Book Review: Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls by Kaela Rivera

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Review by Leslie Adame

Cover for Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Living in the remote town of Tierra del Sol is dangerous, especially in the criatura months, when powerful spirits roam the desert and threaten humankind. But Cecelia Rios has always believed there was more to the criaturas, much to her family’s disapproval. After all, only brujas—humans who capture and control criaturas—consort with the spirits, and brujeria is a terrible crime.

When her older sister, Juana, is kidnapped by El Sombrerón, a powerful dark criatura, Cece is determined to bring Juana back. To get into Devil’s Alley, though, she’ll have to become a bruja herself—while hiding her quest from her parents, her town, and the other brujas. Thankfully, the legendary criatura Coyote has a soft spot for humans and agrees to help her on her journey.

With him at her side, Cece sets out to reunite her family—and maybe even change what it means to be a bruja along the way.

MY TWO CENTS: Cece Rios has lived under the scrutiny of her small desert town ever since she was “cursed” by the criatura Tzitzimitl when she was seven. Compared to her perfect sister Juana, Cece considers herself a disappointment and a shame to her entire family. So it is no surprise she feels the need to prove herself when her sister is taken by the criatura El Sombrerón after an argument between the two sisters. But to get to her sister, Cece must become a bruja to obtain access to Devil’s Alley— the home for all criaturas. 

But becoming a bruja is no easy feat. The condition for becoming one requires Cece to gain control of a criatura of her own and win the Bruja Fights. Hearing this, Cece is convinced she’s lost the one opportunity to save her sister, until she rescues the criatura Coyote from Cantil Snake. Indebted to her, and seeing that she’s not malicious like other brujas, Coyote promises to help Cece win the Bruja Fights and save her sister. They form a bond of trust and loyalty, which is non-existent between brujas and criaturas, as the role of brujas is typically to enslave criaturas. Without realizing it, Cece is changing what it means to be a bruja, all while making new friends and obtaining the confidence she needs to save her sister. 

Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls is a beautiful story that combines some of our most favorite Latin American urban legends and places them all in a world set up very eloquently. Although the beginning may be a little slow for younger readers, it is necessary to understand the world Cece Rios comes from. As the story picks up, the reader will fall in love with Cece and root for her success as she ventures on this journey to find her sister as well as herself. The relationship between Cece and her family is a realistic one, and middle grade readers with siblings will come to relate to Cece’s troubles to be seen, as she is constantly compared to her older sister.

Readers will also come to love Coyote, a grumpy but loyal partner whose mysterious backstory will compel the reader to unravel it. The parallels between Cece and her long missing Tía were alluring as well, and it was a joy to unpack her backstory. Overall, Rivera did an amazing job creating a beautiful world with intriguing characters that pull you in from the start. Fans of stories born from urban legends and mythology such as the ones written by Rick Riordan, J.C. Cervantes, and Roshani Chokshi should pick up Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls at their local libraries or book stories. It is truly a treat to read.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Kaela Rivera was raised to believe in will-o’-the-wisps and el chupacabra, but even ghost stories couldn’t stop her from reading in the isolated treetops, caves, and creeks of Tennessee’s Appalachian forests. She still believes in the folktales of her Mexican and British parents, but now she writes about them from the adventure-filled mountains of the Wild West. When she’s not crafting stories, she’s using her English degree as an editor for a marketing company (or secretly doodling her characters in the margins of her notebook). Her biggest hope is to highlight and explore the beauty of cultural differences—and how sharing those differences can bring us all closer.

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ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Leslie Adame is a graduate of the University of California, Los Angeles with a degree in Political Science and a minor in Film, Television, and Digital Media. Along with writing books herself, she invests most of her time mentoring historically marginalized students and preparing them for a higher education. She strongly believes in the importance of representation in books, and has volunteered in events like the Latinx Kidlit Book Festival to put a spotlight on Latinx/e authors. Leslie grew up in the Inland Empire, specifically Ontario, California. She hopes to one day publish a middle grade fantasy centered around a first-generation protagonist and her undocumented parents. 

Celebrating 25 Years of the Pura Belpré Award: Book Talk About The Bossy Gallito by Lucia Gonzalez, illus. by Lulu Delacre

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We are an affiliate with Indiebound and Bookshop. If If you make a purchase through these links, at no additional cost to you, we will earn a small commission.

The Pura Belpré Award is named after Pura Belpré, the first Latina librarian at the New York Public Library. The Pura Belpré Award, established in 1996, is presented annually to a Latinx writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth.

