Book Review: Tía Fortuna’s New Home: A Jewish Cuban Journey written by Ruth Behar, illustrated by Devon Holzwarth

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Reviewed by Maria Ramos-Chertok

DESCRIPTION FROM THE PUBLISHER: A poignant multicultural ode to family and what it means to create a home as one girl helps her Tía move away from her beloved Miami apartment.

When Estrella’s Tía Fortuna has to say goodbye to her longtime Miami apartment building, The Seaway, to move to an assisted living community, Estrella spends the day with her. Tía explains the significance of her most important possessions from both her Cuban and Jewish culture, as they learn to say goodbye together and explore a new beginning for Tía.

A lyrical book about tradition, culture, and togetherness, Tía Fortuna’s New Home explores Tía and Estrella’s Sephardic Jewish and Cuban heritage. Through Tía’s journey, Estrella will learn that as long as you have your family, home is truly where the heart is.

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MY TWO CENTS: I am a big fan of Ruth Behar’s and have enjoyed her adult books as much as her middle grade books Lucky Broken Girl (2017) and Letters from Cuba (2019). Tía Fortuna’s New Home is her first picture book aimed at younger audiences.

The book’s landscape is the relationship between an aunt and her niece. The story follows little Estrellita as she tracks the process of her aunt moving out of her beloved home into a facility for the elderly. This move is the second big move in Tia’s life, the first being when she immigrated to the United States from Havana, Cuba. While both of these moves are objectively hard ones, Tia manages to enjoy the present and keep an optimistic attitude which positively influences Estrellita’s experience. 

I liked that the story focused on the opportunities inherent in changing one’s circumstances and presented an uplifting paradigm. Having Sephardic characters and bilingual text enhances the story by providing a personal and unique slice of life. I wish this book had been available to me when I was young.

The illustrations by Devon Holzwarth are amazing, and I found myself being drawn into the story more and more through the vivid and colorful artwork.

TEACHING TIPS: I could see using this book to discuss life transitions generally and the attitude one brings to change. Students can discuss the contrast between focusing on the negative versus the positive aspects of a pending life transition. For students who have a grandparent moving into assisted living, this book would be a great orientation to one way that move can happen.

The book can also be used as part of a module on cultural diversity, as it covers Cuban-Jewish characters.  In a Jewish Day School, the book would be ideal in exposing students to the multiculturalism of the Jewish people.

In teaching about family trees, the book references how family recipes are passed down from generation to generation. In this vein, it would be interesting to have children interview their parents or grandparents to find out what recipes they make that were passed down to them and from whom. 

The Author’s Note at the end of the book is a story unto itself and where I’d recommend teachers begin in order to gain context before sharing the book with students. There is also a fabulous glossary of words that could be a fun addition for students to learn new words.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from her website): As a storyteller, traveler, memoirist, poet, teacher, and public speaker, Ruth Behar is acclaimed for the compassion she brings to her quest to understand the depth of the human experience. Born in Havana, Cuba, she grew up in New York, and has also lived in Spain and Mexico. Her recent memoirs for adults, An Island Called Home and Traveling Heavy, explore her return journeys to Cuba and her search for home as an immigrant and a traveler. Her books for young readers are Lucky Broken Girl and Letters from Cuba. She was the first Latina to win a MacArthur “Genius” Grant, and her honors also include a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, a Distinguished Alumna Award from Wesleyan University, and an honorary doctorate in Humane Letters from the Hebrew Union College. She is an anthropology professor at the University of Michigan and lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR (from her website): Devon Holzwarth is a picture book illustrator, author, and painter. Born in Washington D.C., Devon grew up in Panama surrounded by nature and her dad’s art supplies, and has lived in many other places over the years. She currently lives in Germany with her family including her husband, two kids, a galgo dog from Spain and a little dachshund from Romania.

