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.


Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors: Anika Fajardo

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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.

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

This is an occasional series about middle grade Latinx authors. We decided to shine a spotlight on middle grade writers and their novels because, often, they are “stuck in the middle”–sandwiched between and overlooked for picture books and young adult novels. The middle grades are a crucial time in child development socially, emotionally, and academically. The books that speak to these young readers tend to have lots of heart and great voices that capture all that is awkward and brilliant about that time.

Today, we highlight Anika Fajardo.

Anika Fajardo was born in Colombia and raised in Minnesota. She is the author of a book about that experience, Magical Realism for Non-Believers: A Memoir of Finding Family (University of Minnesota Press, 2019), which was awarded Best Book (Nonfiction) of 2020 from City Pages and was a finalist for the 2020 Minnesota Book Award. Her debut middle-grade novel What If a Fish (Simon & Schuster, 2020) was awarded the 2021 Minnesota Book Award. Her next book for young readers, Meet Me Halfway (Simon & Schuster) will be published in spring 2022.

Her writing for adults and children has appeared in numerous publications including Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction (Norton), We Are Meant to Rise: Voices for Justice from Minneapolis to the World (U of Minnesota Press), and Sky Blue Waters: Great Stories for Young Readers (U of Minnesota Press). She has earned awards from the Minnesota State Arts Board, the Jerome Foundation, and the Loft Literary Center.

A writer, editor, and teacher, she lives with her family in the very literary city of Minneapolis. 

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Here is the publisher’s description for WHAT IF A FISH:

Cover of the novel What If a Fish by Anika Fajardo

A whimsical and unflinchingly honest generational story of family and identity where hats turn into leeches, ghosts blow kisses from lemon trees, and the things you find at the end of your fishing line might not be a fish at all.

Half-Colombian Eddie Aguado has never really felt Colombian. Especially after Papa died. And since Mama keeps her memories of Papa locked up where Eddie can’t get to them, he only has Papa’s third-place fishing tournament medal to remember him by. He’ll have to figure out how to be more Colombian on his own.

As if by magic, the perfect opportunity arises. Eddie—who’s never left Minnesota—is invited to spend the summer in Colombia with his older half-brother. But as his adventure unfolds, he feels more and more like a fish out of water.

Figuring out how to be a true colombiano might be more difficult than he thought.

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Anika Fajardo

Anika Fajardo

1. Who or what inspired you to become a writer?

My mom and my grandparents regularly read aloud to me when I was growing up, so books were always a big part of my life. In sixth grade I won a poetry contest after working with a guest poet in the schools. I got to read my poem on stage in front of an audience, and I decided I really wanted to be a writer. But it took me many careers (teacher, librarian, social media manager, web designer) before I actually let myself believe I could do it. 

2. Why do you choose to write middle grade novels?

I remember being that age fondly; I loved to read, write, play pretend, go on adventures. It’s such a great audience–they’re old enough to appreciate well-formed characters, intriguing plots, and sophisticated themes but without any of the sexy stuff of YA.

3. What are some of your favorite middle grade novels?

Of course, I love the middle-grade novels from Las Musas (THE OTHER HALF OF HAPPY, THE DREAM WEAVER, THE MUSE SQUAD). I’m from Minnesota, so my first picks are Minnesota authors like Kate DiCamillo (I adore RAYMIE NIGHTINGALE) and Pete Hautman (FLINKWATER FACTOR). I also love older books like MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS BASIL E FRANKWEILER and THE WESTING GAME.

4. If you could give your middle-grade self some advice, what would it be?

Keep dreaming and don’t let any grown-ups tell you what you can or cannot do with your one precious life.

5. Please finish this sentence: Middle grade novels are important because…

kids need something that’s just for them–not babyish and not too grown up–to which they can escape.

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photo of Cindy L. Rodriguez by Saryna A. Jones

Cindy L. Rodriguez is a former journalist turned teacher and children’s author. She is a middle school reading specialist in Connecticut, where she lives with her family. Cindy is a U.S.-born Latina of Puerto Rican and Brazilian descent. Her debut contemporary YA novel is When Reason Breaks (Bloomsbury 2015). She also has an essay in Life Inside My Mind (Simon Pulse 2018) and wrote the text for three Jake Maddox books: Volleyball Ace (2020), Drill Team Determination (2021), and Gymnastics Payback (2021). Her debut picture book will be published by Cardinal Rule Press in summer 2022. She can be found on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

Book Talk: Luci Soars by Lulu Delacre

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Welcome to another Book Talk, which can be found on our new YouTube channel!