Cover for The Bossy Gallito / El gallo de bodas (Bilingual): A Traditional Cuban Folktale

We have been marking the award’s 25th anniversary in different ways on the blog. Today, Dr. Sonia Rodriguez and Dora M. Guzmán talk about The Bossy Gallito / El Gallo De Bodas by Lucía M. Gonzálezillustrated by Lulu Delacre. The book won honors in 1996 for both narrative and illustration.

You can find our book talks on our new YouTube channel!

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Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez, PhD is an Associate Professor of English at LaGuardia Community College (CUNY) where she teaches composition, literature, and creative writing. Her academic research focuses on decolonial healing in Latinx children’s and young adult literature. Sonia is a Mellon Emerging Faculty Leader.

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Dora M. Guzmán is a bilingual reading specialist for grades K-5 and also teaches college courses in Children’s Literature and Teaching Beginning Literacy. She is currently a doctoral student with a major in Reading, Language, and Literacy. When she is not sharing her love of reading with her students, you can find her in the nearest library, bookstore, or online, finding more great reads to add to her never-ending “to read” pile!

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Book Review: Paola Santiago and the River of Tears by Tehlor Kay Mejia

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Reviewed by Sonia Alejandra Rodríguez, PhD & Ingrid Campos

Cover for Paola Santiago and the River of Tears

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Space-obsessed 12-year-old Paola Santiago and her two best friends, Emma and Dante, know the rule: Stay away from the river. It’s all they’ve heard since a schoolmate of theirs drowned a year ago. Pao is embarrassed to admit that she has been told to stay away for even longer than that, because her mother is constantly warning her about La Llorona, the wailing ghost woman who wanders the banks of the Gila at night, looking for young people to drag into its murky depths.

Hating her mother’s humiliating superstitions and knowing that she and her friends would never venture into the water, Pao organizes a meet-up to test out her new telescope near the Gila, since it’s the best stargazing spot. But when Emma never arrives and Pao sees a shadowy figure in the reeds, it seems like maybe her mom was right.

OUR TWO CENTS: Tehlor Kay Mejia’s Paola Santiago and the River of Tears (2020) presents a world of chupacabras, nightmares, and myths. Twelve-year-old Paola Santiago lives in Silver Springs, Arizona, and she’s interested in all things science and space, making her a very rational person. Paola and her best friend, Dante, live in an apartment complex, while their other best friend, Emma, lives on the more affluent side of town. The three of them frequently go near the Gila River to play despite having been warned to avoid going there after the disappearance of Melissa Martínez. Paola’s mom warns her of La Llorona, the wailing woman who haunts the river and takes children away from their parents, but Paola doesn’t believe in myths and folktales because they’re not scientifically sound. Their apartment is filled with the smell of incense and people who get their tarot cards read, and this bothers Paola because she wants a more rational, more grounded in reality, type of mother. One day, the trio plans to bring Emma’s telescope to the Gila. Paola and Dante wait for Emma to come, but she never meets up with them that night. Emma is missing, and Paola and Dante go on a mission to find Emma. Paola will need to tap into her mother’s lessons if she plans to save herself and her friends. 

Paola has had to grow up fast due to her mother’s work schedule and her mother’s free-spirit. This coping mechanism has led to Paola leaning into science—where things make sense and answers are more definitive—and away from her mother—who’s associated with myths, folktales, spirits, and spirituality. At the beginning of this middle grade novel, it’s clear Paola is skeptical of her mother’s stories: “But ghost? There is no scientific basis for them. No evidence at all that their existence was even possible let alone likely. An old folktale was definitely not a valid reason to change one’s plans” (Mejia, 6).  The resistance here, and through most of the novel, is not necessarily to the stories her mother tells but to the complicated relationship Paola and her mother have, wherein Paola must sometimes take care of herself and her own mother. The ghosts are not just the ghosts in her mother’s stories but the ghosts in their relationship they each refuse to confront. 

Paola is forced to rethink her relationship with her mother and how she sees her after her best friend Emma is taken to another world. Paola faces the monsters that resemble those in her mother’s stories. And when rational thinking isn’t enough to save her friends, Paola taps into what her mother’s been telling her, her entire life, to save everyone. Such realization is significant for Paola’s growth because she’s making room for her culture’s stories and mythology alongside her belief in science as part of how she understands herself. Her journey and fight to save Emma gave Paola an opportunity to celebrate her culture rather than reject it. As adult readers, we found this to be a powerful message about what should be considered knowledge and which types of knowledges should be respected. We believe this message—all knowledges, even those coming from family, have value—will also be empowering to young readers.