Devon earned her BFA in 2000 from the Rhode Island School of Design focusing on screen printing and painting. She has written & illustrated two picture books: FOUND YOU and SOPHIE’S STORIES, with Alison Green Books/Scholastic UK. She has a number of picture books publishing in 2022, including “Tia Fortuna’s New Home” (Knopf Books, English & Spanish language versions), “Listen” (Dial Books and Penguin UK), and “Everywhere With You” (Walker Books US and Walker Books UK).

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ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Maria is the author of The Butterfly Series: Fifty-two Weeks of Inquiries for Transformation. The book was a finalist for the 2019 International Book Awards (Women’s Issues category), won Honorable Mention in the 2019 Reviewers Choice Award (Body/Mind/Spirit category), and won Honorable Mention in the 2020 Writer’s Digest 28th Annual Self-Published Book Awards (Inspirational category).

To sign up for her monthly blog post visit her contact page at www.mariaramoschertok.com

We Read Banned Books: My Papi Has a Motorcycle written by Isabel Quintero, illustrated by Zeke Peña

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

Here, Dr. Sonia Rodriguez and Cris Rhodes talk about MY PAPI HAS A MOTORCYCLE written by Isabel Quintero and illustrated by Zeke Peña.

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ABOUT THE BOOK: A celebration of the love between a father and daughter, and of a vibrant immigrant neighborhood, by an award-winning author and illustrator duo.

When Daisy Ramona zooms around her neighborhood with her papi on his motorcycle, she sees the people and places she’s always known. She also sees a community that is rapidly changing around her.

But as the sun sets purple-blue-gold behind Daisy Ramona and her papi, she knows that the love she feels will always be there.

With vivid illustrations and text bursting with heart, My Papi Has a Motorcycle is a young girl’s love letter to her hardworking dad and to memories of home that we hold close in the midst of change.

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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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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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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.

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Book Review: Merci Suárez Can’t Dance by Meg Medina

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Reviewed by Cris Rhodes

BOOK DESCRIPTION: Seventh grade is going to be a real trial for Merci Suárez. For science she’s got no-nonsense Mr. Ellis, who expects her to be as smart as her brother, Roli. She’s been assigned to co-manage the tiny school store with Wilson Bellevue, a boy she barely knows, but whom she might actually like. And she’s tangling again with classmate Edna Santos, who is bossier and more obnoxious than ever now that she is in charge of the annual Heart Ball.

One thing is for sure, though: Merci Suárez can’t dance—not at the Heart Ball or anywhere else. Dancing makes her almost as queasy as love does, especially now that Tía Inés, her merengue-teaching aunt, has a new man in her life. Unfortunately, Merci can’t seem to avoid love or dance for very long. She used to talk about everything with her grandfather, Lolo, but with his Alzheimer’s getting worse each day, whom can she trust to help her make sense of all the new things happening in her life? The Suárez family is back in a touching, funny story about growing up and discovering love’s many forms, including how we learn to love and believe in ourselves.

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MY TWO CENTS: In this follow-up to her Newbery Award-winning Merci Suárez Changes Gears, Meg Medina once more dives back into Merci’s world, this time exploring her confusion and awkwardness of a first crush. Whereas the first book follows Merci as she learns that her beloved grandfather, Lolo, has Alzheimer’s, this book has a far lighter primary plot. Certainly Lolo’s diagnosis still impacts Merci, especially because Lolo’s capabilities have dwindled and Merci now must fulfill a caretaking role for him; yet, the book doesn’t dwell so much on Lolo as it does Merci herself. This shift is important. In the first book, Merci feels betrayal that the adults in her life withheld information from her. In Merci Suárez Can’t Dance, Merci is suddenly the one who must decide how much to tell others or what to protect them from. 

Now in the 7th grade, Merci is on the cusp of teenagerhood and all of the mixed-up feelings that go with it. While Merci’s group of friends are all seemingly growing up around her, Merci still enjoys the things of her childhood—riding her bike, playing soccer with her dad and his workmates, and visiting with her grandparents. Even when she is given the responsibility of running her school’s mini-store alongside her new friend Wilson, she clings to her stable childhood pleasures. Nevertheless, Merci has to grow up. Throughout the book, Merci is confronted with a number of events that require her to adopt a more mature mentality and leave her childhood thinking behind. While I won’t go into detail about these events, lest I give any spoilers, the new realities that Merci must navigate feel real and relatable, if maybe a little jumbled because of the amount of subplots. Having read the book over the course of several days, I did find myself losing track sometimes, but earlier subplots that seem unrelated at the time do factor into the ultimate climax of the book.