Here, Dr. Sonia Rodriguez and Emily R. Aguiló-Pérez talk about LUCI SOARS by Lulu Delacre. Before you watch the video, you might want to get to know author-illustrator Lulu Delacre by visiting her in her studio: https://latinosinkidlit.com/2019/03/14/a-studio-visit-with-author-illustrator-lulu-delacre-one-of-the-most-prolific-latinx-artists-working-today/

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Click on the link below to watch the book talk and then add your comments below to join the conversation. ENJOY!

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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.

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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.

Book Review: Miss Meteor by Anna-Marie McLemore and Tehlor Kay Mejia

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Review by Dr. Cris Rhodes

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: There hasn’t been a winner of the Miss Meteor beauty pageant who looks like Lita Perez or Chicky Quintanilla in all its history.

But that’s not the only reason Lita wants to enter the contest, or her ex-best friend Chicky wants to help her. The road to becoming Miss Meteor isn’t about being perfect; it’s about sharing who you are with the world—and loving the parts of yourself no one else understands.

So to pull off the unlikeliest underdog story in pageant history, Lita and Chicky are going to have to forget the past and imagine a future where girls like them are more than enough—they are everything.

MY TWO CENTS: Born from a magical collaboration between Tehlor Kay Mejia and Anna-Marie McLemore, Miss Meteor follows the rekindled friendship between Lita Perez and Chicky Quintanilla as Lita, who has an urgent and extraterrestrial secret, decides to spend her final days on earth entering the Miss Meteor pageant. In the opening chapter, Lita tells the reader, “I don’t remember the moment I turned from star-stuff thrown off a meteor into a girl,” but her corporeal body is slowly deteriorating, leaving her “turning back into the stardust [she] once was” (1, 6). Lita explains that this isn’t the beginning of losing herself; in fact that process started years before when her friendship with Chicky Quintanilla deteriorated. Chicky, for her part, is an anomaly in her family–nothing like her boisterous sisters, Chicky prefers no makeup and keeping to the margins. But, as Lita’s body increasingly returns to stardust, she resolves to enter the pageant and to enlist Chicky to manage her success. 

If Miss Meteor were just to follow the rekindled friendship between Lita and Chicky, it would be an uplifting and touching story–but add in Mejia and McLemore’s characteristic magic and intrigue, it is an out of this world adventure. Lita’s literal otherworldliness is well-tempered by her somewhat geeky love of cacti and her clumsiness. Chicky’s rebellion is grounded by her devotion to her family’s struggling restaurant, “Selena’s,” named for the Tejana superstar who shares their last name (and a woman whom Chicky, despite her standoffish exterior, secretly idolizes). Together, Chicky and Lita’s campaign to climb to the top of the pageant allows each to excavate the parts of themselves they had long buried. Confronting the realities of their failures and shortcomings allows them to grow individually and together. 

As the great Selena Quintanilla once said, “if you have a dream, don’t let anybody take it away. And you always believe that the impossible is always possible.” This wisdom holds true for Miss Meteor, as Chicky and Lita defy the odds throughout the book. In alternating chapters, the two narrate their story of overcoming and the power of friendship. The text itself is relatively accessible, in keeping with both Mejia and McLemore’s traditionally immersive prose. While the pace is sometimes a bit slow, I was always invested in the characters and their pursuits. Further, the normalized queer content of the book is something that I have found to be a key part of Mejia’s and McLemore’s oeuvres. 

