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America for Beginners by Leah Franqui
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Paola Santiago and the River of Tears by Tehlor Kay Mejia
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Paola Santiago and the River of Tears: 09/11/20

Paola Santiago and the River of Tears

Paola Santiago and the River of Tears by Tehlor Kay Mejia is the start of a middle grade fantasy series. Paola "Pao" Santiago lives with her mother in a crumbling apartment building near the Gila River. Below her lives Dante, one of her best friends. Emma lives in a nice bit of town, but the three have been friends forever.

Although the children have received numerous warnings about the dangers of the Gila River, including the recent drowning of a girl about their age, it's one of the few places they can hang out undisturbed. It's also hard to take the La Llorona ghost stories seriously. Pao is too rational to believe the distraught ghost of a woman who drowned her children is still drowning children from beyond the veil.

When Emma goes missing, either drowned or kidnapped, the novel goes into high gear. It doesn't matter how rational Pao and Dante are, all the stories their families have told them are true and now they're sent to the liminal space along the river to rescue their friend.

Paola Santiago and the River of Tears is steeped in Latinx folklore. Tehlor Kay Mejia uses Spanish terms but doesn't define them, outside of context clues. It's an effective narrative choice to show how removed Pao and Dante are from their families' culture and language.

The quest to rescue Emma takes the novel into the road narrative spectrum. Although Pao and Dante travel together neither one gets any closer to finding her when they are working together. It's only after Pao is separated from Dante that the true journey begins. Pao on her own is an orphan traveler (FF).

The destination is somewhere on el otro lado. It's described as a veil and a void. It's not given a proper name and no one who has access to it wants to particularly give away any information. While it's not Oz, it is utopia, namely a no-place (FF).

Although this novel is set in the outskirts of Gila Bend, Arizona, along the Gila River, the route is the cornfield (FF). More specifically it's a tkaranto, with cacti standing in for the trees at the water's edge.

All together, this novel can be summarized as an orphan traveler going to utopia via the cornfield to rescue her friends (FFFFFF).

The next novel is Paola Santiago and the Forest of Nightmares (May 2021).

Five stars

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