Fans of Merci Suárez Changes Gears will enjoy the continuation of her story in Merci Suárez Can’t Dance. Merci remains the compelling, loveable, and flawed character from the first book and the realism with which Medina brings Merci to life is astounding. Like all children, Merci makes mistakes and has to account for them. But she also triumphs, and we celebrate her victories.

Like Medina’s other books, Merci Suárez Can’t Dance is an engaging read. I will say, I did enjoy the first book better—possibly because Merci was still new to me and her struggle to accept her grandfather’s diagnosis was a more heart-tugging story. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy this book—I certainly did! —it just did not match the emotional appeal of the first in the series. However, I don’t necessarily think that’s something that should keep readers away from continuing on Merci’s journey. This book felt like a transition, a shift for Merci and for us as readers—especially so, given that this is the second book in a trilogy. Merci Suárez Plays It Cool, the final book in the series, is slated for release in September 2022. 

All in all, Merci’s growth, as explored in Merci Suárez Can’t Dance, is impactful and, for readers equally going through the transition from childhood to adolescence (or any change in life), will resonate. Meg Medina has a particular talent for rendering real life emotions and experiences in fiction and I will always pick up any new book of hers. Merci’s voice is one that is much needed for young readers, especially those experiencing tumultuous times.

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by Sonya Sones

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from her website): Meg Medina is a Newbery award-winning and New York Times best-selling author who writes picture books, as well as middle grade and young adult fiction. Her works have been called “heartbreaking,” “lyrical” and “must haves for every collection.” Her titles include:

  • She Persisted: Sonia Sotomayor, with Chelsea Clinton;
  • Merci Suárez Can’t Dance, one of the 50 most anticipated novels of 2021, according to Kirkus;
  • Evelyn del Rey is Moving Away / Evelyn del Rey se muda, 2020 Jumpstart’s Read for the Record Selection, winner of the Margaret Wise Brown Prize in Children’s Literature, and 2021 Crystal Kite Award;
  • Merci Suárez Changes Gears,  2019 John Newbery Medal winner, and 2019 Charlotte Huck Honor Book;
  • Burn Baby Burn, long-listed for the 2016 National Book Award,  short-listed for the Kirkus Prize, and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize;
  • Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, winner of the 2014 Pura Belpré Author Award;
  • The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind, a 2012 Bank Street College Best Children’s Book of the Year;
  • Mango, Abuela, and Me, a 2016 Pura Belpré Author Honor Book; and
  • Tía Isa Wants a Car, winner of the 2012 Ezra Jack Keats New Writers Award.

When she’s not writing, Meg serves on the Advisory Committee for We Need Diverse Books, the grassroots organization working to produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people. She also works on community projects that support girls, Latinx youth, and/or literacy. She is a board member of the Library of Congress Literacy Awards, a faculty member of Hamline University’s Masters of Fine Arts in Children’s Literature. Meg lives with her family in Richmond, Virginia.

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ABOUT THE REVIEWER: 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.

Book Review: Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

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Reviewed by Alexandra Someillan

DESCRIPTION FROM THE PUBLISHERS: In Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, two boys in a border town fell in love. Now, they must discover what it means to stay in love and build a relationship in a world that seems to challenge their very existence.

Ari has spent all of high school burying who he really is, staying silent and invisible. He expected his senior year to be the same. But something in him cracked open when he fell in love with Dante, and he can’t go back. Suddenly he finds himself reaching out to new friends, standing up to bullies of all kinds, and making his voice heard. And, always, there is Dante, dreamy, witty Dante, who can get on Ari’s nerves and fill him with desire all at once.

