fantasy, mexican, middle grade

Middle Grade Must-Read – Paola Santiago and the River of Tears

Paola Santiago and the River of Tears (Rick Riordan Presents)
Written by Tehlor Mejia

Some saw Rick Riordan as piggybacking off of the popularity of Harry Potter when he began publishing his Percy Jackson. And while there are some surface-level similarities, it’s ultimately a celebration of Riordan’s love of Greek mythology. The same sentiment is present in Tehlor Mejia’s first entry in her Paola Santiago series, which Riordan presents. This is a celebration of Mexican folklore and culture delivered in an exciting manner that will draw in children whether they have a personal connection to the figures presented or not. The key to the book’s success are richly-drawn characters and a pace that keeps the reader hooked.

Paola is a twelve-year-old girl of Mexican descent living in Arizona. She spends most of her time with best friends Dante and Emma with one big rule handed down by the adults: stay away from the river. The river is the Gila; a year ago, one of their classmates drowned in it. Paola’s mother, a spiritualist, warns her daughter for another reason. She believes La Llorona haunts that river and will snatch any child she can get her hands on. This irritates Paola because she loves science and all things logical. Her mother’s superstitions are embarrassing. One afternoon during summer break, Paola and Dante head out to test a new telescope near the Gila, but Emma never shows. She’s gone missing, and after a few days with no leads, the children know the river took Emma. Paola and Dante will journey into a hidden world and learn the secrets of the missing children, as well as why everyone is so afraid of the river.

Paola is such a well-written character who continues in a tradition of middle-grade narrators with vibrant three-dimensional personalities. She’s an incredibly reluctant hero but embraces the calling when it becomes urgent. The supporting cast is equally well written, leading to compelling conflicts between characters. Not until the last third of the book are you sure who is manipulating who with some of these strange beings that live on the other side of our reality. I think the book suffers a little at the start as Mejia puts all the pieces in place. However, those chapters are deceptive in that they don’t necessarily set the tone for what most of the book will be. There are a lot of twists and turns along the way, so if you want something with a more straightforward plot, the book may frustrate your readers. Stick with it, though, because I think this is one of the best starts to a new middle-grade fantasy series I’ve read this year so far.

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