Book Review: Running by Natalia Sylvester

Natalia Sylvester’s YA debut makes the political personal

<i>Running</i> by Natalia Sylvester

Mariana Ruiz assumes she has no power. It's not a baseless assumption. The Cuban American protagonist of Natalia Sylvester's YA debut, Running, has had her life determined by her father's political ambitions for many years, and now he's a presidential candidate in the Republican primary. She's endured media training and changing schools and sees nothing but invasions of privacy in her future, whether it's national news segments or blatant stares in high school hallways. She doesn't see how she can change anything that's happening to her.

While the circumstances of Mariana's family life are singular, her sense of helplessness and the centerpiece of the novel – a heated, mile-a-minute election cycle with a public health crisis looming over it – couldn't feel more immediate. We understand the stakes immediately and recognize the siren song of not reading the news because you're pretty sure you won't like what you see. But Running's fast pace and clear eyes keep us from wallowing too much in comparisons with the here and now – it's enough that as Mariana slowly expands her friend group and her ideas about what she might be capable of, rooting for her feels like a genuine investment in hope for our own reality.

Mariana's disillusionment with her father's policies and her environmentalist awakening come courtesy of fellow students who unexpectedly defend her in the wake of a minor scandal, and Sylvester's admiration for young activists for climate change and gun control shines throughout the novel. But Running deftly avoids the trap of "the children will save us!" thinking, which so often condescends to youth or ignores adult responsibility. The institutional power the teens in the novel run up against is huge and unwieldy and very real, and it cannot be unraveled in a day. At the same time, Sylvester lets Mariana's first steps toward using her voice feel scary and full of meaning. Both things get to be true – a single action doesn't solve a complex problem, but that doesn't diminish the profundity of the journey to that action.

So much of the best YA is about the discovery of just how huge and tangled and mysterious the world is, and Running manages to be about growing up in so many different ways. It's about the end of a childhood where you can take a grownup's assurances about how the world works for granted, about unspooling the mythos your parents have presented about themselves, about learning to really say "no" to people you love, about the work of making friends, about deciding what story you're going to tell about yourself. It's about the fact that the political can't be separated out from the personal and we'll never really understand what goes on in the heads of everyone around us, even people we love dearly. But we can reach out to them in understanding, can articulate the harm we see and reject it, can not just imagine but demand a better world. It's a joy to watch Mariana seize that power.


by Natalia Sylvester, Clarion Books, 336 pp., $17.98

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More YA fiction
Jenna Yoon Is on the Hunt for <i>Lia Park and the Missing Jewel</i>
Jenna Yoon Is on the Hunt for Lia Park and the Missing Jewel
The Austin author hopes to bring more diversity to YA fantasy with her debut novel

Kaushiki Roy, July 15, 2022

Books to Read and Wrap for the Holidays
Emergency Contact
It’s wry and vulnerable love via text message in this YA novel set in Austin

Rosalind Faires, Dec. 7, 2018

More Arts Reviews
<i>Hope and Hard Truth: A Life in Texas Politics</i>
Hope and Hard Truth: A Life in Texas Politics
Life beyond the governor’s office with Ann Richards’ chief aide

Michael King, Sept. 2, 2022

Ronnie Earle, Gangbuster
Ronnie Earle, Gangbuster
Jesse Sublett revisits Austin’s criminal past in Last Gangster in Austin

Jay Trachtenberg, June 10, 2022

More by Rosalind Faires
<i>Before Stonewall</i> by Edward Cohen
Before Stonewall
The short stories in this collection from Austin's Awst Press simmer with queer rage, grief, and longing

June 25, 2021

<i>One Last Stop</i> Is an Electrifying Queer Timeslip Romance
One Last Stop Is an Electrifying Queer Timeslip Romance
The author of Red, White & Royal Blue, Casey McQuiston, unveils her second novel

June 4, 2021


YA fiction, Natalia Sylvester, Texas Book Festival 2020

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle