As a kindergartner, Romina Garber moved to Northeast Miami-Dade from Argentina without speaking a lick of English, but she quickly embraced her new home and language. She became editor in chief of her high school newspaper and later wrote a weekly column while majoring in English at Harvard.
When Garber was a kid, she “was full of these weird moments, like ‘I don’t get it,’” she said, laughing. “I came from not speaking English to being the best student.”
Now Garber, 30, is a published author — under the nom de plume Romina Russell — and is back in South Florida to promote her first novel, Zodiac, Thursday at Books & Books in Bal Harbour Shops.
Zodiac tells the story of a 16-year-old girl living in a world divided by houses for each sign of the zodiac, and it is ultimately up to her to persuade each house to set aside their differences and save the galaxy from destruction.
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“I knew that if I was going to write a sci-fi novel it would be more ‘fi’ than ‘sci.’ It lets me off the hook,” she said.
Originally from Argentina, Garber was inspired by the works of Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez and wanted to add “magical realism” in her writing, a trait common in Spanish-language literature.
While she’s now entering the professional world of young-adult fiction, Garber got her start on the school newspaper.
As part of one of the first freshmen classes at Dr. Michael M. Krop High School when it opened in Northeast Miami-Dade in the late 1990s, Garber quickly climbed the ranks of the Lightning Strike student newspaper and became the second editor-in-chief.
“She was this quiet little kid. But when Romina opened her mouth, we were wowed,” said Mary K. Sullivan, Garber’s former teacher who still works as the newspaper adviser.
While in high school, Garber won $40,000 in the Knight Ridder Minority Scholarship Program, money used toward her college tuition and four summer internships, three of which she served at the Miami Herald.
While interning, Garber pitched a weekly column to the executive editor chronicling her life as a college freshman at Harvard.
“It was the best opportunity,” she said. “It’s where I found my voice.”
In her column, College, She Wrote, Garber wrote about topics from a teen perspective during her 2002-2003 school year.
“I would write for teens,” she said. “Newer generations weren’t reading the paper as much.”
After college, Garber went to Hollywood, California, and worked at a small company that produced movie trailers — all the while dreaming of putting her English degree to good use by writing and publishing a novel.
“Since graduating high school, I had a road designed for me and I wanted to choose my own path,” she said. “ I was ready for longer form writing with books.”
Ten years and many rejections later, Garber got her break in 2013 when her first attempt at science fiction got picked up by Razorbill, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group, along with two sequels.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” said Garber, who already wrote the book following Zodiac and will start working on the final book in the series later this year.
On Monday, a few days before presenting and reading from her novel at Books & Books, Garber visited Krop, her old high school, to reconnect with former teachers and encourage students to pursue their goals. She also visited her parents, who still live in the area.
Garber’s former teacher credits her old student for working hard, focusing on her dreams and finding success.
“I didn’t groom the kids, so she kind of made it on her own,” Sullivan said. “She’s this tiny, little powerhouse.”
If you go
What: Author Romina Russell reads from Zodiac
When: 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 12
Where: Bal Harbour Shops, 9700 Collins Ave.