Not only does Mejia do an extraordinary job at including Mexican mythology in this novel, she also includes contemporary issues affecting Latinx communities at large, such as immigration and racial profiling. Sal is a memorable character in the River of Tears. Sal is a lost niño who used to live in Paola and Dante’s apartment complex. Sal experiences an incident with ICE officers: “He always came to mind whenever she saw stories about tent cities on the news, showing women who like her mom cried over lost children who looked like Pao. Eventually, those stories went away as it became clear that viewers preferred to pretend that brown-skinned kids weren’t disappearing but put into cages” (Mejia, 130). In a very emotional moment in the novel, Paola will meet Sal and the tragic truth of what could happen to children taken by ICE or thrown into cages will come to light. It’s important that Mejia decided to let Sal tell his side of the story and that Sal finds agency in unexpected ways and in an unexpected world. 

An overarching theme throughout the novel is class, which intersects with racial profiling. When Emma is first missing, Dante and Paola seek help from the police station. They encounter a police officer who shrugs them off. The officer says: “We’ve seen your kind here before. Trouble, all of you. Now, if you don’t have business with us, you need to get out” (Mejia, 37). The officer talks down to Dante and Paola because he makes certain assumptions about them based on what they look like and where they live. This encounter leaves Paola feeling ashamed. It’s only when Emma’s white parents go into the police station and get involved that both she and Dante get taken seriously. The distrust for the police to find Emma, based on previous experiences, leads Paola’s determination to find her friend herself. 

Paola Santiago and the River of Tears is a novel about finding self-empowerment in one’s culture in the face of systematic marginalization. Paola’s mother and her neighbor give her the tools, all based in her Mexican American culture, to save her missing friend Emma. Although Paola may not necessarily understand, or even see these tools at first, they’re there for her when she needs them the most. Mejia creates a brilliant, empathetic, and strong character in Paola Santiago. We need more books like this one that center brown girls interested in STEM, that tell readers to be proud of their culture, and that include magical chanclas as secret weapons.

The sequel to Paola Santiago and the River of Tears is Paola Santiago and the Forest of Nightmares, which released August 3, 2021.

Cover for Paola Santiago and the Forest of Nightmares

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Photo & Styling: Tia Reagan Creative | Editing: Adrian King
Photo & Styling: Tia Reagan Creative | Editing: Adrian King

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Tehlor Kay Mejia is the author of the critically acclaimed young adult fantasy duology WE SET THE DARK ON FIRE and WE UNLEASH THE MERCILESS STORM. Her middle grade debut, PAOLA SANTIAGO AND THE RIVER OF TEARS, released from Rick Riordan Presents in 2020 and its sequel PAOLA SANTIAGO AND THE FOREST OF NIGHTMARES released in 2021.

Her debut novel received six starred reviews, and was chosen as an Indie’s Next Pick and a Junior Library Guild selection, as well as being an Indiebound regional bestseller. It was runner up for the Neukom Institute Literary Arts Award for Speculative fiction, awarded through Dartmouth College, was featured in Seventeen, Cosmopolitan, and O by Oprah Magazine’s best books of 2019 lists, and was a book of the year selection by Kirkus and School Library Journal.

Tehlor lives in Oregon where she grows heirloom corn and continues her quest to perfect the vegan tamale.

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ABOUT THE REVIEWERSSonia Alejandra Rodriguez, PhD is an Associate Professor of English at LaGuardia Community College (CUNY) where she teaches composition, literature, and creative writing. Her academic research focuses on decolonial healing in Latinx children’s and young adult literature. Sonia is a Mellon Emerging Faculty Leader.

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Ingrid Campos is a 19-year-old college student interested in Latinx Literature. After graduating from LaGuardia Community College (CUNY) this year with an associates in Writing and Literature, she will continue her studies at Queens College to earn her Bachelors in English Education 7-12 . Ingrid was born and raised in Queens, New York. As a Mexican-American living in Queens and graduating from the public school system, Ingrid is inspired to become a high school teacher. One of her main goals is to center academic curriculums around more diversity and inclusivity towards Black and Brown students.


Celebrating 25 Years of the Pura Belpré Award: Book Talk About Viva Frida by Yuyi Morales

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We are an affiliate with Indiebound and Bookshop. If If you make a purchase through these links, at no additional cost to you, we will earn a small commission.

