Paola Santiago and the River of Tears: Paola Santiago, Book 1

Book review by
Andrea Beach, Common Sense Media
Paola Santiago and the River of Tears: Paola Santiago, Book 1 Book Poster Image
Spine-tingling excitement in folktale-inspired fantasy.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Some facts on lots of different topics, like how exactly pesticide runoff harms fish in rivers, uses for algae, what can make swimming in rivers dangerous. Some words and phrases in Spanish, some defined and some with context clues. Offers insight, inspires empathy for people who encounter prejudice and stereotyping, especially from authority figures. Lots of creatures and figures from Latinx folklore, especially Mexican folklore.

Positive Messages

Forgiveness and letting go of past mistakes are powerful healing forces. You especially have to forgive your own mistakes (you're still growing and learning). People and things change and life is full of uncertainty, but that's OK. You can deal with them if you stop worrying about how things should be and deal with them as they are. Home isn't a place but a feeling you carry with you that can be a source of comfort and strength even when you can't get back to it. Scientists have to be open to all kinds of possibilities, especially ones that seem impossible.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Paola is a positive Latinx role model. She's smart, very science-oriented, models perseverance and clever problem-solving. Dante's also a positive Latinx role model who likes to try new things. He enjoys being the hero but tends to assume that his female friends need protection and rescue. Both model strong bonds of friendship and loyalty. Most other characters provide strong Latinx representation through a wide variety of personalities and behavior.

Violence

Lots of scary monsters and figures from folklore. Creepy atmosphere. Except for a couple of "schoolyard scuffles," all violence is in fantasy realm. Characters are frequently in peril from nightmarish monsters. No gore, but blood is mentioned a couple of times from accidents; pain described briefly. In fantasy realm, a room absorbs someone's energy by absorbing their blood dripping onto the floor. Large battles with fantasy creatures include fantasy weapons like clubs and knives that make creatures shatter or dissolve. Characters are several times in danger of being dragged off by monsters, especially to the river to drown. Major plot element includes folklore story about a woman who drowned her three children and then went mad with grief.

Sex

Paola is starting to notice romantic feelings for Dante, especially when they touch accidentally or incidentally like bumping elbows. She mentions "boy-girl weirdness" a few times. One kiss on the cheek.

Language

"Crappy" and "butt."

Consumerism

Several types of candy, with a prominent use of Starburst. Coke, PlayStation, and 7-Eleven mentioned.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Paola Santiago and the River of Tears, by Tehlor Kay Mejia (We Set the Dark on Fire), is a folklore-based fantasy with lots of nightmarish monsters and kids in danger of being dragged away by them. There's no gore, but blood is mentioned a few times, and in the fantasy realm kids fight large-scale monster attacks and explore creepy, spooky locations. Separation from parents is also a prominent theme. Paola, her friends, and family are positive Latinx representations. Overall, the story emphasizes strong bonds of friendship and family, perseverance, and dealing with life's big changes. Institutional racism comes up when Paola deals with a deputy sheriff. She also mentions kids and parents separated at the border by immigration officials. Neither topic is dealt with in detail, but it's a good opportunity to talk with your kids about these issues. Other big issues include a folktale figure who killed her children (La Llorona), children of unmarried parents being "sins," and an unmarried mother shunned by small-town society. 

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What's the story?

PAOLA SANTIAGO AND THE RIVER OF TEARS is the story of Paola and her two best friends, who are going to be in seventh grade this fall. When Paola's friend Emma goes missing, Paola and Dante are determined to keep looking until they find her. Along the way they'll have to face chupacabras, disembodied hands that want to drag them into the river, ghosts, and even La Llorona (the Weeping Woman) herself. Paola will also have to learn when to rely on facts and science, when to trust the folk wisdom passed along through generations, and when the best solutions rely on both science and folklore.

Is it any good?

This exciting fantasy series kickoff brings the chills and thrills you'd expect from a story based on the legend of La Llorona, and it has a refreshing Latinx smart girl as a main character. Paola's not perfect, and she's got a lot to learn, but that's what makes her easy for young readers to relate to. The action, spooky atmospheres, and spine-tingling fantasy-folklore creatures keep the pages turning. Author Tehlor Kay Mejia also thoroughly grounds the story in the present by bringing up important issues without getting preachy or bogging the story down.

Sometimes it gets a little frustrating when the characters take too long to reach the obvious solution, but it's a minor flaw and one that readers on the younger side probably won't notice. Nightmarish fantasy creatures and themes of being separated from parents make it best for big kids and up.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the scary monsters in Paola Santiago and the River of Tears. Why do we sometimes have fun being scared? What do you do to feel better when things get too scary?

  • Are Paola and Dante positive role models? What do you like, or not like, about them? Which character do you think is most like you?

  • Why is it important to read books, watch movies, or play games with diverse characters? How do you feel when you see people like you in stories you read or watch? What do you learn from characters who aren't like you?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love fantasy and Latinx stories

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