Some secrets are best kept hidden… Except this emerging Phillyrican author

Anastasia Phoenix is searching for the truth, but she’s only lived a life of lies. Her deceased parents told her that the frequency of their globe-trotting was a byproduct of being prodigious chemical engineers. False: They were super spies from a clandestine private organization. Everyone around her thinks that her missing sister is dead too. False: Maybe?

In this upcoming young adult thriller by Diana Rodriguez Wallach, we are immersed in a riveting web of conspiracy theories, espionage, and disinformation that leads us with Anastasia on her epic, worldly quest for answers, and of course, for the (breathing) body of her sister Keira. The mystery for tweens and teens is inspired and loosely based upon an authentic ex-Communist Spy during the Cold War in the former Czechoslovakia, who taught budding journalists at Boston University how to not only tell if someone was feeding you dishonest information, but also how to persuasively mislead others, all while having a death-warrant on their head until the early 2000s.

Now, the disinformation expert paints water colors, but that’s his story. Anastasia Phoenix’s will unravel and unwind, tangling itself throughout a convoluted route that extends from Boston to Tuscany, from London to Rio de Janeiro, and covert destinations that have yet to be released- or discovered.

Anastasia may even make it to Philadelphia, as Wallach, a proud Phillyrican herself, likes to subscribe to the cliché of writing what you know, and past experience has proven that she is true to this maxim.  

Although Wallach is not a household YA “brand” name- yet -like her predecessors J.K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, Suzanne Collins, Scott Westerfield, or James Patterson, she has been a full-time writer, either publishing investigative pieces in New York newspapers or publishing e-books on modern twists to mythology, for over a decade. Her first trilogy, “Amor and Summer Secrets,” takes a fifteen year-old protagonist unsure of her Latin American identity to a remote pueblo in the mountains of La Cordillera in Puerto Rico to explore her roots (and meet a cute guy or two along the way).

The main character in the “Amor and Summer Secrets” series is practically the teenage manifestation of Wallach’s own heritage and background, a fictional extension of her own genuine concerns growing-up in Ridley Township speaking English at home with her Puerto Rican light-skinned father and her Polish blonde mother, doubtful of her ability to “own” her Latinidad:

“My Dad is from Utuado, Puerto Rico and he lived there until he was about eight years old, and my mom is Polish. They both met in Chester (not the nicest town), so we always joke around that they’re the “dyslexic” version of West Side Story, because it’s reversed. So, they both met, my mom went to Chester High and my dad went to St. James, and they’ve been together since prom. We’re Polish-Puerto Rican, which is not the most common mix, and that is how I ended up coming up with the context of my first series of books. My Dad never spoke Spanish to us in the home, only our grandparents did, so I wanted to give her (the main character) an experience that I dealt with, which is: as you get older, you have to go and seek your roots on your own.”

“I always squirmed away from it (my ethnicity) because I always thought I was faking it. I didn’t speak Spanish, I have freckles and reddish hair, and I definitely don’t look like Sofia Vergara, so I thought that I must not be Latina. But as I got older, I realized that I’m only one generation removed, a first-generation immigrant. I’m a lot closer to my roots than a lot of famous celebrities that claim their roots, so I’ve come to really embrace it (my Latinidad) more and to participate more in the community of Philadelphia and bordering areas.”

And so she has. After the bizarre coincidence of residing five blocks away with her now-husband from the grim scene of the World Trade Center’s fall, Wallach divulged that “Walking every day in front of that horrific scene, knowing what you knew, seeing missing persons posters on the subway, and literally being able to smell the residue of the tragedy in the air for months makes you re-evaluate your life.” Wallach’s new chapter comprised of uprooting herself and her partner back to their hometown of Philadelphia, and starting a job at the Philadelphia Education Fund. This career move began her fervent commitment to inspiring students, particularly low-income Latin@ students in Philadelphia and in Lancaster, to self-motivate and to rise to their intellectual and creative potentials.

When the first book for the “Amor and Summer Secrets” series was published, Wallach did a reading at Taller Puertorriqueño, currently collaborates with The Philly Spells Writing Lab, and has led multiple creative writing workshops and talks at schools such as Kensington High School, where she says she is  “constantly amazed” by the amount of enthusiasm and constructive feedback that emerges from their discussions. She attributes this vocal passion during her workshops to two things, the first being that low-income/minority students tend to not have the bounty of extracurricular or enrichment activities that their wealthy counterparts have, and the second being that, within Wallach’s own background, they can find something to strive for:

“At the start of my workshops, I ask: Raise your hand if you think this is true, raise your hand if I grew up on The Main Line? They always raise their hands, because I look and I dress a certain way that is not ‘associated’ with someone that grew-up in a blue collar town. Then I ask: Now, raise your hand if you think my dad grew up in the projects? Nobody raises their hands, and they’re almost always shocked to hear that his first language was Spanish, that he lived in poverty for most of his childhood, and that he struggled to find a place for himself. But he put himself through eight years of night school to get his degree, and look what came out of that. I am a writer, my brother is the chairman of Greater Philadelphia’s Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. He is living proof of what one college degree can not only do for yourself, but for a whole other generation. I always tell the kids at these schools that they CAN get out, that it IS possible. But that can’t be taught, that longing to succeed has to come from within.”

While Wallach will not halt her passion for education, or being a mother of two (one of whom is in an intensive Spanish immersion program at a Philadelphia public school), she will be channeling most of her energy now into promoting and expanding the Anastasia Phoenix’s “Proof of Lies” universe and fanbase until the initial release of the first book of the series, which according to Entangled Teen, is set to come sometime March 2017. Wallach hopes to become “another John Green,” one of her greatest YA literary muses, and longs to gain young followers not only because of her craft, but mainly because of her freshly relatable, inspirational, and encouraging nature.

Someday, perhaps the next generation of Phillyrican and Latin American Philadelphians will be able to refer to Diana Rodriguez Wallach, one of the city’s best-kept secrets, as their greatest YA literary muse.

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Wednesday, October 5, 2016 - 5:00pm
Diana Rodriguez Wallach. Photo: Peter Fitzpatrick/AL DÍA News