LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Margot is having a terrible summer. She was supposed to go to the Hamptons with her rich white friends. Instead, she has to work at her family's failing supermarket in the Bronx. Margot is Margo Sanchez in the new YA novel from Lilliam Rivera called "The Education Of Margot Sanchez."
Margot, nicknamed la princessa or the princess by her family, has big dreams of fitting in at the new expensive prep school her family has sacrificed to send her to. Her friends there are thin and blonde like something she says out of a magazine.
LILLIAM RIVERA: (Reading) Then there's me, struggling to maintain good grades, trying to look like the others, sound like them so that I won't be that girl. I'll just be one of the girls. What matters is keeping the Sanchez dream alive.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: There is a beach party, two boys from different sides of town and a lot of family secrets to get through before Margot figures out what it is that she wants. Lilliam Rivera joins me now from NPR West. Welcome.
RIVERA: Hi. Thank you for having me.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's great to have you on. So tell us about Margot. We meet her on the first day of working at her father's store. She's being punished. What's happening?
RIVERA: We are dropped right into her first day working at her father's supermarket that's set in the South Bronx, and she's not happy at all. And she's being punished because she stole her father's credit card to charge some fancy clothes for herself. And her punishment is to work off her debts at her father's supermarket in the South Bronx. And she's, you know, the South Bronx for her has never been a place that she hangs out with.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right. She looks down on everyone, right? She's miserable. She's just like, this is awful having to be there.
RIVERA: Right. And it - she hasn't been there in a while, so she sees that the supermercado, the supermarket, is kind of failing in its way. It's old and a little bit run-down. And she doesn't want to be a part of it, but it's a summer of revelation and discovery for Margot. She's going to realize that there are things that she is going to love about the Bronx.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You really emphasize in the book how much Margot wants to erase her ethnicity. She's straightening her hair. She hates her curves. Why was it important to include that?
RIVERA: I mean, I think there's moments when you're young that you're just trying to put on different masks. And for Margot, her mask right at this moment is just to really follow what her prep school friends are doing. And if they're into Taylor Swift, then she's going to do that.
And they're not listening to, you know, reggaeton or any kind of like old-school music that she used to like. She so desperately wants to fit in that she's willing to, you know, straighten those curls out and really just deny those things that maybe made her unique.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right. So she does a lot of stuff like stealing the credit card to buy flashy clothes that she can fit in, and then she - there's another theft later on to do with a party. She's kind of not a very likable character in some ways. She's a flawed character.
RIVERA: I love flawed characters.
RIVERA: I love writing young adult - young women who do questionable things (laughter).
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Because most kids do. Let's face it, we all do.
RIVERA: Right. You know, you're just like, oh, don't do that. You're screaming at her maybe when you're reading this, but there's love there as well for Margot. And I feel like for her and maybe even for almost all the characters in the book who are just struggling to try to find their space in the city, in the South Bronx, in New York, what have you, they're just trying to make do and failing and then picking up and then figuring out a different way, different approach.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Speaking of the Bronx, you're from the Bronx. Tell me a little bit about your background.
RIVERA: I grew up on 183rd and Webster Ave. in the Twin Parks West housing projects. We lived in the housing projects when they first opened up, so there was a lot of hope when we moved in there. And I remember just looking out the window and seeing fireflies and just playing in the playground, and everything was great. And then, you know, things changed and shift, and things became a little bit harder living there and not as safe.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to talk about how you marketed this book. It was marketed in a really interesting way. The Bronx is a bookstore desert. We've heard about food deserts. There are no bookstores around where you grew up, is that right?
RIVERA: Yes. The library was the only place that you could get books, you know, and that's where I spent most of my time. So when I was thinking of a launch party for this book. I knew for sure I wanted it to be in the Bronx, I mean, definitely. But I didn't, you know, there were no bookstores, so finding a location for it became quite challenging for us.
And I was able to find Noelle Santos, who's trying to build a bookstore in the Bronx, and she ended up pairing with us. And she sold my book at my launch party. And that was such a big deal for me to just have it in the Bronx, to be able to, like, celebrate a book about the Bronx, set in the Bronx with the people that would read it, with the young people.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What was it about Margot that spoke to you? When you were imagining her, what story did you think she was going to tell?
RIVERA: You know. It was a little bit personal in the sense that I, you know, my first job, I worked with my father.
RIVERA: And he worked at a private hospital in Manhattan. And it was that moment, like, when I went to work there, although we didn't work at the same department, I was able to see him in a totally different light. And it was very, very humbling work that he was doing.
He worked as like a nurse's aide. And it was the first time I saw him take care of people that weren't family. And it was the first time I saw someone telling him what to do. And I wanted to write about that moment when young people see their parents in a new way, in a realistic way because I think that's that moment when you're sort of growing up, you know?
That's that moment when like, oh, this is the real world. And these are my parents, and they're not just like, oh, punishing me for, you know, stealing a credit card, they're actually - there are way more things going on that I am not seeing.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lilliam Rivera is the author of "The Education Of Margot Sanchez." Thanks so much.
RIVERA: Thank you so much for having me.
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