Knopf. Sept. 2021. 320p. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780593176962.
Gr 3-6–Life and Death have met up for their yearly game of Lotería and the silver strands of fate have chosen Clara this year, a seemingly ungifted dark-haired girl born into a family of gifted people in Oaxaca, Mexico. She does not know that she is being watched, but her prescient cousin Estaban foresees something bad about the happen. And bad things do happen and keep happening. When Clara’s aunt dies suddenly, Estaban is blinded by grief for his mother and walks into the dangerous kingdom of Las Pozas where the Man in Red kidnaps him. Clara must follow to save her young cousin before he is trapped there forever by the king. She must learn the rules of this kingdom and begin to trust her talents. All the while, Life and Death play their game to determine her next obstacle and finally, which one will claim her in the end. The discussion of our lives being controlled by fate or free choice appears throughout and while all gets resolved and final choices are made, part of the beauty and brilliance of this tale is making readers comfortable with the concept that life or death can be equally important, and even fulfilling, destinies. The magical realism employed adds a warmth and imaginative quality to the world-building that is only enhanced by the rich feast of language Valenti offers up. Readers will be able to smell the chocolate in Clara’s family’s restaurant and feel the plants in her aunt’s garden. The illustrations that are interspersed as partial and full-page spreads add another access point to this world full of Mexican mythology and characters; detailed imagery of each round of Lotería cards is a powerful tool to see where we are in the game. The use of Spanish is prevalent throughout and is always translated or explained so it can certainly be understood by readers not at all familiar with Mexican culture or mythology. Additionally, the explanations of characters and stories referenced in the back of the book make this story even more meaningful and accessible.
VERDICT A magical, philosophical tale rooted in Mexican lore that will hold readers from beginning to end with its verdant language and setting.

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