The Pura Belpré Award is named after Pura Belpré, the first Latina librarian at the New York Public Library. The Pura Belpré Award, established in 1996, is presented annually to a Latinx writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth.

We have been marking the award’s 25th anniversary in different ways on the blog. Today, Dr. Sonia Rodriguez and Emily R. Aguiló-Pérez talk about Viva Frida by Yuyi Morales. The book won the 2015 Pura Belpré Illustration Award.

Cover for Viva Frida

ABOUT THE BOOK: Frida Kahlo, one of the world’s most famous and unusual artists is revered around the world. Her life was filled with laughter, love, and tragedy, all of which influenced what she painted on her canvases.

Distinguished author/illustrator Yuyi Morales illuminates Frida’s life and work in this elegant and fascinating book.

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You can find our book talks on our new YouTube channel!

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Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez, PhD is an Associate Professor of English at LaGuardia Community College (CUNY) where she teaches composition, literature, and creative writing. Her academic research focuses on decolonial healing in Latinx children’s and young adult literature. Sonia is a Mellon Emerging Faculty Leader.

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Emily R. Aguiló-Pérez is an Assistant Professor of English (Children’s Literature) at West Chester University of Pennsylvania.  Her teaching and research are in the areas of children’s literature (particularly Latinx literature), girlhood studies, and children’s cultures. Her published work has focused on girlhood as represented in literature and Puerto Rican girls’ identity formation with Barbie dolls. She has presented research on Latinx children’s books at various conferences and has served on children’s book award committees such as the 2017 Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award and the 2018 Pura Belpré Award. Currently, she is part of the Pennsylvania Center for the Book’s “A Baker’s Dozen” committee.

Book Review: Like a Love Song by Gabriela Martins

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We are an affiliate with Indiebound and Bookshop. If If you make a purchase through these links, at no additional cost to you, we will earn a small commission.

Reviewed by Alexandra Someillan

Cover for Like a Love Song (Underlined Paperbacks)

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Natalie is living her dream: topping the charts and setting records as a Brazilian pop star… until she’s dumped spectacularly on live television. Not only is it humiliating–it could end her career.

Her PR team’s desperate plan? A gorgeous yet oh-so-fake boyfriend. Nati reluctantly agrees, but William is not what she expected. She was hoping for a fierce bad boy–not a soft-hearted British indie film star. While she fights her way back to the top with a sweet and surprisingly swoon-worthy boy on her arm, she starts to fall for William–and realizes that maybe she’s the biggest fake of them all. Can she reclaim her voice and her heart?

MY TWO CENTS: Like a Love Song was the ultimate light-hearted book to get me out of my book funk, and it was the kind of book that reminded me why I love rom-coms so much. Gabriela Martins captures pop culture celebrities today and what it’s like living in a microscope. Natalie faces the pressures of being an international pop star as a young Latina trying to please everyone while dealing with one of the most humiliating breakup in front of the whole world.

As a registered celebrity-obsessed addict, nothing fascinates me more than a book that discusses the complexities of social media and how every move a celebrity makes is dissected and judged, even more so when it comes to young female stars. Natalie is the kind of character that reminds us of famous pop stars like Selena Gomez or Britney Spears and the intense media scrutiny they endure daily. She faces the heartbreaking reality of the constant expectation to be the poised and perfect pop star even after having her celebrity boyfriend break up with her on live television seconds before receiving her award.

Just like in the typical pop culture of today, Natalie getting dumped becomes a meme that is constantly posted and retweeted on social media. The author explores the distinction between male and female celebrities in a nuanced way and provides a realistic portrayal of who the public usually chooses to target in the aftermath of a scandal. Unfortunately, Natalie is the target, and her ex-boyfriend Trent comes out unscathed while her PR team scrambles to save Natalie’s career. Of course, the PR strategy involves getting her a fake boyfriend when all Natalie wants is to hide under the covers and stalk her ex-boyfriend’s Instagram.

Even though I thought that the relationship between Natalie and William was one of the most adorable opposites-attract love stories with all the rom-com feels, I came out of the story wanting more between these two characters. Normally, I am all about insta-love stories. Still, I felt that the relationship that developed between Natalie and William was a bit rushed, and this is probably due to the book being a relatively short read. Other than that, there were plenty of swoon-worthy parts in this book, and there were many times I caught myself smiling from ear to ear, loving the dynamic between a world-famous, glamorous pop singer and an indie actor with quirky socks.