Tehlor Kay Mejia exploded onto the Latinx literature scene with her We Set the Dark on Fire series and Anna-Marie McLemore’s opulent books like When the Moon was Ours have been captivating readers for years. So, then, a collaboration between the two clearly sparks magic. Co-authored books like Miss Meteor run the risk of sounding too disparate, not cohering the dual narratives. While it is clear that Chicky belongs to Mejia and Lita is McLemore’s, the two blend well together. Chicky’s attitude and personality are emblematic of the gritty and industrious characters in Mejia’s other books. Likewise, Lita’s supernaturality and light share McLemore’s trademark magical realism. The balance in the narrative was equal between the two, and I was invested in both Chicky and Lita. Both characters were equally intriguing and I can see readers developing an affinity for either depending on their own personality and interests. Overall, Miss Meteor is a beautiful book, a fun read, and a shining addition to Mejia and McLemore’s bibliographies.

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Cris Rhodes is an assistant professor of English at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania. She teaches courses of writing, culturally diverse literature, and ethnic literatures. In addition to teaching, Cris’s scholarship focuses on Latinx youth and their literature or related media. She also has a particular scholarly interest in activism and the ways that young Latinxs advocate for themselves and their communities.

Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors: Donna Barba Higuera

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By Cindy L. Rodriguez

This is an occasional series about middle grade Latinx authors. We decided to shine a spotlight on middle grade writers and their novels because, often, they are “stuck in the middle”–sandwiched between and overlooked for picture books and young adult novels. The middle grades are a crucial time in child development socially, emotionally, and academically. The books that speak to these young readers tend to have lots of heart and great voices that capture all that is awkward and brilliant about that time.

Today, we highlight Donna Barba Higuera.

Donna grew up in central California surrounded by agricultural and oil fields. As a child, rather than dealing with the regular dust devils, she preferred spending recess squirreled away in the janitor’s closet with a good book. Her favorite hobbies were calling dial-a-story over and over again, and sneaking into a restricted cemetery to weave her own spooky tales using the crumbling headstones as inspiration.

Donna’s Middle Grade and Picture Books are about kids who find themselves in odd or scary situations.​ From language to cultural differences in being biracial life can become…complicated. So like Donna,  characters tackle more than just the bizarre things that happen to them in their lives.

Donna likes to write about all things funny, but also sad, and creepy, and magical. If you like those things, she hopes you will read her books!

Donna lives in Washington State with her family, three dogs and two frogs.

Her middle grade novel, Lupe Wong Won’t Dance released September 8, 2020.

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Here is the publisher’s description:

My gym shorts burrow into my butt crack like a frightened groundhog.

Don’t you want to read a book that starts like that??

Lupe Wong is going to be the first female pitcher in the Major Leagues.

She’s also championed causes her whole young life. Some worthy…like expanding the options for race on school tests beyond just a few bubbles. And some not so much…like complaining to the BBC about the length between Doctor Who seasons.

Lupe needs an A in all her classes in order to meet her favorite pitcher, Fu Li Hernandez, who”s Chinacan/Mexinese just like her. So when the horror that is square dancing rears its head in gym? Obviously she”s not gonna let that slide.

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Donna Barba Higuera

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Q. Who or what inspired you to become a writer?

Teachers. That’s the short answer.

Mrs. Griffin, Mrs. Presho, Mrs. Arnoldus, My Uncle Ted. Mr. Presho. Each one of them at specific times told me I should write down the stories in my head.

I think of myself as a storyteller more so than a writer. My imagination has been on full speed, creating alternate plotlines for as long as I can remember. From the books I’m reading, to those “I wish I would’ve done this instead” moments, to my Aunt’s Readers Digest Mysteries of the Unexplained book that I read to tatter, my mind tries to make those things more magical, or brave or mysterious.

But still, bottom line, teachers encouraged me to channel those bizarre stories churning in my mind and put them on paper. Imagining stories for me is easy. Writing them down is hard work. Thank goodness for the teachers who encouraged me to work.

Q. Why do you choose to write middle grade novels?

I’ve written adult and YA novels as well, but I always get pulled back into Middle Grade. I’ve tried to put my finger on why this happens. I think it’s because that was the age in which I felt most awkward and vulnerable and experienced the most internal struggle in my own life. (But also, the most external conflict.) It’s the age where I still need to work through my thoughts and issues. If this comes across onto the page, there’s more emotional conflict, and that is where I believe better stories come from.

I think many writers don’t even realize until they are done writing a book that they’ve written something that is helping them digest something from their past.

