The roots of Natalia Sylvester’s newest novel began to strengthen three years ago.
The Austin author of two acclaimed books for adults was drafting a story about a teenager finding her political voice, but it was hard to balance writing with her advocacy at the Texas Legislature through Literary Women in Action.
"I realized at one point that as much as we all want to do everything, we can’t do everything. It wasn’t sustainable," Sylvester says in a phone interview.
She rededicated herself to carving out time to create along with social action.
"These are long-term movements," she says. "... Everyone has different things they can contribute with the most heart, the most vigor and the most joy to make it sustainable. That really ended up giving this book new purpose."
The result is "Running" (Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $17.99), Sylvester’s first young adult novel. She launches it Tuesday in conversation with Austin writer and producer Maya Perez through a virtual event hosted by the Texas Book Festival.
"Running" spotlights 15-year-old Mariana "Mari" Ruiz, whose father is a Florida senator and has been involved in politics for as long as Mari can remember. He’s just decided to run for president.
The spotlight isn’t a place Mari enjoys, though. She hates performing as a family for her father’s campaign and is particularly anxious about public speaking. That changes as she slowly discovers that there’s a disconnect between what she believes and some of her father’s policies.
"I wondered what it would be like to stand so publicly behind someone seeming to support them, but inside you were struggling," Sylvester says. "In fact, you might be in opposition to their stances, and what if that person was your father? What does finding your own voice look like?"
Sylvester beautifully draws the relationship between Mari and her father, infusing it with both love and the growing pains that happen as a teenager transforms into a young adult with views of her own. Mari has fond memories of father-daughter outings to her beloved Everglades and hasn’t thought too much about her Papi’s politics. Then she starts getting questions from her friends at school, and she watches her father deftly deflect churchgoers’ questions about the lack of clean water in their neighborhoods.
"‘People need to feel heard. I get it,’ Papi says.
"But making them feel like you’re listening isn’t the same thing as listening, I want to say.
"I don’t. I’m scared the truth will hurt him, so I keep quiet and let it hurt me instead."
Eventually, Mari feels bold enough to speak up.
"One of the hardest parts of writing Mari’s journey and her relationship with her father is that she loves him, but she gets to that part when love doesn’t give him a pass," Sylvester says. "She has to hold him to account."
A key plot point centers on climate change-fueled havoc in parts of the city, including where some of Mari’s friends live. Her circle expands to encompass a robust group of activist teens who challenge her to think critically about politics.
"One of the things I loved most about writing the book was all the friends and the people who help along the way," she says. "One of the great things about being that age is that it’s one of the first times you’re really coming into your own. For me, I remember starting to branch out and meeting different friends, and being influenced by media and art. I really wanted to show what I thought was a joyful experience to see her making new friends."
The group in "Running" recalls the high schoolers who spoke out after the Parkland, Florida, school shootings in favor of gun control, Sylvester notes.
"I was conscious of the fact that because they are young, they couldn’t vote, but that doesn’t mean their voices don’t matter. My parents weren’t citizens until I was 17, but that doesn’t mean that our lives weren’t affected daily by the administration policies that we had no say in," says the Peruvian-born Sylvester, whose family moved to the United States when she was 4.
Activism encompasses so much more than voting, she notes, "especially when you’re a young person whose whole life is going to be affected by the policies that are in place today. Mari’s father is running for president — she can’t wait until she’s 18 to do something about it."