In Lotería (Knopf Books For Young Readers, Sept. 7, 2021), written by Karla Arenas Valenti, and illustrated by Dana Sanmar, Life and Death (who prefers to be called La Catrina) walk into Oaxaca City, Mexico, for their annual game of la Lotería, a traditional game of chance (similar to bingo) played with a special deck of cards with colorfully illustrated images. Before the game can begin, a child must be chosen by chance (or by destiny?) to be the pawn. If Life wins the game, the child will have a long and prosperous life. If Death wins, she will claim the child. If neither win, these old friends will never meet again.
In steps Clara, an 11-year-old girl who is extraordinarily ordinary. Unlike the rest of her family, she has no special talents. And unbeknownst to her, Fate has chosen Clara to be the pawn in Life and Death’s game. The cards dealt will determine the twists and turns she must face, including an ancient tree, a patient scorpion, a fateful arrow, a white deer, and a deceitful rose.
When her young cousin, Esteban, disappears into the mythical Kingdom of Las Poza, Clara knows she must do everything in her power to save him, regardless of the consequences. While Clara doesn’t have any special talents, it is her loyalty, kind heart, and determination that make her a true hero.
Throughout the book, Life and Death debate whether we are governed by free will or if everything is predestined, leaving the reader with many important questions to ponder. And even if Clara’s destiny is predetermined, she still has the choice of what to do with that fate, right?
Initially, it seems that Life and Death are cruel to play a game in which the fate of a child is held in the balance. But as the story progresses, both Life and Death show compassion and kindness, making surprising choices (free will?) outside the rules of the game.
I listened to this book while working in the garden, with tears streaming down my face – not because the ending was sad, but because the story was so beautiful and heartfelt. The next day, I listened to the entire book again (something I never do). And yes, I cried again. There is so much depth to this debut middle grade novel that one read was simply not enough.
Was it destiny that lead me to Lotería? I think so. Last month, Politics and Prose Bookstore presented a panel of Latinx children’s book authors. They discussed the use of Mexican history and folklore in their middle grade novels and the importance of diverse literature for young readers. I signed up to watch this virtual panel mostly because Pam Muñoz Ryan was talking about her book Mañanaland (Scholastic Mar. 3, 2020) and the Spanish edition (Scholastic en español Sept. 1, 2020). I love all her books!
I had not heard of the other authors, but as they talked, I became interested in their books as well. Luckily, Lotería was available on Overdrive through my local library. Also on the panel was Alda P. Dobbs, author of Barefoot Dreams of Petra Luna (Sourcebooks Sept. 14, 2021) which tells the story of a 12-year-old girl during the Mexican Revolution. I just picked up a copy from the library, and it is at the top of my stack of books to read!
The panel was moderated by David Bowles, author of the new picture book My Two Border Towns and Mis dos pueblos fronterizos (Kokil Sept. 14, 2021). Yes, this book is on order at my library, and I’m on the wait list!
Accessibility of author/illustrator events is one good thing that has come out of the pandemic. I encourage every reader to sign up/follow independent bookstores to check out the many virtual opportunities! Go to my list of favorite independent bookstores to get started.