Q. What are some of your favorite middle grade novels?

For me, the best MG has a mix of humor and emotional growth.

Everything Sad is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri

Just released. Unlike any format in MG I’ve ever read, but so beautifully written and funny and sad. This book is going to be a classic!

I Am Fartacus- Electric Boogerloo (2nd in series) by Mark Maciejewski

Hilarious! Probably the only book with Fart and Booger in the title that received a Kirkus star. Perfect balance of humor and friendship and MG struggles.

Rogue by Lynn Miller Lachmann

Again, a perfect mix of humor and strife. Also, one of the best books showing “voice” of a character. And we need more books with neuro-diverse characters.

The Moon Within by Aida Salazar

This book does have some funny moments of awkwardness that are so true to life regarding menstruation. Those funny moments help will help young readers digest these topics that have historically been taboo. This novel has had to navigate some speed bumps with the more conservative crowd, but it will overcome that and stand the test of time to be a classic.

Q. If you could give your middle-grade self some advice, what would it be?

LOL. Remember how I mentioned most writers realizing after they wrote a book, that it helped them digest something about themselves. It’s the message I discovered after writing Lupe Wong Won’t Dance that my kid-self needed to hear.

It is:  Always be your true self. If you are, the right people will enter and remain in your life.

Q. Please finish this sentence: Middle grade novels are important because…

If writers put our own vulnerabilities and hurdles on the page, it allows kids who are going through the same timeless struggles, feel like they are not so alone.

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photo by Saryna A. Jones

Cindy L. Rodriguez was a newspaper reporter for The Hartford Courant and researcher at The Boston Globe before becoming a public school teacher. She is now a reading specialist at a Connecticut middle school. Cindy is a U.S.-born Latina of Puerto Rican and Brazilian descent. She has degrees from UConn and CCSU. Her debut contemporary YA novel is When Reason Breaks (Bloomsbury 2015). She also has an essay in Life Inside My Mind (Simon Pulse 2018) and wrote the text for Volleyball Ace, a Jake Maddox book (Capstone 2020). She can be found on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

Book Review: Freedom, We Sing by Amyra León and Molly Mendoza

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Review by Sonia Alejandra Rodríguez, PhD & Ingrid Campos

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: As powerful as it is beautiful, Freedom, We Sing is a lyrical picture book designed to inspire and give hope to readers around the world. Molly Mendoza’s immersive, lush illustrations invite kids to ponder singer/songwriter Amyra León’s poem about what it means to be free. It’s the perfect book for parents who want a way to gently start the conversation with their kids about finding hope in these very tense times we are living in.

OUR TWO CENTS: Amyra León’s Freedom, We Sing (2020) is a lyric poem told between a Black mother and her child as they contemplate the meaning of freedom. They ask questions about freedom like “Is it a place?/ Is it a thought?/ Can it be stolen?/ Can it be bought?” Questioning what freedom is, where it is, and who can access it are tremendously important questions for children and adults alike to ask and analyze. In this book, the idea of freedom is threaded to the experiences of others: “Mama tells me that/ there are children/ with hearts like mine/ beat beat beating in their chests/  With different skin colors/ hair, languages, and interests/ they learn to walk and talk/ and dance and scream/  Just like me or anybody.” While there are differences amongst people that could, and have, created forms of oppression limiting one’s freedoms, León also reminds readers that inside our chest are similar beating hearts.

The purpose of freedom for all is not to ignore each other’s differences but to embrace them while also highlighting our similarities. León and Mendoza also represent the very real oppressions that can impact one’s freedom. In one spread, Mendoza illustrates refugees of different skin tones walking together toward freedom. León writes: “Mama tells me that/ There are mothers/ With hearts like ours/ Beat beat beating/ In their chest/ Running from war/ With whatever is left/ Doing everything/ They can to protect/ Their children/ And their breath.” Again, León and Mendoza highlight differences and similarities as means of coming together rather than finding ways to other one another. 

