“I will be the first to admit that Gabi is a lot like me. She is, however, braver than I ever was.” Like her protagonist in Gabi, a Girl in Pieces (Cinco Puntos, Sept. 2014; Gr 9 Up), Isabel Quintero began writing poetry early, wrestled with her body image and her Mexican American family’s expectations, and dreamed about leaving home to attend college. But Quintero’s fictional teen must also contend with a parent with a drug addiction, the ups and downs of high school life, and the pain and drama that they both entail. Through her writing, the sometimes vulnerable, often feisty teen with a big heart questions the world around her; navigates her relationships with friends, family, and a first romance; and begins to build the life she wants to lead.
Gabi may be a “girl in pieces,” but she has such strong sense of self. Where does that strength come from?
Because she is a lot like me when I was a teen, I imagine it comes from always questioning why she is held to certain expectations…and learning that she has to come up with her own answers. Gabi realizes that while we are a product of our environment, we are in control of how we respond to situations and it’s those choices that make us who we are. It isn’t easy for her to go against her family’s expectations, but for Gabi, it would be harder to be someone she isn’t.
Gabi and her best friends Cindy and Sebastian differ from the adults in their life in their views on women, relationships, and sexuality, but as the teen says in the book, families are also the “glue that makes us who we are.”
Family is definitely the glue. It is our first community—from them we learn how to face the world….Later on, we may realize, “Hey, my family had it wrong this whole time,” but we already have gained a set of experiences that we can’t wish away. Gabi’s father is a drug addict. Early in the story, she makes a list of words she’s had to learn because of his addiction—she can’t unlearn them, erase the hurt, or be someone else’s daughter, but she can use her experience to become more compassionate, more understanding.
In the book there are several mentions of telenovelas, and at times your characters’ lives resemble one. They are dealing with so much at home and at school.
I grew up watching telenovelas—they’re usually overly dramatic with situations that aren’t plausible. Gabi’s life, on the other hand, is very real. All of the drama in her life is drama that I [or my friends] experienced in high school. Adults forget what it is like to be a teen. That on their way to becoming adults, they are often faced with [terrifying] situations like rape, abortion, and drug abuse—situations they don’t know how to react or respond to. I often hear adults say, “In my day young women/men didn’t behave this way or that way.” And I have to laugh, because, yes, they did!
What I love about your protagonist is her moral center and her intolerance of hypocrisy. They serve her and the people around her well; for example, there’s Gabi’s kindness to Georgina when she learns that the young woman is pregnant, despite the pain Georgina’s gossip has caused her friend Cindy.
Yeah, I hate hypocrisy. I think growing up, and even as an adult, I didn’t and don’t understand it. I am very much a say-what-you-mean and do-what-you-say person who has a low tolerance for liars and lies (just ask my students)! That is definitely one trait Gabi inherited from me. As for Georgina, [she’s] is in trouble, and Gabi [being the person who she is] feels she must help her.
The characters readers meet on the first pages of the book might be described as a bit loud, tough, and, I think it’s fair to say, a little crass—so different than how we would characterize them by the end of the book.
These characters have gone through so much in a year. By the end of the book, they have a different perspective on the world, but they’re still trying to figure out who they are. Cindy comes to realize that the way things are “supposed to be” is not always right and tries to understand how empowering it is for Gabi to take control of her own sexuality. Sebastian is rejected when he comes out to his family but knows he…has to be true to himself, and, sadly, that comes at a cost. Gabi, well, she’ll be crass and tough until she’s old and wrinkly.
Gabi is a poet and finds an important mentor in her teacher Ms. Abernard. Did you have a mentor at her age?
Ms. Abernard is an amalgamation of a lot of teachers in my life. My mom always pushed me to read and write. Some of my earliest memories are of her reading Amelia Bedelia to me and how happy that made me. In 10th grade, I had a great English teacher, Ms. Agard, who made us memorize e.e. cummings. It was life changing! Mrs. Sonnenburg was another [mentor]—she was my AVID [Advancement Via Individual Determination] and paid for my SAT and ACT exams. The poet Julie Paegle was one of my professors in college and one of the reasons I took writing so seriously. She really pushed me and encouraged me to send my work out. But in high school, I still didn’t take writing so seriously. Writing didn’t really seem like a viable career option then, so I just did it for fun.
What’s next in your writing life?
Well, currently I’m working on several projects. A few children’s books: one about the house I grew up in with my abuelitos and one about a cat and a mouse who are friends. I am also working on a book on the fantasy, magical realism side, about a young woman on a quest to save her family. That story deals with domestic violence, mythology, and legend. Oh, and I am busy writing poems and trying to put together my first poetry manuscript. Fingers crossed.
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