By Aleah Gornbein
Today we’re pleased to welcome Nina Moreno to the WNDB blog to discuss Our Way Back to Always.
What was it like writing your sophomore YA novel and why did you choose to set it in the same town? Can we expect any cameos from characters in Don’t Date Rosa Santos?
Getting to write another story in the same town was such a gift. So many of my favorite YA contemporaries were stories that took place in the same universe. Whether it was senior year at a suburban high school, summer at the coast, or that pizza place everyone worked, it was always such a thrill to see familiar characters get their own story or glimpse a beloved couple still happy and together. I dreamed of the chance to do that with my cast of Latinx teens. I wanted a lived-in world where readers already knew their way around and where their faves still existed. So yes, you’ll definitely get to catch up with many of the characters from Don’t Date Rosa Santos.
The epigraph at the start of Our Way Back to Always is, “A joy it will be one day, perhaps, to remember even this.” —Virgil, The Aeneid. What was the inspiration behind this quote, and what is its significance?
This is very much a story about time for me. Sam and Lou’s story is about being at the edge of something known and trying to plan your life across a chasm, towards a version of yourself you can’t quite see yet. When you’re in the midst of middle school but dreaming of your future independence and movie-perfect teen existence. When it’s suddenly your senior year and you’re swimming in what-ifs and have to pick a whole new life in a snap. When you’re faced with a tragic loss and everyone insists on telling you that it somehow gets better with time. There are years we all want to hurry up and race past, but I wanted this to be a story that—while both nostalgic over years past and anxious over an unknown future—found magic in a messy present.
What was the hardest part about writing this story, and did anything surprise you?
To be totally honest, the hardest part was writing under contract for the first time. We sold this story on proposal to my editor in 2019, but a lot changed in 2020—I moved to a new publisher, my story was inherited by a new editor, and I had to learn how to write under tighter deadlines. And of course, there are all those fun second-book nerves and worries. Don’t Date Rosa Santos dealt quite a bit with the intergenerational trauma of being a descendant of exile and felt specific about Cuban American diaspora. It had family curses and a touch of magic. This one is different and that’s scary. They’re still dealing with next-generation questions, but it’s a dual-POV, grounded in the reality of loss and expectations, and much more of a romance. But when so much of the conversation around your book and writing is about your culture and identity, it’s hard not to worry if you’re still performing it right, as awful as that sounds. Which…now that I think about it, is pretty similar to what both Lou and Sam are going through, too.
Sam and Lou are both biracial (each has one Latins parent and one white parent) with their cultures expertly woven through the story (seen in language, food, etc.). How do their identities inform their unique experiences?
Sam’s navigating the way our roles change after loss. He’s becoming the “man of the house” with a white, widowed mother, Cuban abuela who refuses to translate, and a dead dad. He’s the bridge between their grief, languages, broken dreams, and is now having to walk a very fine line between being the cherished (idealized) Latino son, and the unspoken expectation of stepping into some very big shoes.
And with Lou, she has a successful Colombian mother who had so many struggles to get where she is professionally, but now the pressure of becoming an Educated Latina and achieving success in a way that feels deserving of her legacy is all on Lou. With both of them also having a white parent, I didn’t necessarily want to spend time with them worrying whether they’re Cuban or Colombian enough, but instead wanted to explore the specific ways in which those questions manifest. The angst when you can physically feel yourself losing a language just as you’re fearing that you’re forgetting the sound of your dad’s voice. The heartbreaking longing over watching viral videos of Latinas getting into Harvard—their ecstatic families crying around them—knowing you could never achieve that for your mother. There are a million senior year stories in YA but getting to see more varied experiences of that moment in time, informed by our different cultures and identities is one of my favorite things about being a YA author right now.
Without giving too much away, what were some of your favorite scenes and/or lines of dialogue to write in Our Way Back to Always?
The cover art (by the incredible Erick Dávila!) is actually from one of my favorite scenes. I love a vulnerable conversation full of new feelings and longing while alone in a pool moment, and I loved getting to write one for Sam and Lou as they are rediscovering each other again. I live for writing two Latinx teens into favorite teen dream moments like that.
“There’s laughter in her eyes and it’s a revelation: I’m playing with Lou again.”
Also, I really love the way the bucket list and some letters function in the story.
After going separate ways at the end of middle school, Sam ends up a social butterfly who plays the drums in band and Lou spends a lot of time on her own learning to code and volunteering at the animal shelter. Even though they are pretty different people, what brings them together besides the common goal of completing their list, and how has their relationship evolved by the end of high school?
