Welcome to Kicking Back with Kick-butt!
Today we’re chatting with Kaela Rivera, the author of
CECE RIOS AND THE DESERT OF SOULS
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.
Let’s talk to this terrific author about her splendid book!
This is Kaela. Everyone say, “Hi, Kaela!”
Welcome to Kick-Butt Kidlit, Kaela! Why don’t we start with some introductions – tell us about yourself!
Hi, everyone! Thanks for having me. So, I’m Kaela Rivera, author of CECE RIOS AND THE DESERT OF SOULS, and daughter of Mexican-American and British parents. I’ve been a myth, legend, and overall fantasy nerd since I was a child. I started out on books my Nan in England sent me on Celtic and Norse mythology and eventually hunted down more obscure legends and stories from the Americas that I also adore. Growing up, I hunted the woods by my home with a wooden bow and arrow I’d made myself, hoping to find a fantastic adventure. When I grew up, I decided to write them into existence instead.
What was the inspiration behind CECE RIOS AND THE DESERT OF SOULS?
CECE was inspired by a couple things intersecting at just the right time in my life, around the end of 2016 and early 2017. I’d recently reconnected with my Mexican side of my family, and my abuelo’s stories of growing up in northern Mexico in the 1920s-1930s really inspired me and helped me feel connected to that part of my culture. At the same time, I’d been mulling over an idea–how would we treat people if we could physically hold their souls in our hands?–and I suddenly realized I could pair the two together in a sister-rescue adventure that could double as a love letter to my abuelo’s stories. Soon enough, the earliest draft of CECE was born.
We love hearing stories about ‘The Call’ here on Kick-butt Kidlit. What were you doing when you found out your book had sold?
Hah! Great question–it’s kind of a funny story. I was at my day job, editing marketing copy like I do, and it was about lunch time. I saw my agent’s call pop up on my phone and dashed to the nearest windowed stairwell (with a wonderful view of a lake, I might add) because I knew we were waiting to hear back about how acquisitions went. I held my breath and accepted the call. It was good news–I started gasping as my agent, Serene, told me the acquisitions loved it and wanted to make an offer–but a caveat quickly followed.
See, originally, CECE RIOS AND THE DESERT OF SOULS was written as a YA. And the HarperChildren’s team loved the story, but they thought they could sell it better in the MG fantasy market. So my agent proposed to me their idea. That quickly sent my excited mind sideways into deliberation mode. I’d always wanted to write middle grade books (and had already written a few), but I had thought publishing one would be farther into the future, and I’d never changed a book from one age group to another like that before. My agent gave me a couple days to think about it, and my editor and I had a call soon thereafter to talk about what MG changes would look like. Fortunately, we landed on a great place, and I started to get excited about what the MG version of CECE would look like.
So once I accepted, HarperChildren’s made the official offer for a future-MG version of the book, and then I let myself get excited as the contract was finalized. My mom and I went out to dinner, I had some special chocolate desserts (I almost never get desserts out at dinner restaurants, so I assure you, this was a moment of great luxury), and I soaked in all the excitement I’d been storing up. It was a beautiful day, and a beautiful process, and I’m still immensely grateful for every part.
Oh, wow! What a great story! That sounds like it was an exciting time!
What were three interesting things you discovered while working on CECE RIOS AND THE DESERT OF SOULS?
I learned so many weird and fun facts while researching for Cece’s adventure! Here are some of the most interesting ones I can remember off the top of my head:
1. In case you were wondering, hawks do, in fact, eat chickens. The reasons I had to research that were mostly revised out of the book, but I will always have this mostly useless information in my head now.
2. Most places in the world during the 1920s and 1930s did not have automobiles. In fact, it was really only the USA, England, and a few sparse areas in northwestern Europe that did, and it was only the wealthy who could afford them. So if you’re ever reading historical books set outside the USA during this era, you probably won’t see a lot of the things you associate with the era, like early automobiles, early electric lights, etc.
