Monica Gomez-Hira’s fascination with quinceañeras began more than 25 years ago when she attended one for the first time while she was an English major at Wellesley College. The spectacle of the 15-year-old’s party amazed the then aspiring author.
“They had a smokescreen, then they wheeled her out, and she was in a giant flower. The flower slowly opened, and she rose out of the flower,” Gomez-Hira recalled. “I had never been to a birthday party like this.”
For the daughter of Colombian immigrants, this moment sparked an idea for a story, one that laid in gestation for years as Gomez-Hira worked for Simon & Schuster, Random House, and most recently, Barnes & Noble. After over a decade in the literary world, Gomez-Hira is finally becoming a published author. In March, HarperTeen will release her first young adult novel, Once Upon a Quinceañera.
The story follows Carmen Aguilar, a Miami teenager who must spend the summer interning as a Disney party princess to earn one last credit for her high school diploma. She lives with her single mom, with no immediate plans for college. “To say that I wasn’t exactly considered Einstein by my nearest and dearest was an understatement,” she says. Then she finds out that she will play the Beauty to her ex’s Beast all summer, and the situation worsens when her aunt hires them to perform at her cousin’s quinceañera.
The novel is about a summer of firsts, and like Carmen, Gomez-Hira is also experiencing many firsts. She nears the end of a six-year journey to publication, since she started writing in 2015. “It’s strange to think that something that lived in my head for so long is now going to be shared with other people,” she said over Zoom from her home in Minneapolis, where she lives with her husband and 15-year-old daughter. The intensity surrounding this experience of publishing her first book drew her to writing young adult literature. She loves the immediacy of the “firsts”—the first kiss, the first heartbreak, the first win or the first loss.
Gomez-Hira didn’t plan to write a story about a Latinx character. In college, she admired J.D. Salinger, Sylvia Plath, and the writers of the Beat generation. “As I got older, it became more important to me to write something that really reflected me, my background and the people that I grew up with,” she said. “Because when I was younger, I felt like we weren’t in books because we weren’t interesting enough to write about, which is a contradiction, because everybody in my life was completely fascinating.”
In fact, the women in Gomez-Hira’s life inspired Carmen’s strong-willed spirit. When the author’s older sister arrived from Colombia as a child, her school placed her in a class that was less advanced because of her age and the language barrier. “This angered my mother, who felt like my sister was being held back unfairly,” Gomez-Hira said. “Despite not speaking the language, my mother went to the school and somehow made herself understood enough to make the school move my sister up to the correct grade.”
Gomez-Hira weaves these threads throughout Quinceañera. Carmen, for example, is a maverick at editing videos. She creates fan-edits from her favorite TV shows to spotlight misunderstood supporting characters. Carmen says she likes to “show the real story that was lurking underneath the obvious one—make an effort for the characters who the writers themselves couldn’t be bothered with.” By giving a voice to these characters, Carmen’s video-editing talent highlights her determination to be seen as someone who is more than the stereotypes placed upon her.
Letting Carmen’s voice lead the way was weirdly cathartic for Gomez-Hira. “It was a little bit like wish fulfillment,” she said, laughing. “[Carmen] would say all the things that I wanted to say to people.”
“She has a clear empathy for the teen characters she writes about,” Rachel Lynn Solomon, Gomez-Hira’s friend and mentor, said over email. Solomon, the author of The Ex Talk and Today Tonight Tomorrow, met Gomez-Hira through Pitch Wars, a publishing contest that pairs newbie authors with published ones who guide them through revisions.
Along with its charming premise and swoon-worthy romance, Quinceañera juggles many moving elements: the relationships, the performances, the angst, and the drama. Solomon helped Gomez-Hira heightened the characters’ stakes and streamline her ideas. “I love having a lot of things happening at the same time,” she said. “[Solomon] helped me really see that less is more sometimes.”
What attracted Solomon to Gomez-Hira’s manuscript was how deeply relatable it is. “Her teen characters are given plenty of space to be messy and flawed and make mistakes, which is something I’m always looking for when reading YA,” Solomon said. “It’s also what draws me to writing YA — characters who are still figuring out what it means to do the right thing and what the ‘right thing’ even is in a given situation. And characters who are still figuring out who they truly are.”
Like Solomon, Gomez-Hira said YA addresses questions about who we are and who we want to be. “Sometimes the answer is, I don’t want to be who I am. I don’t want to grow up. I want to stay in this space forever,” she said. “But most of the time, the protagonists are sort of forced to go through that process, whether they like it or not.”
Gomez-Hira’s next big challenge: writing her second novel, which she sold with Quinceañera as part of a two-book auction. It’s not a sequel but will orbit around another character from Carmen’s world. “I still don’t feel like I know what I’m doing,” she said. “I’m just like, ‘How did I ever write the first book?’”
Yet, she embraces the challenge. She loves novel experiences—and novels. “It’s a reminder that we are constantly learning new things, and we can choose to focus on the part of us that is open to newness, or we can stay in a rut,” she said. “So, I like to be focused on newness.”
Once Upon a Quinceañera by Monica Gomez-Hira releases on March 2, 2021.