Anne: Hello, Aya! I’m thrilled you could join us to talk about Undercover Latina, your recently released novel for older-MG and YA readers. The fast-paced action is awesome! Would you please give us a super-brief synopsis of the story?
Aya: Sure! Andréa is a homeschooled 14-year-old Latina in a family of spies going on her first solo mission. She must press her hair and pass for white to infiltrate a high school in Arizona to befriend the estranged son of a white supremacist terrorist. Shenanigans ensue!
Anne: Yes, they do! And as part of her spy mission, Andréa must learn a card game reminiscent of Magic: The Gathering. Also, she attends a convention similar to Comic-Con. What about you? Are you into Magic and cosplay, or did you have to do research to develop this plot?
Aya: While I tend to write in the crime genre, my partner and my kid are both hardcore into sci-fi/fantasy. My partner used to play Magic a lot, and my kid loves cosplay. Meanwhile, I have been going to my local AfroComicCon for years—I was even their keynote speaker in 2019! I started going to the Con supposedly for them, but I was just loving the imagination and the uprising of women, people of color, and other marginalized folks demanding that we be part of our culture’s collective vision of the future.
In the book, when it was time to have my main character befriend this other kid in her mission, she needed to pretend to share his interests. What could be more fun than making him a nerd who was into comics, gaming, and cosplay? And for me, as someone who mostly writes contemporary, realistic fiction, it was a way to create a world-within-a-world where I could play around with sci-fi/fantasy and fandom.
Anne: Fun! And beneath all that fun, your characters deal with some tough issues ranging from racism and colorism to privilege and white supremacy. I loved insights such as “white people…don’t have the same natural danger radar and vigilance that teens of color have,” and “a lot of the ideas in the US Constitution had come from the Iroquois Constitution [but that’s not taught in our schools].” This is an educational thriller, and it’s oh, so much more readable than a textbook! My question is: when you sat down to write Undercover Latina, which came to you first—the espionage intrigue or the justice issues? Where did you begin?
Aya: It all began with Ally Carter and Robin Benway. I read their spy girl books over a decade ago, and wondered what teens of color would bring to the spy girl genre. My first muse was Amani, who appears as the colleague in Undercover Latina. In particular Benway’s book ALSO KNOWN AS has a spy girl protagonist, whose family works for an independent spy agency. She’s homeschooled and goes to high school for the first time as part of her first solo mission. I LOVED the setup, and that was how The Factory was born, an international spy organization whose mission is to fight racism and protect people of color around the world. So, really, the politics and the espionage developed in tandem, but in response to these two other authors.
As an author, I am always thinking about my books for young people (and adults!) as tools of political education. And once my protagonist is in a school, there needs to be conflict in the scenes. So I’m going to use that opportunity to comment on education, and look critically at what she’s being taught.
Anne: That’s great. I loved your comments on education. Now, tell me: which character did you most enjoy writing, and which was the hardest to write? Do you see yourself in any of the characters?
Aya: I really enjoyed writing all of them. My heart is closest to the girl spies, and Amani has more of me than anyone, except maybe Andréa’s mom, because that issue of wanting your daughter to be bold, but also wanting to protect her is REAL. Probably the most difficult character to write was the white son of the terrorist, because he didn’t have a super strong personality. I needed him to be quiet, and a hard nut to crack, without boring the reader. There’s a twist a little ways into the book that made him more interesting to me, and put his inscrutability into a context that made him more relatable.
Anne: Yes, he grew through the course of the story. Such a great mix of characters!
Before Undercover Latina, you wrote a number of suspense novels for adults. Why did you decide to write for young readers, and how was writing MG/YA different from writing for adults?
Aya: First of all, when I read Benway and Carter, it was only a matter of time before I tried my hand at spy girl fiction. But also, my books for adults are very much adult. They’re sexy beach reads, as well as political thrillers, and as a mom, it was as if I had this big thing I was doing that I couldn’t share with my kid. As she got older, I wanted her to be part of my writer’s life. So I began writing an upper middle grade series so she could be part of that journey. And it’s been amazing. When I go on the road, she comes with me. We go to conferences of kid lit and they give out ARCs (advance reader copies) of all the new books. She can take whatever she wants and is in heaven. She’s a big reader, particularly of graphic novels.
Ultimately, I’m obsessed with the same issues in adult fiction as in MG/YA: race, gender, sexuality, socioeconomics, and the climate crisis. My adult books just have more gritty realism and my kid’s books handle the topics more lightly. Undercover Latina is like Yikes! White nationalism! But also skateboard chases! Teen romance! Cosplay! I think the biggest difference is that in the adult books, I’m writing characters who have heavy trauma histories, and the character development is about working through those histories. With the YA/MG protagonists, I’m writing characters who don’t have big trauma in their early lives. They have intact families. No abuse/neglect/adverse life events. So their developmental arcs are about growing up and experiencing agency in their teens for the first time.
Anne: What do you hope young readers will take away from Undercover Latina?
Aya: I have the world’s longest author’s note. I really think of the book as a fun rallying cry for everyone (particularly in the Latine community) to join the fight to end racism.
Anne: Awesome. I’m European American and would love for more white folks to join in the fight, too. And let me just say: your author’s note isn’t that long! You got me thinking about people who have—as you put it—a “proximity to whiteness”: a light-skinned experience of racism. I’m glad you included it.
I’ve heard that a sequel to Undercover Latina is coming out. What can you tell us about it?
Aya: Yes! Actually, more of a prequel. Untraceable comes out this October (2023).
Amani and her mom go on the run when someone comes after them and burns down their house in LA. They decide to hide in plain sight, moving from a white prep school to a Black public high school. As a plus-sized Black girl, Amani gets body image whiplash when she goes from being romantically invisible to being sexually harassed. Also, she’s totally in the dark about what’s going on with her family, and why they’re on the run. So she begins spying and shenanigans ensue!
Anne: Love it. Finally, where can we go to learn more about you and your writing?
Aya: My website is ayadeleon.com. I’m on twitter @ayadeleon and Instagram @ayadeleonwrites, and all my books are at Bookshop.
Anne: Excellent. Thank you so much for stopping by MG Book Village today!
Aya: Thanks for inviting me!
Aya de León teaches creative writing at UC Berkeley. She is the acquiring editor for Fighting Chance Books, the new climate justice fiction imprint at She Writes Press. Aya has published award-winning climate fiction with Kensington Books, including SIDE CHICK NATION (2019), A SPY IN THE STRUGGLE (2020), QUEEN OF URBAN PROPHECY (2021), and THAT DANGEROUS ENERGY (2022). Aya’s YA/MG books include UNDERCOVER LATINA (Candlewick 2022) and THE MYSTERY WOMAN IN ROOM 3 (free online on Orion Magazine). Aya’s work has also appeared in Harper’s Bazaar, Ebony, Guernica, Bitch Magazine, VICE, The Root, and Ploughshares.
Anne (A.B.) Westrick is the author of the older-MG novel Brotherhood. You can learn more about Anne at the MG Book Village “About” page.