Group Discussion: Blanca & Roja

We are super excited to post our group discussion of Anna-Marie McLemore’s Blanca & Roja today! Join us in the comments or @ our Twitter account to let us know what you thought of the book.

Note: There will be spoilers!

The biggest lie of all is the story you think you already know.

The del Cisne girls have never just been sisters; they’re also rivals, Blanca as obedient and graceful as Roja is vicious and manipulative. They know that, because of a generations-old spell, their family is bound to a bevy of swans deep in the woods. They know that, one day, the swans will pull them into a dangerous game that will leave one of them a girl, and trap the other in the body of a swan.

But when two local boys become drawn into the game, the swans’ spell intertwines with the strange and unpredictable magic lacing the woods, and all four of their fates depend on facing truths that could either save or destroy them. Blanca & Roja is the captivating story of sisters, friendship, love, hatred, and the price we pay to protect our hearts.

Blanca & Roja, like Anna-Marie McLemore’s other YA novels, is magical realism (and romance). How much exposure have you had to magical realism before now? What do you like about the genre and its possibilities for storytelling?

Audrey: Honestly, I read very little magical realism growing up thanks to a pretty basic (read: Straight White Dude) literature education. When my classes branched out, I read a few short stories, but my first full-fledged novels were actually McLemore’s. I’ve always loved fantasy and folk tales/fairy tales, though, so while there was a bit of a learning curve with the rhythm of the genre, I felt right at home soon enough. Especially since Blanca & Roja tackles a lot of real-world issues.

I think what I like about the genre, and McLemore’s work in particular, is how metaphor becomes real in the story, if that makes sense. Sisters eat sweet or bitter foods, wear one another’s clothes, share perfume, to become like each other in order to confuse the swans. The woods steal boys who want to run away, and giving away parts of yourself can help someone else heal. The magic isn’t explained, it simply is, and it’s a reflection of the world and the issues the work wants to engage with, whether that’s colorism, family acceptance/rejection, or gender identity.

Jessica: I haven’t had a lot of exposure, actually. Off the top of my head, I can only think of Like Water for Chocolate, which I read when I was way too young for it, and Samantha Mabry’s A Fierce and Subtle Poison. From my limited experience with the genre, I’d say that what I love is how beautiful it is. How every aspect of the story is so intricately woven together into something that is greater than its parts.

Crystal: Magical realism is an interesting term and one I question a bit after I attended one of Yuyi Morales’ lectures. In it she talked about magical realism and said something like magical realism is just realism for her. This is how she (and other storytellers) express their reality. She said, “I love stories like this because they actually tell the truth.” Magical realism is linked with Latin American writing in my brain. I think magical realism in storytelling has probably always existed, but quite a few Latin American authors put it on the page and the term was created to describe it. Someone else out there may know more about that. The first time I read something considered magical realism I was confused. I had always had my reality and fantasy kept separate. It was puzzling to me how lines were blurring, but after reading more and more stories like this, I really appreciate this way of looking at the world. Magical realism includes layers and textures of life that speak truth.

I read Like Water for Chocolate as an adult along with works by Gabriel García Márquez and that’s likely when I first encountered the term. I don’t recall hearing it before my college years. Like Audrey, that’s probably a reflection on how white male centric my lit classes were. In YA, I have really enjoyed Summer of the Mariposas by Guadalupe Garcia McCall, The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind by Meg Medina and of course everything by Anna-Marie McLemore. Two of the authors outside the Latina community who have written magical realism I’ve enjoyed are Emily X.R. Pan in The Astonishing Color of After and Stacey Lee with The Secret of a Heart Note.

K. Imani: I absolutely love magical realism and have been enthralled with the genre since I first read One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez in high school. There are some novels by African American authors, such as Toni Morrison, that have an almost magical realism feel to them, so for me I’ve been reading magical realism a large part of my life. I love the mix of the fantastical with real life that helps us make sense of the world that we live in.

Blanca, Roja, Yearling, and Page all have to deal with varying family dynamics and problems throughout the book. Which family-related plots were particularly compelling for you? 

Jessica: Each of the family arcs were powerful, but to me, Page’s story really stood out to me. The book doesn’t shy away from delving into nuanced family dynamics. Page’s family may not be unsupportive, but they’re afraid and they don’t quite understand everything about who Page is. Nothing is as simple as “these parents are bad” or “these parents are good.” The whole relationship is fraught and complex.

Crystal: Page’s family has love, but not understanding. They are uncomfortable with not having certainty and not being sure of what Page wants and needs. Like Jessica I appreciated that this relationship is complicated. There is more to it than just being right or wrong.

