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!

Interview with Tania del Rio, Author of The Thirteen-Year Curse

Today I’m thrilled to chat with Tania del Rio, author of the Warren the 13th series! Her latest book, The Thirteen-Year Curse, releases today!!! You can also check out an interview with Tania on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/spookymiddlegrade/. Watch it live 3.24.2020 at 1 PDT or visit our page to view the recording.

Let’s dive right in. What should new readers know about the world of Warren the 13th?

The Warren the 13th series is about a hardworking boy who is the lone bellhop, fixer-upper, concierge, maid service, and manager of his family’s ancient hotel. He does it all, with no thanks to his lazy uncle and evil aunt, who may or may not be a witch. Warren starts off the series as a lonely boy who is trying to honor the memory of his dead father but through the course of his adventures he gains new friends—and enemies—and unlocks some surprising mysteries about his beloved hotel!

What should readers expect in this latest volume? Can you give us any scintillating details w/out spoilers?

It’s tough to say too much without spoiling anything, but I can say Warren’s adventures take him to uncharted territory upon the open seas. His beloved pet and best pal, Sketchy, is kidnapped and Warren must solve riddles and clues if he has any hope of rescuing his friend. Along the way he’ll contend with ornery pirates, sea witches, and circus clowns—not to mention an enormous beast known as The Great Eight!

What has been the best part of working on Warren the 13th?

I love the zany cast of characters and seeing where Warren’s adventures take him. Even though I work from a detailed outline, as I write new surprises often pop up and I find myself adding things in I’d never expect. Also, collaborating with Will Staehle, the designer and illustrator of the book, is a lot of fun.

Tell me more about the illustrator. You’re also known for your amazing illustrations, so how did that partnership work?

Will and I have known each other since we were freshmen in art school, many years ago! We’ve had a lot of creative collaborations over the years, including creating a small press comic company, and editing a tutorial book on manga style art. Will originally conceived of the character of Warren in art school and shared the concept with me. I actually wrote the earliest draft of Warren’s story back in 2004! So it’s been a very long process bringing it to shelves. Even though I am also an illustrator, Will’s incredible design sense and his unique style is the only way Warren could ever be brought to life. My own art style just wouldn’t work for this project.

What are you working on next?

I’m currently working on a new middle grade adventure that is best described as Latinx Sailor Moon meets Coco. It’s about three friends who end up in a darkened world populated by alebrijes, colorful and folkloric animals. The girls must band together to restore the sun and find their way home, before all is lost.

How can readers get in touch?

I can be reached on Twitter, @taniadelrio and Instagram, @taniadelrioauthor. I absolutely love hearing from my readers, so please visit me online!

Tania Del Rio is a professional comic book writer and artist who has spent the past 10 years writing and illustrating, primarily for a young audience. Her clients include Archie Comics, Dark Horse, and Marvel; she is best known for her work writing and drawing the 42-issue run of Sabrina the Teenage Witch. She is also the author of the WARREN THE 13TH series published by Quirk Books. She lives in Los Angeles. Visit her online at http://taniadelrio.blogspot.com/.

Spooky Writing Tips for Kids

This week, I asked three spooky middle grade authors to share their favorite writing tips for kids. Hopefully these quick tips will help add that extra dash of creepy to your next terrifying tale.

S.A. LARSEN

Use all five senses when writing your scenes. But don’t stress about it. Just close your eyes and imagine what your character smells, feels or comes in contact with through touch. Reach your character’s arms out to let an imaginary breeze sweep along their skin. Have your character take a deep breath and almost taste the dying moss clinging to the trees. Playing with the senses from a creepy point-of-view is so fun in spooky stories!

SAMANTHA CLARK

Keep up the intrigue by dripping details into a scene, each one getting scarier than the last. And don’t forget to use all the senses. Maybe first they hear a howl in the distance. Then smell something dark and musty. Then feel drool drip down their neck…

CYNTHIA REEG

To help me get in the spooky mood for writing my monster stories, I brainstorm creepy vocabulary words before I start writing. Divide a paper into categories for the 5 senses–Sight, Sound, Smell, Taste, Touch. See how many words you can think of for each sense. Even if you don’t use each of these words in your story, it will help set the tone for your writing. Scary on!

Thanks Spookies!!! I hope these tips help you add a little bite to your spooky story repertoire.

 

Spooky Stories All Year Round

There are many different types of spooky stories. Some feature humor, adventure and straight-up chills, while others explore sensitive topics and tug at readers’ emotions. No  matter what type of story you love, spooky books have a place in the classroom, library and beyond all year round, not just at Halloween. To delve deeper into this topic I spoke to some of today’s foremost authors of middle grade spooky stories.

