Welcome to Fast Forward Friday, Kaela! I’m so glad you have a chance to chat about your upcoming MG debut, CECE RIOS AND THE DESERT OF SOULS, which will be released on April 13th by HarperCollins. I recently had a chance to read it, and loved how original and unique this story felt to me. Can you give us a brief summary of it, please?
So glad to be here, Kathie! Thank you for having me.
Okay, here we go: CECE RIOS AND THE DESERT OF SOULS follows Cece, a twelve-year-old girl who everyone in her town of Tierra del Sol thinks is cursed with weakness because she once saved a criatura, a spirit of the desert who her people hate. But one day, a dark criatura named El Sombreron the Bride Stealer kidnaps her older, fiery sister, Juana. Cece’s fear turns to determination as she sets off to do the impossible–become a bruja, a witch who controls criatura souls–to rescue her sister. Along the way, she finds allies in powerful criaturas like Coyote, Lion, Kit, and Ocelot who help her through the Bruja Tournament’s fighting rounds and eventually help her see her own strength. And as Cece offers them kindness instead of treating them cruelly like brujas usually do, they begin to trust her and heal from their past pains as well. Together, they’ll have to face off with the dreaded El Sombreron to save Cece’s sister–before the Bride Stealer can end them first.
You mention that the inspiration for this book came from the stories that your abuelo told you when you were young. Did you have a favorite story or criatura growing up?
Actually, I didn’t get to hear my Abuelo’s stories until I was inching toward adulthood because we lived so far apart when I was a kid. But they influenced me very powerfully once I had the chance to listen to his wealth of experience and knowledge. I’d been craving it for years!
My top favorite legend he told me about is probably La Llorona! She’s a classic, incredibly spooky, haunting, part of Mexican folklore that still gives me chills. And my abuelo told me a unique story about her–when his father saw her one night beneath the full moon.
My abuelo’s father was travelling by a river at night. He’d been on a long journey with his burro, and he was heading home through a narrow valley between the cerros (mountains), following a rough path that lined the river. As he walked, light caught on something in his peripherals, and he saw the slim edge of someone standing in the river. It was a ghostly white color, and my great-abuelo knew that it could only be La Llorona.
But there’s one trick my abuelo said our familia grew up knowing–if you don’t look at scary things like La Llorona, they can’t get you. So my great-abuelo held his breath and kept his eyes forward. For miles, he could see her ghostly white line out of his peripherals, following him.
Finally, at the end of the Valley, he couldn’t take it anymore. He turned and looked. But she’d disappeared. There was no sign of her at all.
After a minute, he realized he’d been seeing the string that held his straw hat on his head, where it caught the moonlight!
I went from shivering to laughing throughout this story, and my abuelo laughed too. To this day, it’s one of my favorite stories of his, and probably my favorite one about the legends I’ve included as criaturas in CECE.
I loved Cece as the younger sibling who wishes she could be more like her older sister, Juana. Did you ever consider writing this story from Juana’s perspective?
I never considered writing this particular adventure from Juana’s perspective, but there was once a draft where Cece was the older sibling. There were a lot of reasons for the change, but I’m happy with how it came out. Not a lot of people talk about it, but younger siblings can feel protective over–while simultaneously feeling like they have to live up to–their older sibling. As a middle child, I’ve definitely felt that before.
I really enjoyed learning about a setting, culture, and traditions so different from my own, and that’s a reason I would pick up this book. I’d love to know what you would say to a young reader standing with your book in their hand in a bookstore, trying to decide if they should buy it?
I’m so glad you enjoyed stepping into my culture! As for a kid in the bookstore? First off, my heart would probably be hammering so hard with excitement at seeing my book in a reader’s hands that I’d have a hard time talking to them. But I believe in doing hard things! So I think I’d want to say, “Have you ever felt like you’re not enough? So does the girl in this book. But she finds out by going on a terrifying, fast-paced adventure to protect someone she loves that she was always more than enough. She just had to figure out what her strengths were and be brave enough to use them. And of course, she needed to find friends who would fight alongside her. Everyone needs that on their adventures.”
As an adult reader, I really loved Cece’s determination to remain faithful to who she was rather than becoming a bruja to reach her goal. What do you hope young readers take away from your story?
I want readers to know that Cece’s kind heart was always a strength, even when no one (including herself) could see it. Being kind is one of the most difficult things in the world–it takes warriors to be empathetic and loving while still tackling all the hardships in life. You don’t have to be either strong and cruel or weak and gentle. You can be both strong and gentle. Those two qualities belong together, and you’ll find where they fit together in you if you look. Don’t be afraid. You’re your own main character.
What is one of the most surprising things about your publishing journey so far?
There have been so many things that I didn’t expect along the way, but I think the most interesting twist that I hadn’t anticipated–but ended up loving later–was making CECE into a middle-grade novel. At first, it was a young adult novel, but during acquisition discussions Harper proposed I age it down. That big of a change caught me completely by surprise, but it didn’t take long for me to fall in love with the idea. Middle grade has always had a special place in my heart, and I’d always wanted to write MG novels. I just got to do it sooner than I expected!
Can you tell us where to find out more about you and your writing, please?
Sure! You can head over to kaelarivera.com, my author website, to find ways to contact me, check out my books and upcoming events, or just cruise through my art and writing projects. If you want to stay up-to-date on my publishing journey, check out my Twitter (@Kaela_Rivera), and if you want behind-the-scenes goodies and sneak-peeks about my books, check out my Instagram (@kaelacub).
I’ll be excited to see you!
Thank you so much for joining me today, Kaela. I hope your book will find many young readers who enjoy reading about Cece as much as I did.
Thank you so much for having me, Kathie. Your questions were insightful, and it’s been wonderful sharing more about Cece’s journey.
Kaela Rivera was raised to believe in will-o’-the-wisps and el chupacabra, but even ghost stories couldn’t stop her from reading in the isolated treetops, caves, and creeks of Tennessee’s Appalachian forests.
She still believes in the folktales of her Mexican-American and British parents, but now she writes about them from the adventure-filled mountains of the Wild West. When she’s not crafting stories, she’s using her English degree from BYU-I as an editor for a marketing company (or secretly doodling her characters in the margins of her notebook). Her debut novel, Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls, comes out April 13, 2021.
Her biggest hope is to highlight and explore the beauty of cultural differences—and how sharing those differences can bring us all closer.