Audrey: The sibling relationship between Blanca and Roja was the most compelling for me. I grew up in a big family, and while my parents did a great job of not picking favorites (unlike the del Cisne parents), there were definitely times where it felt like we were slotted into roles and had different expectations because of them. I was surprised by how much I related to the colorism issues throughout the book–my mom’s white, and my dad isn’t, and my siblings and I fall along a spectrum from “could pass as white” to “definitely not.” I still remember the surprise on various teachers’/coaches’/other adults’ faces whenever they encountered my mom for the first time and realized this very brown girl had a very white mom (or much lighter siblings). Our family didn’t perpetuate colorism, but I was still aware of it from the outside, and seeing that play out with Blanca and Roja was difficult to read.

K. Imani: I agree with Audrey in that the sibling relationship between Blanca and Roja stood out to me. My sister and I, at times, have a difficult relationship but we would do anything for each other. We are each other’s first friend and I feel like that aspect of the girl’s relationship really stood out to me. And, just like Audrey, the colorism issue between the two sisters stood out to me as well since I’m much lighter than my sister and how society related to our differences definitely put a strain on our relationship when we were younger. I really liked that McLemore brought in that issue and the toll it takes on families where siblings can look so vastly different.

Blanca & Roja is partially based on several other stories: Swan Lake, “Snow-White and Rose-Red,” “The Ugly Duckling,” etc. How familiar were you with these stories going into the book? Which elements from the original stories did you enjoy in Blanca & Roja?

Jessica: I like fairy tales a lot, so I thought I knew what to expect. (I was wrong.) I loved that Blanca & Roja did not shy away from the harsher aspects of the typical fairy tale. No one comes out unscathed. The woods are dangerous. Swans are not cute and harmless. Everything carries a price.

Audrey: The only one I was familiar with was “The Ugly Duckling”–which I absolutely loved McLemore’s take on–and I had to stop myself from looking up the other references in an attempt not to spoil myself about what could happen. (Side note: McLemore subverts aspects of these stories, so if you are familiar with them, there are still plenty of surprises.) And I agree–McLemore doesn’t go for a softened version of them. The world is dangerous and unfair, and there are cruel people and magic. But there is also good in the world, and people worth fighting the world for.

Crystal: I grew up reading fairy tales over and over again so the stories were familiar even if some of the details were vague. As I read the story, sometimes I could anticipate things, but mostly it was simply a sensation of recognition that would come as a character did or experienced certain things. I am a big fan of fairytale retellings, so this added to the appeal of this book. I really appreciated the idea that though there are rules to magic and enchantments, characters will still try to subvert what will happen. I enjoyed seeing the variety of ways the girls tried to change their fate.

K. Imani: It has been a while since I’ve read “Snow White & Rose Red”, “Ugly Duckling” or seen Swan Lake, so I will say I was a bit rusty with remembering what happened in the fairy tales. I was glad that McLemore included bits of the stories to help those of us who barely remember the fairy tales and those who’ve maybe never read the fairy tales. I would have never thought “Snow White & Rose Red” could be a mirror for Swan Lake, so I love that McLemore blended those two stories together. I did know that both of those stories do not have the “Disney ending” so I was wondering how McLemore was going to make a hopeful ending for the sisters, and I can say that I’m happy with how it ended.

McLemore is a queer Latina author, and Blanca & Roja is a queer Latinx book. What stood out to you about the various types of representation in the novel?

Jessica: I’ve gotten pretty used to books where one person is PoC or queer or from another marginalized group, and then everyone else is default straight, white, cis. It’s nice to read a book where that just isn’t the case. I wish every book were like this!

Audrey: I agree! It’s so nice not to feel like there are quotas or slots for PoC or queer folks in a book–and I especially loved that two grandmas were together. You don’t often get to see older queer people in YA, so I was delighted when it turned out that they lived together. And even though the extended del Cisne family didn’t have much screentime, I still loved that they were present in the story, that Blanca and Roja’s immediate family weren’t just the one Latinx family in town.

Crystal: I too was happy to see that there wasn’t just one single queer person and there wasn’t just one Latinx character. There were enough people that there was more than one way to be.

K. Imani: The fact that this world was just as diverse as our world felt like home to me. I also loved the grannys’ relationship and that both Page and Yearling felt more comfortable with them than with their family. I loved that we got an older queer couple that were involved in the teens’ lives and that they were people whom all the teens trusted. I feel like relationships such as the grannys’ is much needed in YA, so I was very happy to have them in this novel.

Okay, so who cried?

Audrey: Definitely me. (This is no surprise; I am a crier.)

Jessica: I cried! (I am not a crier.) I was rooting so hard for the sisters’ relationship and seeing it fall apart under the strain of sacrifice and misunderstanding was just so heartbreaking.

Crystal: Tears did not escape my eyes though there were tears brimming at least once. I think I would have let the emotions & tears flow if I hadn’t been up until 2:00 a.m. to finish. I couldn’t put it down, but I was getting super sleepy.

K. Imani: I can be a crier, but I didn’t cry because like Crystal I really sleepy towards the end.