Hey Girl

Crystal Maldonado

Listening to music from her youth — Spice Girls, anyone? — transports Maldonado to the headspace of her semi-autobiographical, young adult heroines.

Crystal Maldonado ’10 (CLAS) remembers feeling alone in her teenage struggles with identity, relationships, and body image because she didn’t see “fat, brown girls” like her represented in the media she was consuming. So when the higher ed marketing pro decided to pursue her dream of getting published, she took a semi-autobiographical approach to creating a “welcoming, wholesome, ‘hey girl, it’s not just you out there who’s stressed about what you look like or sound like’ feeling with my books.” “The biggest part of why I write about marginalized communities is really for validation. I want to remind teenagers that they’re not alone in their experiences and remind them that they matter,” says the buzzed-about young adult author. She’s following up “Fat Chance, Charlie Vega,” 2021 New England Book Award winner, and “No Filter and Other Lies,” named Best New YA by Seventeen and PopSugar, with “The Fall of Whit Rivera,” out in October. We caught up via Zoom.

Why YA?

I love young adult books, that's what I gravitate toward even as a grown-up — I really adore how we get to watch characters grow and experience life and all of life's amazing firsts. You’re a teenager, you think you have autonomy and you're independent but you really don't — there’s that push and pull where you get to hang out with your friends and be independent, but you have curfew and it feels like the world is so against you. In the YA space I get to share stories with teenagers during this important time in their life, and hopefully remind them that they’re not alone in their experiences of feelings, remind them that they matter and what they’re feeling is important. We diminish what kids are going through — they are humans and the things they're going through are really stressful for them. I really understand how stressful or how amazing these things are when you’re that age — those are all big, amazing feelings that I just want to celebrate.

Why do you think it’s important to represent marginalized communities/sexualities/body types in literature?

The biggest part of why I want to write about these marginalized communities is really for validation — everyone wants to be validated and feel seen. Being young, impressionable, trying to figure yourself out, it can be really alienating if you don’t see parts of yourself in the media you’re consuming. If you're experiencing doubt in any way, there’s something really comforting about seeing someone else who is like you and making you feel a little less alone. I feel fortunate to be in publishing at this time when there does seem to be more willingness to give a chance to books that have ‘nontraditional’ characters and more room for marginalized voices.

Is it easier to write the characters when they represent your own experiences?

It’s a weird mix of harder and easier. The things I'm most passionate about are things that are close to me and my heart — it’s a no brainer, of course, that I want to share these experiences. It's almost therapeutic to me, it's easy and natural — but then there's this terrifying aspect of people reading it. I don't know if other writers feel the same way but, as an introvert, someone very internal, that piece is so scary and it doesn't really get easier. In “Fat Chance,” I have a lot about body, I used a lot of my experience to influence how I talked as Charlie. It was scary to be vulnerable and share these experiences I never would have talked about that as a high schooler. Not everything is right from my life, a lot of it is made up — often what people think is definitely autobiographical, I’ll be like, “I made that up!”

As an avid user of social media and former social media manager for a university, how do you navigate the toxicity that can come from the internet?

It can be so overwhelming and can bleed into so many different parts of your life — when can I tune out? A lot of what my second book [“No Filter and Other Lies”] deals with is how overwhelming it feels when you're on social media watching everyone else have these seemingly perfect lives and you feel like you're nothing close to perfect. For Kat, it ends up becoming this point of contention — how far is she willing to go, how much is she willing to lie? A lot of people can relate to those pressures, even if they don’t go so far as catfishing. It can be really tough to compare yourself to what everyone else is going through and what's happening in their lives— they're in Italy and you're on your couch eating Doritos. I try to encourage young adults to remember these are highlight reels, nobody posts the bad stuff. There are ways we can curate our feeds to make them a bit healthier for us mentally. If someone you’re following causes you stress or strife, unfollow, mute, block. Follow people and accounts and hashtags that do make you feel good. If you love looking at beautiful pictures of flowers, find those pictures and your feed is suddenly very serene. I’ve taken a backseat on social and I feel like it was really needed — it’s OK to have times when you're away from it.

Your third YA novel comes out in October, right?

Yes, “The Fall of Whit Rivera.” I am so excited about this one — it’s like pumpkin spice latte goodness in a YA book. Whit Rivera is a senior in high school, she's extremely type A — notebooks and planners, I'm going to solve the world and this is how I'm going to do it. She’s going to be part of the committee for her school’s fall fest and wants to bring the autumn goodness — pumpkin picking, apple cider, leaves, and sweaters. But she’s paired with her ex-boyfriend to make homecoming come to fruition so there’s the enemies-to-lovers thing going on. She's also dealing with a lot, she has PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome) — which I have — and doesn’t want anyone to know she has this illness so she’s figuring out how to balance all the things. It’s super wholesome. It’s for anybody who loves autumn and New England. [Raises hand] That’s me.

What’s on your what’s next list?

One of my forever dreams has been to collaborate with my husband in some way — he’s an artist, a graphic designer by day. We met in art class in high school. It would be so cool if we could work together, I could do the writing he could do the artwork — that's a dream I've had since we started dating, practically. Now that [4-year-old daughter] Maya is really into books, I want to invite her in and have her be part of whatever we create. We made this beautiful little family, a book would be such a great way to celebrate where we were and how far we've come.

By Julie (Stagis) Bartucca '10 (BUS, CLAS), '19 MBA


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