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Austin author Laekan Zea Kemp layers young love, identity, mental health in YA debut

By Sharyn Vane
Special to the American-Statesman
Austin writer Laekan Zea Kemp’s debut young-adult novel is “Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet.”

Pen feels most at home when she’s baking or cooking for her community. Xander’s trying to find his own version of home, far from where he was born.

How the two discover where they truly belong is at the heart of Austin author Laekan Zea Kemp’s debut young-adult novel, “Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet” (Little, Brown, $18.99).

The pair’s budding romance is part of a powerfully layered coming-of-age story that also delves into identity, friendship and expectations. Kemp launches the book Tuesday virtually at BookPeople.

“I think a necessary part of all coming-of-age stories is finding that autonomy in yourself,” Kemp said in a phone interview. “It’s a very universal experience, and one that can be compounded by cultural expectations.”

Family, education, Texas culture among themes

Her book alternates narration between Penelope “Pen” Prado, who’s grown up at her father’s taco restaurant — equal parts food stop and community hub — and Xander Amaro, sent to Texas to live with his grandfather after one fateful day in his hometown in Mexico. There’s a nurturing connection, and readers see how their relationship blossoms.

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“Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet” also shows how Pen resists the path her parents want her to follow. She excels at managing staff, reinventing menus and baking delectable sweets. And she loves the distinctive camaraderie and rhythms of restaurant life, complete with inside jokes and a shared language: “Disaster tax, stat!” she shouts at 1 a.m., to signal that drunken bar patrons will pay an extra dollar per drink to defray the cost of shattered dinnerware.

Her parents want her to choose a different life through a nursing degree. Yet Pen’s been ditching community college for a semester — a secret only her best friend Chloe knows.

“When the stakes are your family’s ability to not just live but to thrive, it means distractions and straying from that path can sometimes be very dangerous, both in a literal and metaphorical sense,” Kemp said. “Pen’s family knows this fight very well — they know the fight to be able to go to school, the sacrifices to mitigate risk and to give Pen a sense of security.”

"Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet"

Addressing mental health, inner doubts

Chloe also knows how to help balance Pen’s sometimes self-destructive inner monologue. Kemp sensitively and expertly weaves Pen’s mental-health struggles into her character, an aspect important to Kemp both on a personal and community level.

“I remember reading an article a few years ago that Latinas have the highest attempted suicide rates of any demographic,” she said, adding that she’s received messages from some early readers of the book thanking her for the frank yet hopeful depiction of Pen’s struggles.

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“It’s just part of who she is. It never stops her from going after the things she wants,” Kemp said. “I think that’s really a message I want to relay to young readers, that your mental health journey doesn’t define you, and even when it feels like you are lower than you have ever been, and that there isn’t a way out, there is one.”

Advocating for Latina writers

Also key for Kemp is her connection with other authors for young people through Las Musas, a collective that amplifies Latina writers and their work in a still overwhelmingly white publishing industry. Her advocacy echoes the equity focus that was part of her pre-pandemic tenure as an ESL teacher in Leander ISD.

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“These things can’t be fixed from a surface level,” she said, adding that meaningful reform requires dismantling and rebuilding systems.

Writing for young people is one way to lay the groundwork for change. Now that “Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet” is out, she wants to visit classrooms and book clubs for teens, an age group with whom she’s long felt connected.

“I know I’ve heard people say that when something really traumatic happens to you at a young age, there’s a part of you that stays that age forever,” said Kemp, whose father was diagnosed with cancer when she was 17 and died her freshman year in college. “I feel like a lot of things I struggled with at a young age, some of which I still struggle with, are very specifically teenage experiences. … I have so much empathy for teenagers today.” 

Laekan Zea Kemp

What: Launch of “Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet”

When: 6 p.m. Tuesday

Information and free registration: bookpeople.com/event