The boys are determined to forge a path for themselves in a world that doesn’t understand them. But when Ari is faced with a shocking loss, he’ll have to fight like never before to create a life that is truthfully, joyfully his own.

MY TWO CENTS: After reading this book, I realized that this story is one of the sweetest and most heartwarming slice-of-life novels I have ever read. Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World describes the magic of falling in love for the first time– how terrifying and beautiful it is at the same time. In the first book, Dante opened up Aristotle’s eyes and made him face the truth about himself. Aristotle began to fall in love with Dante, but he still had difficulty opening himself up to others. In this novel, Aristotle’s love for Dante shakes up his whole universe and makes him realize that he shouldn’t shut off the people who love him.

Aristotle learns to open himself up to others along the way, and he makes lifelong friends who help him realize he was never truly alone. Dante, his family, and friends help Aristotle face the demons inside him that have been tucked away for a long time. They also help Aristotle get through one of the most significant life-altering moments of his life. I loved reading about these characters because they reminded me how life is about living it with the people you love. How Ari’s friends and family help him along the way is my favorite thing about this book because they are the exact kind of people anyone would be lucky to have in their life. The people who rally around Aristotle are the people you would want in your life forever.

In the first novel, the reader gets to know all the facets of Dante, but in this novel, he takes a bit of a backseat to other characters. Even though I loved the other characters in the book, I wanted more of Dante, especially since he goes through his life changes in this book and is the impetus for why Aristotle has changed so dramatically.

Besides Aristotle trying to find himself again, he also deals with the tumultuous world in the backdrop of the AIDS epidemic. Being a kid during the eighties and early nineties, I remember the devastation of this virus, but I never realized how much of a cultural impact it had on the entire world. Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Water of the World was the first book I read that eloquently describes the AIDS crisis and how the characters struggle with it and question their own identity in a world that hates who they love.

There are also thought-provoking discussions about what it means to be queer in a heteronormative society, especially the Latine culture’s reluctance to accept members of the LGBTQ community. The characters also deal with racism; the book perfectly analyzes the meaning of racism and delves into what makes someone racist. I enjoyed how the book made me think about serious issues and why people are the way they are. However, what I love most about this novel is its beautiful message — that learning how to love again could save us from ourselves.

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TEACHING TIPS: Since Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World takes place during the AIDS epidemic, this would be an excellent opportunity to teach about the history of AIDS and how it has influenced society, then and now.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from his website): Benjamin Alire Sáenz (born 16 August 1954) is an award-winning American poet, novelist and writer of children’s books. He was born at Old Picacho, New Mexico, the fourth of seven children, and was raised on a small farm near Mesilla, New Mexico. He graduated from Las Cruces High School in 1972. That fall, he entered St. Thomas Seminary in Denver, Colorado where he received a B.A. degree in Humanities and Philosophy in 1977. He studied Theology at the University of Louvain in Leuven, Belgium from 1977 to 1981. He was a priest for a few years in El Paso, Texas before leaving the order.

In 1985, he returned to school, and studied English and Creative Writing at the University of Texas at El Paso where he earned an M.A. degree in Creative Writing. He then spent a year at the University of Iowa as a PhD student in American Literature. A year later, he was awarded a Wallace E. Stegner fellowship. While at Stanford University under the guidance of Denise Levertov, he completed his first book of poems, Calendar of Dust, which won an American Book Award in 1992. He entered the Ph.D. program at Stanford and continued his studies for two more years. Before completing his Ph.D., he moved back to the border and began teaching at the University of Texas at El Paso in the bilingual MFA program.

His first novel, Carry Me Like Water, was a saga that brought together the Victorian novel and the Latin American tradition of magic realism and received much critical attention.

In The Book of What Remains (Copper Canyon Press, 2010), his fifth book of poems, he writes to the core truth of life’s ever-shifting memories. Set along the Mexican border, the contrast between the desert’s austere beauty and the brutality of border politics mirrors humanity’s capacity for both generosity and cruelty.

In 2005, he curated a show of photographs by Julian Cardona.

He lives and works in El Paso, Texas.

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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.

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. 

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

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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 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.