The mother and the child give readers a poetic definition of freedom: “Mama tells me/ Breath is Freedom/ A sweet release/ The right to be/ A universal sign of life and peace.” In these lines, freedom is tied to breathing, to existing, to life. Freedom is as essential as breathing. Freedom can be seen as an individual act because, for the most part, we are responsible for our own breathing. However, León and Mendoza align the idea of freedom as breathing to the idea of community. On the page spread with “Breath is Freedom,” Mendoza has illustrated a diverse group of people with their eyes closed, drawn to look like they’re inhaling. Their faces look peaceful and some of them smile. Throughout the story, León repeats the words “inhale” and “exhale” to describe many things, such as people breathing, but also as trees, and the relationship between the sun and the moon. The repetition of the phrase forces readers to pause and take a deep breath. The relationship of breath and freedom can also be linked to Climate Change. There are several depictions of nature in the book, such as birds, trees, and flowers that suggest that breathing clean air should be a freedom that should also be protected.  

Molly Mendoza’s illustrations are vibrant and magical. There are several depictions of movement in her illustrations. In the first pages, the mother and her child are dancing and twirling and strokes of yellows and oranges mimic their movements behind them. In the pages depicting large groups of diverse people marching, there are also bold strokes of color signaling their direction or standing in for a sort of path to guide them. The pages with “inhale” and “exhale” also demonstrate movement by showing contraction and expansion. In one page, for example, a beautiful tree with yellow, green, and blue leaves stands tall and packed in with the word “inhale” to the left of the tree. On the other page, the same tree, now bare showing all its branches, is surrounded by an explosion of color and shapes with the word “exhale” underneath.

Additionally, Mendoza uses the idea of differences and similarities to visually depict the message of the book. Contrasting concepts such as the colors blues, yellows and oranges, the sun and the moon, and the expression to inhale and exhale can be found throughout the book. One scene, for example, shows the mother and her child sitting next to each other with a sun above the mother and a moon above the child. The word “Inhale” rests above the moon. In the next page, the mother and the child hug and above them the sun and moon have come together to create a new shape. Below them is the word “Exhale.” Readers will certainly have fun looking at all of Mendoza’s brilliant art. 

Freedom, We Sing presents an always relevant conversation about the meaning of freedom. León’s poem examines how freedom is all around us and within us and something we can give to ourselves. León also points to the ways that people around the world are fighting for their freedoms, even if it means having to leave one’s home behind. Mendoza’s artwork is a visual representation of what freedom looks like–from the tiniest flower to the vastness of the universe. With this book, León and Mendoza remind readers that freedom starts with breathing—inhale and exhale.

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Photo by Maria Marrone

ABOUT THE WRITER (from her website): Amyra is a musician, playwright, author, and activist. Her work fuses music and poetry through powerfully transparent performances focusing on social inequalities and communal healing whilst celebrating love, blackness, and womanhood.

She has performed throughout the United States and Europe collaborating with the likes of The Apollo, BAM, BBC, Roundhouse, Amnesty International and more.

Amyra composed Una Mujer Derramada in collaboration with Sivan Eldar commissioned by and performed with Lisbon’s Gulbenkian Orchestra, the Montpellier National Opera, and the Paris Chamber Orchestra. She is the inaugural recipient of the Battersea Arts Centre Phoenix Award which led to the 2019 London premiere of her debut play VASELINE.

She is the author of Concrete Kids (Penguin 2020), Freedom We Sing (Flying Eye Books 2020) and Darling (Walker, Candlewick 2022) . Her musical debut, Something Melancholy, led to sharing stages with Common, Robert Glasper, Nikki Giovanni and more. Amyra’s debut album, WITNESS, is set to release this summer.

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© Maddie Maschger

ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR (from her website): Molly Mendoza is an illustrator currently living in Portland, Oregon. She is captivated by the relationships that she has built with friends, family, and foes alike over the course of her life. Molly sets out to emulate those relationships through her chaotic yet rhythmic style to make some dang-good drawings.

Alongside personal/observational narrative, Molly enjoys making images of  space travel, plants, ladies and small dogs. Frequently she can be found working on editorial projects, making comics/zines, and eating hot dogs. Molly is a BFA graduate from the Pacific Northwest College of Art and recipient the RockStar Games Award from the 2015 SOI Student Competition — she continues to work hard and remain a pretty cool lady.

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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.