FICTION

Paola Santiago and the River of Tears

Disney-Hyperion/Rick Riordan Presents. Aug. 2020. 368p. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781368049177.
COPY ISBN
Gr 5-8–Twelve-year-old Paola “Pao” Santiago lives in Silver Springs, AZ, with her besties Dante and Emma. Her mother strongly believes in ancestor ghosts and regional legends like La Llorona, a weeping ghost who drowns her victims in the Gila River. Pao appreciates science and evidence, a position she must question when Emma disappears. Pao and Dante search for her in a magical hinterland, where their dream guide Ondina steers them past frightening chupacabras and ghost children ahogados. They reach a camp with immortal child warriors who defend Silver Springs but fear an overwhelming assault. Pao departs the camp to find Emma, facing a battle with the ghosts’ puppet master. Mejia’s Mexican American myth succeeds both as an extended quest and a humorous contemporary story. Her real genius lies, however, in detailed yet effortless characterization. It takes mere pages before readers will know and love Pao. Pao is both a pragmatist and a dreamer. Her loyalty to Emma and her changing feelings for Dante feel well integrated with the action. Minor characters like Ondina and the camp children have stand-out moments. And who can resist Pao’s acquisition of a demon hound? Character development, the Southwestern setting, and action share story space without seeming rushed. Spanish phrases, like those Dante’s abuela uses to advise the children, are understandable to non–Spanish speakers in context. Readers may wonder why the unwed mother in the folktale is shunned and could benefit from a grown-up’s explanation.
VERDICT A warm, thrilling Mexican American adventure. An essential purchase.

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