What I’m Reading: Lotería

Now here’s a beautifully written novel for older kids: Lotería, by Karla Arenas Valenti. And great for practicing your Spanish, too, as there are numerous Spanish phrases throughout, always followed by a translation in the text.

The book is organized around a game of chance called Lotería (kind of like Bingo) played by Life and Death, who are supernatural personifications of their respective names. Life and Death have wagered on the fate of an eleven-year-old girl named Clara who’s about to embark on a dangerous adventure. Life thinks Clara is brave, smart, and true enough to survive, while Death has bet on Clara’s demise. Throughout the book, they follow Clara’s progress, from time to time pulling out their Lotería cards and drawing from a deck of cards to see which danger will confront Clara next. If the picture on the card, such as a scorpion or an arrow, matches a picture on their scorecards, they can put down a bean. Whoever first gets four beans in a row is the winner, with Clara to live or die according to the result.

Clara lives with her parents in a village outside of Oaxaca, Mexico. Her parents run a small restaurant out of their living room, which grows ever more popular because Clara’s mother, Juana, is such a good cook. Clara helps with her parents around the house and does okay in school, but she hasn’t inherited her mother’s cooking talent. In fact, she’s not really good at anything, though she does like to draw.

She feels the contrast with her five cousins, all boys, who live in a nearby village and each have a great talent. For instance, the youngest cousin, Esteban, who’s the closest to Clara’s age but a couple years younger, has premonitions of danger that always prove true, manifested by awful stomachaches.

Clara and Juana go to visit the cousins, and the older cousins lead all the kids into a cave. Esteban is frightened, but Clara accompanies him, and even draws him a picture of a dragon to help him feel better. But they have to leave, for Esteban gets one of his stomachaches, and he knows it’s connected with Clara somehow. Clara’s forgotten picture blows away. Esteban’s mom suggests Juana and Clara come stay for the night instead of traveling back, just to be safe.

But on a visit to a big famous local tree, Clara is stung by a scorpion. Esteban’s mom rushes home to get some herbs that will help, only to be struck by an errant arrow and killed. That night, Esteban, in shock over his mother’s death, and thinking that he hears her singing, goes wandering in the garden behind their house. Clara gets up and watches him from a distance. When Esteban walks into a mysterious opening in a cactus, Clara follows him, only to find she’s in a sinister land where sad and lost children end up. She has to rescue Esteban and learn if she’s good at anything (maybe the problem is that she doesn’t believe in herself?). And all the time, Life and Death are watching, drawing cards in their game that produce new challenges for Clara to face.

The writing in this book is absolutely gorgeous, sort of an elevated fairy tale-like language, but with a Latino flavor. I do wonder if it might almost be too rich for some young readers. Still, for the right older child (late elementary or even middle school), I think this book is likely to become a treasured favorite. And it’s great for adults, too, especially those who want a fun way to practice their Spanish.

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