After years of not talking, Lou needing a ride is the first thing that brings them together and listen as someone who failed her driver’s license test the first time and still hates driving…relatable. And while Lou fully sets out with every intention to finish the list on her own and Sam’s been avoiding any sort of nostalgia to survive this first year without his dad, something clicks into place after that first car ride—even with as combative as they are together at first. In this year of racing toward everything that comes next, they both find comfort and excitement in getting the chance to reminisce and remember. Not just each other, but who they used to be. The list becomes a way back and forward.
And as far as where they are in their relationship by the end of high school, I don’t want to spoil anything, but readers will get to see graduation. And a glimpse of what comes next.
What, if any, research did you do into mental illness (anxiety) and neurodiversity (ADHD) to write accurate representation in this book?
A question I get asked a lot is if I’m like Rosa Santos. While so many of her big questions about home and finding our place within our culture are ones I deeply relate to as a child of a Cuban exile, most of our similarities end there. Rosa is an incredible academic and organized to a point I wildly envied. The way she went after her dreams and kept a bullet journal was a thrill to write. But with Lou, I spilled so much of myself on the page. Her experience of anxiety, ADHD, and her painful struggle with rejection strongly mirror my own. The ongoing and continued research I’ve done over the years, to better understand myself, went into the careful way I wrote Lou and her sensitive, imaginative, legendary spirit.
Have you ever made your own bucket list or did you complete any of the items off Lou and Sam’s To-Do List?
I spent a lot of my teen years dreaming up bucket list quests. I was super idealistic and secretly wished to bury time capsules with best friends and to experience sweeping summer romances, epic parties, and late-night beach trips. But my social anxiety has been a bit of a long game, so it was really hard for me to put myself out there. And much like Lou, there was something about the fantasy of these events for me that I didn’t want to ruin.
As far as Sam and Lou’s list, in particular, I’ve been lucky enough to visit the beach and Disney plenty, and while I never got to beat my dad at dominos, I did get to fall wildly in love with a very loyal and dreamy drummer.
There are very two obvious themes in this book: Grief and expectations (that others put on Lou and Sam and that they put on themselves). Sam is dealing with the loss of his father and what that means for his role in the family and his future. Lou’s, previously Princeton-bound, older sister is having a baby and now she feels pressure to take on the mantle of academic success in their family. Why did you choose to examine these important topics?
I really wanted to examine the pressure the world can sometimes put on teens with immigrant parents to perform success in ways that appeal to others instead of their own internal compass. To succeed is to be exceptional and shiny with bedazzled graduation caps and more money and fancier work than our parents had to do…right? There’s not a lot of space to talk about self-care or taking the time to figure it all out. Time is such a privilege in that way when you’re racing just to catch up to everyone else on some metaphorical ladder. How do you cope when life breaks your heart? Is there time to reinvent ourselves? Dream of something else? This story was my small way of providing a little bit of that time and space.
What is the main thing you want readers to take away from Our Way Back to Always?
It may sound silly, but I really hope that when readers reach the end, they’re smiling. My goal with every book is for you to want to hold it to your heart for a beat after that last page, your mind spinning with favorite moments, and maybe even wonder over where those characters might go next. And if you flip it right back to that first page to read it all over again? That’s my whole author bucket list.
Which books do you think Our Way Back to Always is in conversation with? And do you have any recommendations for recently published or forthcoming YA books?
Two of my favorite reads from last year were Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet by Laeken Zea Kemp and Now That I’ve Found You by Kristina Forest. They’re both such wonderful YA romances that do a lot of work. Laeken really explores family and expectations in surprising, thoughtful ways with important real-world stakes while also filling her world with hilarious, relatable characters. And I say it all the time, but I genuinely think when it comes to YA romance, no one is writing it better than Kristina right now. Her books are so funny and romantic and perfectly plotted.
Nina Moreno graduated from the University of Florida and writes about disaster Latinx teens & tweens chasing their dreams, falling in love, and navigating life in the hyphen. Her first novel, Don’t Date Rosa Santos, is available now from Little Brown for Young Readers and was a Junior Library Guild Selection, Indie Next Pick for teen readers, and SIBA Okra Pick. Her upcoming YA novel, Our Way Back to Always, will release October 12, 2021 with LBYR. Her MG debut, Join the Club, Maggie Diaz, will be available from Scholastic in 2022.
Aleah Gornbein currently works in publicity at Holiday House, the first American publisher founded with the intent of only publishing children’s books. She liked school so much she went back to get a Master’s in Publishing a year after graduating college. As someone who has yet to read a story with all of her identities represented, her goal is to help put diverse books into the hands of kids. You can find her shouting about books on TikTok and Twitter (@