Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera is a coming-of-age novel that has been miscategorized in the young adult genre since it focuses on a college student on an unconventional ride to self-acceptance.
Juliet Palante is discovering herself. On summer break from college, she’s at home in the Bronx about to embark on a journey to Portland, Oregon, to serve as an assistant to a feminist writer. But before she leaves, Juliet notices her sorta girlfriend Lainie has doubts about their relationship while she’s deciding how to come out to her family. She tells her family that she’s a lesbian at the dinner before her flight to Portland. The aftermath makes her look forward to Portland, where she lives with her new boss, Harlowe Brisbane. Once she’s inside Harlowe’s home, she’s quickly learning about the preference of pronouns to the range of sexuality. Where does she belong? Especially as a Latina in the very White-centered world of Portland. Her race, ethnicity, and culture intertwine with her sexual orientation as she meets young women like herself who seem so sure of who they are.
As far as we know, this book has been banned by at least one school district. First of all, the book is about a college student. That’s the “new adult” genre that the book publishing industry barely uses. The new adult genre is supposed to be for readers between the ages of 18 to 30, but many of these books are still classified as either young adult or adult. The issue is this book has been categorized as a young adult novel, meaning it’s for youth between the ages of 12 to 18, but the material, especially to a parent or a teacher, is definitely not for that age group when it comes to literature. And the age of eighteen is overlapping between the YA and NA genres, so when the protagonist is in that age group, it gets even murkier on how the book should be marketed.
Right off the bat, the book’s inside flap calls Juliet a “self-proclaimed closeted Puerto Rican baby dyke.” The d-word is usually an offensive word, though it may be embraced by some lesbians like the author and the character. Harlowe writes about women’s bodies and is known around town as the “pussy book lady.” When Juliet wakes up on her first morning at Harlowe’s home, she comes face-to-face with a naked man. Harlowe reminds the naked man, her friend Phen, that he must ask Juliet if she’s OK with his nakedness. Confused, Juliet says yes. But the reader knows Juliet and any other young woman in that predicament would be uncomfortable to find a strange, naked man in the home of someone who’s supposed to be caring for them. The scene is small but can be confusing for the average maturing teenage girl who most likely was taught to stay away from naked men they do not know and depend on their supervising adult to prioritize their safety and comfort. The book has numerous parentless, college-girl adventures, which again can be viewed as inappropriate by high school administrators and parents, because that’s another life when you cross the eighteen-year age threshold and wander into the real world on your own.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are girls, boys, and nonbinary teens who yearn to read a book like this to see how their worlds can open up after high school, either in college and/or in the real world off campus. Meeting characters like Juliet and Harlowe through the pages may inspire them to craft their own journeys like venturing off to an unknown place, exploring their identity and creativity, or looking for their communities of support that may not be visible where they are in their guardians’ home and at a high school where books featuring queer teens can be banned.
Overall, the book is entertaining with showing the White cultural mecca Portland has become over the years and juxtaposing that setting with a queer Latina character’s Bronx-driven culture as she comes to terms with who she wants to be.