Getting Real with Janelle Milanes About “Analee, in Real Life”

The second-generation Cuban American author talks to SLJ about her sophomore YA novel, path to publication, and advice to aspiring teen writers.

Photo by Alex Plasencia

In the aftermath of the sensational Netflix adaptation of Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I Loved Before, teens (and adults) on the hunt for lighthearted romance with a diverse cast and nuanced themes should look no further than Analee, in Real Life (Simon Pulse; Sept. 18, 2018, Gr 9 Up). Milanes’s follow-up to The Victoria in My Head features the always enjoyable “fake high school relationship that gets complicated” trope and a protagonist still dealing with the loss of her beloved her mother, even as her father as already moved on with someone new. The second-generation Cuban American author talks to SLJ about her sophomore YA novel, path to publication, and advice to aspiring teen writers.

What inspired you to write Analee, in Real Life?
I went through a short-lived but very intense World of Warcraft phase many years ago. Role-playing games always entice me—I love the idea of reinventing yourself as an entirely different person. It's an opportunity to embark on this adventurous second life without the insecurity that comes with reality. I started imagining what a release it would be for a character who struggles with social anxiety. Gaming could offer her a chance to escape her world and enter a new one. In a game, part of the appeal is that you can physically fight your demons. Reality is undoubtedly more complicated, and the monsters often aren't as easy to slay. From there, the idea of Analee slowly began to take form.

This is your follow-up to your debut. How was the writing process different the second time around?
Many people talk about the dreaded sophomore novel, but for me, Analee, in Real Life came much more easily than Victoria did. I think I learned from past mistakes. The first couple drafts of Victoria were a convoluted mess. I was flying by the seat of my pants throughout the writing process and paid for it when it came time for revisions. When I began writing Analee, I kept that nightmarish revision process in mind and tried to make sure every scene I wrote served the story and character. Because I had more writing practice under my belt, it was easier to cut scenes that weren't working.

Even though Analee is a light and comedic romance, it also touches upon some tough themes, such as anxiety, grief, blended families, and bullying. How did you balance the different layers and tones?
Balancing the layers and tones was never consciously on my mind as I was writing. Everything is always jumbled together in life, those moments of hardship and moments of levity, so I tried to convey that in the story. Analee's interactions with Harris and Seb were opportunities to play and enjoy some flirty banter. Scenes that included Analee's family were loaded with more baggage, since Analee had to work through complex emotions and adapt to a new family dynamic.

What kind of research did you do authentically represent these relevant and timely issues?
Some of it is based on personal experience, particularly Analee's anxiety and the struggle to reconcile two different cultures within a family. I have also had the privilege of working with young adults and getting to know some of the issues they experience and how those issues impact them. In order to represent this truthfully, I sat back and observed people, asked them questions about their lives, and most importantly, just shut up and listened to them.

Which protagonist was the most difficult to write?
Both Analee and Victoria are extensions of who I am. Victoria is very similar to my younger middle and high school self—sheltered, innocent, head in the clouds. Analee has been through much more than I have, but we share a similar type of anxiety. Hers is more all-consuming due to her past experiences. I found Victoria slightly more difficult to write because there was so much of me in her. At times it was difficult to separate her from my past self, and I had to constantly remind myself that she's a character in her own right. In the end, she became someone relatable to me yet entirely unique.

Even though Analee grew up in a mostly traditional Cuban American home, she pushes against some of the expectations of her conservative grandparents and even her father’s. Why did you think that was important to depict in a contemporary YA novel?
Teens are constantly pushing against expectations, and for someone like Analee, the expectations of an immigrant family can be especially difficult to manage. Her grandparents have a specific cultural viewpoint regarding the way things are supposed to be. Even Analee's father has to push against their beliefs. He has trouble reconciling his new life with bride-to-be Harlow while maintaining the respect of his parents, which becomes a huge sore spot in his romantic relationship. As a second-generation Latina, I definitely understand the pressure of preserving Cuban traditions while adapting to mainstream American culture. It's even more confusing as a teenager, when you're in the midst of finding your identity and trying to understand who you are and how you fit into the world. I wanted all of this to be one aspect of Analee's journey without it taking center stage in the book.

I love how sex- and body-positive this book is and how issues of consent are woven in throughout. But Analee isn’t quite sure if she’s ready for all of the physical contact that comes along with having a boyfriend. Can you tell us why that conflict was central to the heroine’s character development?
When we meet Analee, she has been abandoned by the people she loves most and has since learned to be guarded in order to protect her heart. For her, physical contact with Seb will breed emotional vulnerability and attachment, which will (in her mind) lead to more pain. As the book goes on, Analee gradually learns to trust again. You see her growth not only through her deepening conversations with Seb, but also in the physical intimacy they begin to share. Still, the question of whether she's ready is a difficult decision to make—particularly in Analee's case as she struggles with body image, trust, grief, and everything else that comes to the surface when the possibility of physical contact is introduced.

You’ve worked in the publishing industry and have been a teacher and a librarian. Did you always know you wanted to write books, too?
Growing up, I wrote stories for fun, but never considered the possibility of being an author. Publishing a book always seemed like an unattainable goal. I viewed becoming an author to be out of my league in the way becoming a movie star would be. So I found other ways to work with books—helping to make them, promoting literacy in schools, creating a reading curriculum for the classroom. In the meantime, I started many writing projects for fun, but usually abandoned them when the process got too difficult or life got in the way. It wasn't until I got older that I had the discipline to finish a manuscript. Once I did that, I started to imagine that maybe, just maybe, publication might be possible.

What advice would you give to teens, especially those from marginalized communities who would like to work in publishing or get published?
We need you! Your voice is so important. Continue to read, read, read. Get to know what you value in a book. Reach out to as many people as possible who are doing what you would like to do. There are many authors and publishing professionals who are generous with their time and have valuable advice to share. For aspiring authors, the most basic advice I can give is simply to write. You can network and develop a social media presence, but if you don't have the writing practice, you won't get anywhere. Write often, even if it's terrible (as first drafts often are.)

Are you working on anything right now that you can share with readers?
I am working on too many books! It's a bit of a problem. One is an adult thriller, one is a young adult contemporary about a girl who falls in love with her best friend's girlfriend, and one is a middle-grade book about girls with powers. Sadly, none of them are close to being ready for anyone else's eyes but my own.

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Shelley Diaz

Shelley Diaz ( is the Reviews Editor at School Library Journal.

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