Young Adults on the Rise: On Natalia Sylvester’s “Running”

In Natalia Sylvester’s Running, we’re introduced to a shy teenage girl named Mariana (“Mari”) Ruiz. She lives in sunny Florida, living what seems to be the good life with a loving family and a few close friends. Only, she’s not living an ordinary life — her father is running for President of the United States and Mari is not at all happy about it.

This marks Sylvester’s first Young Adult novel. Her prior works include the adult novels Chasing the Sun and Everyone Knows You Go Home, with the latter winning an International Latino Book Award. Despite this genre being new territory for her, she eases into it effortlessly, creating a vulnerable yet strong voice for the 15-year-old Mari.

As a Cuban American, Mari is proud to watch her father bring representation to the presidential race. Sure, she hates the growing attention she gets in the press and in school, but she figures it just comes with her father’s career. She loves him and she loves what he stands for—until she discovers where his priorities actually lie. Suddenly, she’s hears what her activist classmates have been trying to tell her all along. They encourage her to step up and let her voice be heard. Not as Mariana Ruiz, Senator Anthony Ruiz’s daughter, but as Mari, the heroine the reader comes to know.

Sylvester’s Running couldn’t have better timing, being released mere months from the real-life 2020 United States presidential election. The gripping storytelling will bring both younger and older readers into the world of the novel while the glaring truths make them stay. Running may even stir the emotions of those who feel that their voices don’t matter or that their opinions won’t change anything. Mari stands as a great role model to these readers, reminding them that they’re not a “personal microphone” (243) that authority figures can turn off.

The YA genre takes a lot of heat from the literary world. A notion persists that it’s only meant for romance-hungry teenage girls. Longtime YA author Sarah Dessen even found herself amid an online controversy after a college student claimed her work wasn’t worthy enough for their program. In some cases, like in response to the 2017 controversial mega-hit The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, the genre has been labeled as toxic and inappropriate. However, YA authors, and many of their readers, argue that the same content some may view as toxic simply reflects real-world problems. Teenagers deserve to know about the fatalities racism can bring, as depicted in The Hate U Give, and they deserve to know about the policies they’re voting for, as depicted in Sylvester’s Running.

Running’s greatest strength is Mari’s trajectory from observer to partaker in her realization that, even as a young teen, she can make a difference. In an argument, her father scolds her, “You’re fifteen, hija. You don’t get to make decisions about things you don’t understand.” Hurt and angry, she boldly replies, “You don’t get to tell me what I don’t understand” (228). Mari makes it clear to the reader that she fully understands, explaining the policies in an easily digestible way. There is a point where the political aspects of the novel begin to feel like proselytizing, but Sylvester skillfully redirects the story’s focus to Mari and her personal experiences.

While Mari’s relationship with her father falls apart, her other relationships—with close friends, new friends, and a beloved housekeeper—thrive. Sylvester uses these beautifully established influences to push Mari to come into her own. She has the epiphany: “All my life, my parents have said they wanted to shield me from politics, but that was a lie. They didn’t want to shield me from politics any more than they’d want to shield me from air. They just wanted me not to notice what I was breathing” (260). What follows is a memorable character transformation and an epic climax.

As readers accompany Mari on her journey, there’s a bittersweetness to her discovery of who her father is as a politician, as well as who her mother is and how her marriage has affected her spirit. There’s something so real and raw about loving someone but knowing they may never change. All the Maris out there may assume that people and policies won’t change, but that doesn’t mean they should give up; Sylvester insists that change is something worth fighting for. Sylvester’s first YA novel serves as a much-needed public announcement for teens to stay in the fight.