Jan Eldredge

Why do you write spooky stories?
I guess I write spooky stories for the same reason I love to read them. They allow us an escape to dangerous, exciting worlds, worlds that we get to explore from the comfort of our safe, everyday lives.

Why are spooky stories important all year round?
Spooky stories are chock full of benefits, particularly for young readers! Reading about young protagonists defeating evil can be very empowering for children. Spooky stories can also provide safe ways for kids to explore fear and experience a sense of danger, sort of like trying on a costume to see what it feels like to be someone else for a while. Spooky stories are great reminders that our boring lives aren’t quite so bad after all.

S.A. Larsen

Why do you write spooky stories?
For me, spooky stories are like passageways into the unknown and the misunderstood, mysteries that keep me on the edge of my seat. I’ve always been curious about the great beyond and the aspects of life we can’t see – like what really goes on inside a cemetery when none of the living are watching. Writing spooky tales with otherworldly or ghostly elements gives me the freedom to explore life themes such as the importance of family, self-esteem and confidence, and friendship in new and unexpected ways for young readers.

Why are spooky stories important all year round?
Tales with spooky and eerie elements explore the same important life struggles, hopes, dreams, and challenges that contemporary stories do. They also help kids see that fear is a part of life – fear of change, fear of a new school, fear of taking a test – and helps them see and workout solutions to overcoming fear. These are universal emotions and challenges that can be discussed throughout the year. The possibilities are endless!

Janet Fox

Why do you write spooky stories?
Really, the spooky part of THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE was accidental! My original idea was more mystery/fantasy, but as I wrote the antagonist she became darker and darker and more nuanced for it. And the darkness of the antagonist reflected something in my own mood, something I needed to sort through. But my son said something recently that was inspired in this regard. He said that he loves dark, spooky stories because that one tiny glimmer of hope within the darkness – even if it’s just a candle – can feel like a brilliant light. And I thought, yes. That’s what I like, too. Magnifying the light in the darkness or the happiness within the spookiness. That’s the secret.

Why are spooky stories important all year round?
I would say that’s why spooky stories are always in season – they offer that recognition that hope flickers brilliantly in the dark.

Samantha M. Clark

Why do you write spooky stories?
I get scared easily when I’m reading spooky stories, but I still love them. Spooky stories get my blood pumping, and I need to know if everything’s going to end safely. When it does, it helps me know that when I’m scared in real life, everything can be okay. So when there’s an opportunity to put some spookiness into my own stories, I jump at the chance. Getting scared can be fun, especially when we know we can always close the book if we need a break.

Why are spooky stories important all year round?
Halloween is, of course, when we celebrate spooky stories the most, but reading spooky stories is fun and good for us at any time. They remind us that it’s okay to be scared, and show us that we can be brave just like the characters in the stories. Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.'” And with spooky stories, we can build courage and confidence safely while facing our fears within the pages of the books and with the characters as our guides and companions. Spooky stories help us grow, and that’s a good thing every day.

Jonathan Rosen

Why do you write spooky stories?
I’ve always loved spooky stories. Much more so than horror. I like the creepiness factor of the unknown. What’s there lurking in the shadows? The mystery, to me, is much scarier and interesting, than having the monster actually appear on the stage. Why is the ghost there? What’s the story behind it? How was that monster created? I loved these stories as a kid, and always felt fascinated by them. I like to write to my younger self and kids who were like me.

Why are spooky stories important all year round?
There is no bad time to read scary stories. Yeah, they’re much better to read at Halloween time, but the kids who love them, don’t want to be relegated to one season a year for books. Kids like to be scared, to a degree, but then they know they can put the books away. They’re safe again. I also read a long time ago, and it’s true, spooky stories give kids the consequences of not following rules. Your Mogwai will turn to a Gremlin if you don’t follow them. Your vampire neighbor can get in your house, if you don’t follow the rule about not inviting him in. Spooky stories also open the mind to think of different possibilities. I know when I read them, I always went searching for more. More stories about the subject. I wanted to read about haunted places. The times when the ghosts came from. I think reading leads to more reading.

Kim Ventrella

Why do you write spooky stories?
I have always been interested in the intersection of darkness and whimsy. I love the space where macabre tales meet deeply-felt emotions and discoveries. Adding a spooky element allows me to explore difficult real-life topics in a way that I find more palatable and easier to understand.

Why are spooky stories important all year round?
Spooky stories aren’t just about Halloween. They’re about exploring the mysterious all around us, searching for new possibilities, confronting our deepest fears and stepping out into the darkness to find that courage and resilience that resides within us all.