Interview with Author Kaela Rivera

One of my favorite spooky reads of the year is CECE RIOS AND THE DESERT OF SOULS by Kaela Rivera. It blends Latinx mythology and folklore with a heartwarming story about a young girl who must risk everything to save her sister from the terrifying El Sombrerón.

Living in the remote town of Tierra del Sol is dangerous, especially in the criatura months, when powerful spirits roam the desert and threaten humankind. But Cecelia Rios has always believed there was more to the criaturas, much to her family’s disapproval. After all, only brujas—humans who capture and control criaturas—consort with the spirits, and brujeria is a terrible crime.
When her older sister, Juana, is kidnapped by El Sombrerón, a powerful dark criatura, Cece is determined to bring Juana back. To get into Devil’s Alley, though, she’ll have to become a bruja herself—while hiding her quest from her parents, her town, and the other brujas. Thankfully, the legendary criatura Coyote has a soft spot for humans and agrees to help her on her journey.
With him at her side, Cece sets out to reunite her family—and maybe even change what it means to be a bruja along the way.

Author Kaela Rivera was kind enough to answer some of my most burning questions about her fantastic book.

TANIA: Hi Kaela! One of the things I loved most about reading CECE was recognizing some spooky and familiar characters from Latinx folklore like El Cucuy and La Llororna! Could you talk a bit about the research and inspiration that went into your rich worldbuilding of Cece’s world? 

KAELA: Sure thing! For inspiration, I leaned heavily into the stories my abuelo told me about growing up in Mexico when he was a kid and preteen. For research, I used the Mexican Beastiary by David Bowles, researched heavily on the internet (which led to a lot of weird, obscure findings about geology and maps of quarries that are barely even talked about in the book), and some of my own ideas, of course, to put spins on traditional stories.

TANIA: A big theme in CECE is familia. Both the ties to the family you were born into as well as the family you create as you become more independent. In your book Cece decides to train to become a bruja so she can rescue her sister from El Sombrerón. This independence leads to some rifts between her relationship with her parents, as well as the discovery of a new family with the criaturas she befriends along the way. Were you a lot like Cece when you were her age and what does familia mean to you?

KAELA: Honestly, Cece is who I want to be when I grow up. As a kid, I definitely had big feelings like Cece and didn’t feel safe expressing them. I often doubted my value, just like she does, and felt unsafe. But Cece chooses to stay vulnerable and kind—while fighting for what’s right. She doesn’t sacrifice one for the other. That’s what I want to do, and who I feel I can be, but it’s a journey to get there I could gush about my little emotionally intelligent girl all day, haha, so I’ll wrap it up there!

Familia, to me, is the building block of life. It’s the first protective community you’re given, the first one you’re a part of, the first place where you’re meant to flourish and grow and develop. I believe whole-heartedly in that ideal. And that’s also why it’s so painful and frightening when a familia doesn’t live up to that ideal. People’s choices can turn the most precious, sacred, safe place in life into a frightening, unsafe place—which is so opposite to its proper nature.

In CECE, I wanted to explore and address how that can feel for children—getting a mixture of love and protection, as well as apathy or even hostility. Every familia, like every person, comes with good and bad. It’s about what you choose to grow and foster, and as Cece chooses her friends and to embrace her strengths and good qualities, so her familia will have to learn to choose where they stand as well. I’m excited about exploring that more in the sequel. More on that later!

TANIA: Your book is one of the spookiest books I’ve read this year, especially when Cece ventures into the world of brujas and criaturas! Why do you think it’s important that kids read about scary things?

KAELA: Haha thank you! I find scary kids’ books important because, honestly, kids go through scary things. I think scary stories can help address the fear kids carry around and don’t know what to do with. It shows them that everyone faces horrors. And perhaps most importantly to me, it shows them that, when they are afraid and surrounded by frightening things, action can be taken, dragons can be slayed, and hope still lives. Because of the sheer power of contrast, I think scary stories actually help emphasize joy, hope, courage, and goodness. And that’s an empowering thing, at the end of the day.

TANIA: In addition to folkloric scary things like brujas and criaturas, you also touch on some real-life fears surrounding alcoholism and abduction/non-consent. I thought you handled these very skillfully for a middle-grade audience. Can you speak a bit more on your experiences and challenges in writing for young readers in general? What led you to writing middle-grade as opposed to YA or adult?

KAELA: This is kind of a funny story, despite the heaviness of the topic. So originally, CECE was a YA novel! I hesitated when my publisher said they wanted to buy it—but as an MG book. At its core, CECE’s themes very much center on abuse as well as kindness (to speak to that necessity of contrast I mentioned earlier), and I didn’t want to lose that. But after a discussion with my editor, they were supportive of me retaining those themes while stepping back some of the more—ahem, gory—details. I’d always wanted to write MG, though, so I just got to do it sooner than I’d expected!

And honestly, I’m glad. I think that CECE addresses a lot of things I needed to hear when I was that age—about how life is frightening and painful, just as it is beautiful and hopeful. That’s probably my favorite thing about writing middle-grade generally, actually. For some reason, there’s more room to let those both live together in the same space—heartbreak and healing, joy and pain, magic and fear—in MG than in older audience spaces, or that’s been my experience. And I love the wholeness of that.

TANIA: If you could pick one criatura to be your own personal companion, who would you pick and why?

KAELA: I wish I could pick any of CECE’s main crew—Coyote, Little Lion, Kit Fox, and Ocelot—because I love them all in their many different ways! But if I have to pick, I’d probably want Coyote to be my companion. Is it because I have a big soft spot for him because it took so long to nail down his character, or because he’s powerful, or because he’s willing to fight his inner demons to have your back? Probably all of that and more.

TANIA: I’m so excited to hear there will be a sequel to CECE. What can you tell us about it now?

KAELA: Oooooh, me too! Thank you! Well, first off, it’ll be out Fall 2022. So soon! And all of this is technically subject to change, but just to whet your appetite a bit . . . . In CECE 2 (official title pending), I’ll be taking readers into Devil’s Alley for a heist, revealing more about Juana’s time there, and delving into the long-forgotten secrets of the curanderas with Cece! Plus, you may even get to meet Tía Catrina in person.

You might be able to tell that I’m just, you know, a tad excited for readers to see how much worldbuilding and adventure is coming next! Ahem. Just a little.

TANIA: Anything else you’d like to share with our spooky readers? Where can they connect with you online?

KAELA: Well, CECE will also have a third book (Fall 2023)! I’ve emphasized the sequel mainly, but I’m also excited for the third one to wrap up this main adventure in Cece’s world.

Besides that, you can get more updates on the sequel and third book if you subscribe to my newsletter (sign up on the home page of my website, kaelarivera.com)! I also run giveaways and offer free perks through my newsletter, so it’s not a bad place to hang out. Otherwise, you can find me on Instagram or Twitter!

TANIA: Thank you so much, Kaela! I hope all our Spooky Middle Grade readers check out your wonderful series!

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