With Paola Santiago and the River of Tears almost upon us, Uncle Rick posed some questions to author Tehlor Kay Mejia to learn more about the next adventure from Rick Riordan Presents. They go deep about her interest in the legend of La Llorona, treatment of women in myth and folk stories, and stories for and about Latinx people. Oh, and also whether she’s ever seen a ghost! (Spoiler alert: she has!)
RICK: I spent my childhood in South Texas and grew up on the story of La Llorona. It gave me many a sleepless night when we camped by the river! Tell us a little about this folktale and why you decided to adapt it.
I wanted to dig really deep into the infamous La Llorona and see what I could find there to make her really human. . .
TEHLOR: I’ve always been fascinated by the ways women are dehumanized in folklore and myth across cultures. Of course, these tales are bone-chilling and good for a scare, and maybe they’re even true! But they also have roots in times before feminism, when women were deemed witches and demons and devils just for being themselves. I’m a little like Paola, in that I like to dig into the things that scare me and try to discover the source of their power, so I wanted to dig really deep into the infamous La Llorona and see what I could find there to make her really human, and maybe a little relatable, even if I couldn’t make her less nightmarish.
RICK: I’ve always enjoyed a good ghost story. Do you think it’s important for kids to be exposed to scary things?
TEHLOR: I do! I believe that we find our first tests of our character in the things that scare us as kids. There’s a lot to be afraid of in Pao’s world, and a lot to learn about herself in the way she responds to those things. Whether it’s a demon or a ghost, a prejudiced police officer or an overdue bill, Pao is most her true self when she’s up against something scary—and I think a lot of us are the same way.
RICK: Have you ever encountered a ghost in real life?
TEHLOR: Absolutely. There was a ghost in my own abuela’s backyard that used to leave my cousin and me messages in the summer-dry grass in the backyard. We’d watched a few too many episodes of Sightings as kids and mistook it for an alien for a long time, but eventually we learned the truth. The house was sold just a few years ago. and sometimes I’m tempted to go ask the family living there if the ghost is still around, or if it moved on when we did.
RICK: Speaking of scary things, in this book you don’t shy away from portraying some of the challenges Latinx people face. Could you talk a little about that and the decisions that went into it?
TEHLOR: For me, there was never really a choice about whether to portray these things in Pao’s story. Sure, we’re tackling myths and legends, but there are threats to our communities that are just as scary as any ghost. It didn’t seem fair to Mexican-American kids (who I hope will find something of themselves in Pao) to discount their real-life bravery by omitting the obstacles they overcome every day. I also thought it was important to show that there’s joy and mystery and fun in belonging to this community, not just the pain and stereotypes you often see in the media. You don’t have to pretend the obstacles we face aren’t real to show what’s beautiful about our culture. They exist together, just like they do in life.
RICK: Another theme in the book is science vs. the supernatural. Are you more like space-obsessed Paola or her tarot-card-reading mom?
TEHLOR: I’m the tarot-reading mom all the way! I believe in science when it comes to, say, wearing a mask to prevent disease spread or staying up to date on life-saving vaccinations, but I have shelves of cards and stones and candles that I believe in just as fiercely.
RICK: So I know your book is just coming out, but I wonder if you could give us a preview of what’s coming next for Pao in Book Two . . .
TEHLOR: Let’s just say Pao’s mom isn’t her only parent . . . and her dad has been long-absent for a different reason than Pao thought. There’s also a showdown with a fantasma in the past, a child-hitchhiker in bright red pajamas, the last betrayal Pao would ever have expected, and a very weird rest stop vending machine, not necessarily in that order . .
RICK: Ooh, that sounds really intriguing! I can’t wait to read it. In the meantime, I hope everyone enjoys Paola Santiago and the River of Tears as much as I did. Remember, folks, DON’T GO NEAR THE RIVER!