3. Mariachi outfits are actually glamorized and modernized versions of charro outfits, which were worn by Mexican horseman in the seventeenth century (and the inspiration for a lot of American cowboy styles, too). They were originally outfits born out of necessity because the Spanish ruling class had strict rules about what lower classes were allowed to wear, but they transformed into a symbol of national pride and identity centuries later, around the early 1900s. Cool, right?
If you could transport your characters across book dimensions, which book would you most like them to end up in and why?
My first instinct is to say other books I’ve written because I’d love to see how my main characters all interact together. It would be hilarious! But I realize that’s a little self-indulgent, so I’ll pick something else. It’s hard to narrow down, though! On one hand, I’d love to see how Cece and Coyote got along with Leonora and her sisters from Anna Meriano’s Love, Sugar, Magic series, but then I’d also love to see Cece bond with Eva from Julie Abe’s Eva Evergreen: Semi-Magical Witch because I think the girls would really get each other. I’d even like to see her and her criatura friends interact with characters from a gritty YA because I’d love to see how Cece’s kindness could soften hardened hearts. There are too many fun possibilities!
I guess I’ll just have to satisfy myself with doing a big piece of multi-dimensional fanart depicting Cece hanging out with other witches and brujas.
Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?
While CECE wasn’t initially a middle grade book, I’ve always loved writing middle grade stories because there’s greater room in that age group to capture the beautiful place where hope and hardship live together in people’s hearts. I love keeping magic alive and welcomed, and talking about the difficult things kids have to face. As you grow older, and the books get older alongside you, I’ve always felt like we lose a bit of the wonderful, bright hope, as if we think it’s no longer as realistic. But it is. It brilliantly, bravely, still is. Like C.S. Lewis once said, “some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.” And he was right. There’s just so much room for magic to breathe alongside rough reality, in middle grade books. It’s perfect for the children of that age who deal with difficulty amid their hopes. And I crave that balance even as an adult.
Beautifully said and very true.
Any hints about your next book project?
Why, yes! So imagine–this is just a hint, right?–another adventure in Cece’s world. But this time, into Devil’s Alley, and this time, the secret entrance will close in just a few days, and this time, the true villain hides in the shadows and pulls all the right strings.
I have another project going on, this one a YA, which will center on blood, flower magic, and an Aztec-inspired fantasy kingdom with a thousand-year secret.
What has been the most surprising part of your publishing journey?
Hmm–I think transforming CECE from a YA to an MG was the thing that surprised me the most. At first, I thought I’d have to do the MG revision as a rehaul before HarperChildren’s would make an offer, since they hadn’t read any of my MG work yet. I didn’t know they could just stipulate that in the contract, and I definitely didn’t know they would trust me to do it. But they did, and I did, and I was grateful and excited for the opportunity!
That definitely counts as a pretty big and excellent surprise!
What are you reading right now?
Right now, I’m reading the second book in Anna Meriano’s Love, Sugar Magic series (Loving it! I can’t get enough of the sisters!), an ARC of The Last Windwitch by Jennifer Adams (Storm horses! A hedgewitch! So cool!), and the latest volume of Space Boy by Stephen McCranie (a Sci-fi interstellar love story thriller graphic novel series I can’t say enough good things about).
What’s your favourite piece of kick-butt advice?
Savor good things. That sounds straightforward, but especially in an industry like publishing, we often get distracted by all that needs to be done, stress over our fears and our inadequacies, and get disappointed or exhausted by things outside our control. But there is so much power in gratitude. It’s not always easy, but it’s one of the best ways to take care of yourself–and even to teach yourself to be a better writer. When you take time to savor the good things in your life, or a quiet moment in your present, or all of that and more, you give yourself inspiration fodder. That fodder can be transformed into beautiful writing, like straw into gold, that can then become a good thing someone else savors. So then it grows.
Isn’t that a lovely thing to think about?
Thank you so much for joining us, Kaela!
Kick-butt Kidlit friends, make sure you check out CECE RIOS AND THE DESERT OF SOULS!
It’s on shelves now!
Click here to enter to win a copy of CECE RIOS AND THE DESERT OF SOULS!
Contest ends Friday, April 23rd at 11:59 pm EST