In Tehlor Kay Mejia's compelling Paola Santiago and the River of Tears, the title character is a precocious tween who eschews her single mother's beliefs in the supernatural for the fact-filled certainty of science.
Paola is part of an inseparable trio that includes the more affluent Emma Lockwood and Dante Mata, her next-door neighbor and possible crush. When Emma misses their stargazing meet-up at the Gila River one evening and the authorities don't take their hunch that something's wrong seriously, Paola and Dante resolve to find her in the Arizona desert. Things start to get weird when Dante's grandmother arms them with a magical chancla (house slipper), shopping bag and Florida water. One by one, Paola comes face to face with all of the legends that her overprotective but flighty mother had taught her about--chupacabras, La Mano Pachona and La Llorona herself, the ghost of a woman who murdered her children and was cursed to wander the riverbanks for eternity in search of their bodies and looking for her next victim.
Mejia imbues her middle-grade debut with vulnerability and fierceness--Paola is an often angry girl who bucks up against her mother's traditions. The author adeptly showcases not only details about Mexican American culture, but also weaves in the protagonist's love for science and problem-solving. Clever chapter headings add humor in between harrowing scenes, and duplicitous characters will keep readers guessing whom to trust. Love is the saving grace here. Paola's love for her friends is key to her survival. But a mother's love--in all of its fierceness and fury--is what drives the narrative forward. --Shelley Diaz, supervising librarian, BookOps: New York Public Library & Brooklyn Public Library