One of Natalie’s main struggles that I found deeply relatable revolves around the theme of identity and what it means to be Brazilian. Throughout the story, Natalie questions her heritage and feels alienated from her Brazilian family. She chooses to assimilate to American culture, but she knows deep inside that something is missing. I loved the journey that Natalie goes through to find herself, and it’s something I can understand growing up Cuban-American in an extremely Americanized family.

This book is needed in Latinx publishing because it is one of the few rom-coms written by a Brazilian author, with a Brazilian main character, with queer representation, and features all the rom-com tropes we all know and love! Like a Love Song is the kind of story that reminds us to be ourselves instead of trying to meet other people’s expectations. When you are yourself, the people who accept you are the people who will be around you for life.

TEACHING TIPS: Gabriela Martin’s book could be used in a life skills class, where students could discuss the pressures of representing certain parts of yourself on social media and how to deal with online bullying.

The resource I recommend is from Mike’s Math Mall on https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Anti-Bullying-Campus-Social-Media-Campaign-using-Language-Arts-Story-Elements-436818.

There is a great activity where you can divide students into groups of four. You can have them create a social media campaign poster, skit, video, Instagram post, or short story related to online bullying, challenging the pressures of social media and learning how to protect yourself from cyberbullying. The activity includes many graphic organizers and templates students can use to organize their ideas.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from her website https://www.gabrielawrites.com/): GABRIELA MARTINS is a Brazilian kidlit author and linguist. Her stories feature Brazilian characters finding themselves and love. She was a high school teacher and has also worked as a TED Ed-Club facilitator, where she helped teens develop their own talks in TED format to present. She edited and self-published a pro-bono LGBTQ+ anthology (KEEP FAITH) with all funds going to queer people in need. When she’s not writing, she can be found cuddling with her two cats, or singing loudly and off-key.

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ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Alexandra Someillan is a freelance book reviewer and teacher who lives in Miami, FL. She has written for Frolic Media, where she has raved about her favorite Latinx romances. Currently, she has been accepted in the Las Musas mentorship and is working on her Latinx contemporary novel with Nina Moreno. Usually, you can find Alexandra obsessing over nineties pop culture and eating too many pastelitos.

Celebrating 25 Years of the Pura Belpré Award: Book Talk About Esquivel!: Space-Age Sound Artist by Susan Wood, illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh

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We are an affiliate with Indiebound and Bookshop. If If you make a purchase through these links, at no additional cost to you, we will earn a small commission.

The Pura Belpré Award is named after Pura Belpré, the first Latina librarian at the New York Public Library. The Pura Belpré Award, established in 1996, is presented annually to a Latinx writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth.

We have been marking the award’s 25th anniversary in different ways on the blog. Today, Dr. Sonia Rodriguez and Emily R. Aguiló-Pérez talk about Esquivel!: Space-Age Sound Artist by Susan Wood, illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh. The book won the 2017 Pura Belpré Illustration Honor Award.

Cover for Esquivel!  Space-Age Sound Artist

ABOUT THE BOOK: Gorgeously illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh, this lively biography follows Juan Garcia Esquivel from Mexico to New York City. Juan grew up to the sounds of mariachi bands; he loved music and became a musical explorer. Defying convention, he created music that made people laugh and planted images in their minds. His musical dreams brought him from Mexico to America and gained him worldwide renown. Juan’s space-age lounge music—popular in the fifties and sixties—has found a new generation of listeners. This account honors Esquivel as one of the great composers of the 20th century.

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You can find our book talks on our new YouTube channel!

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Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez, PhD is an Associate Professor of English at LaGuardia Community College (CUNY) where she teaches composition, literature, and creative writing. Her academic research focuses on decolonial healing in Latinx children’s and young adult literature. Sonia is a Mellon Emerging Faculty Leader.

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Emily R. Aguiló-Pérez is an Assistant Professor of English (Children’s Literature) at West Chester University of Pennsylvania.  Her teaching and research are in the areas of children’s literature (particularly Latinx literature), girlhood studies, and children’s cultures. Her published work has focused on girlhood as represented in literature and Puerto Rican girls’ identity formation with Barbie dolls. She has presented research on Latinx children’s books at various conferences and has served on children’s book award committees such as the 2017 Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award and the 2018 Pura Belpré Award. Currently, she is part of the Pennsylvania Center for the Book’s “A Baker’s Dozen” committee.