens with text in Spanish “that immediately sets the tone,” and said it also contains poetic breakouts exploring the idiosyncrasies of the English language.
“I was immediately smitten with [Love in English],” Balzer added, “I love the voice, how she conveys such oddities of the English language as ‘you can have your cake and eat it too’ from an outsider’s perspective. I connected with the story, because I moved to the U.S. from Italy when I was a young girl. I’ve always connected to stories about immigration, being thrown into another culture, not knowing the language, feeling like an outsider, and how it informs one as an adult.”
While Love in English is about how a teenage immigrant adjusts to life in her adopted country, learns a new language and adapts to new customs, Balzer said that it is also a story “about family, friendship, and finding new love,” as Ana meets Harrison, a quintessentially American boy, in her math class, and makes friends with Neo, the Greek boy she’s partnered up with in their English as a Second Language class.
“I love how [Andreu] weaves in the real workings of an ESL class, the exercises done to help kids learn the language,” Balzer noted. “Like the activities their young teacher does, taking the class to a McDonald’s and having them order from the drive-through.”
“We don’t have nearly enough Latinx writers,” Balzer added. “Hopefully Love in English will reach a lot of readers with a perspective that we really need right now.”
The Politics of Writing Fiction
As for Andreu, who lives in a northern New Jersey suburb, while she admitted that she and Ana share certain qualities, especially both being Argentinian and entering the U.S. as young immigrants, she denied that this is an autobiographical novel. Nor was her previous novel, she insisted, also a tale about an Argentinian teen in the U.S.
While Andreu said she intended The Secret Side of Empty to portray the immigrant experience “as an artifact,” due to Obama-era policies easing U.S. residency for Dreamers via DACA, Donald Trump’s election changed her perspective: she decided about two years ago to write a novel that explored the universality of the immigrant experience as lived by a teenage girl in resistance to current policies towards immigrants.
“I love the freedom of fiction, because you can tell the same truths, but have more freedom doing it,” she said. “I’m at heart a snarky 16-year-old. Ana isn’t as snarky as me, but she questions things a lot more than I did at that age. I toyed with the memory of my experience, not speaking English, and what that meant for my experience at school and in the world; it evolved from there.”
Andreu explained that she wanted Ana’s status as an immigrant to be just one aspect of the character’s backstory. “I made her immigration status a non-issue,” she said, “I wanted to bring out the humanity of someone in that situation, and to include teen shenanigans and fun.” Of course, Andreu added, in today’s “uncertain climate for immigrants,” some would consider that any book that explores the immigrant experience in the 21st century must “of necessity, be laden with danger and fear.”
In contrast, she said, Love in English is a story “about finding your way in a new place, one that many of us have experienced. I wanted a character who has friends and has crushes like average teenagers do. I wanted to give Ana a chance to just get the guy and find her voice, a chance so many protagonists get to have.”
As for having 14 editors from 10 houses battling over the rights to Love in English, Andreu still cannot believe that this happened to someone who grew up in poverty five miles from where she lives now and was undocumented until she became a U.S. citizen through the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. “I read about that happening, but I never believed it would happen to people like me,” she said, “It was the dream, it was a fairy tale.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story suggested that the protagonist in Love in English, Ana, is an undocumented immigrant. In actuality, Ana's immigration status is unclear throughout.The story has been updated to reflect this.