Review of Lotería

by Karla Arenas Valenti; illus. by Dana Sanmar
Intermediate    Knopf    320 pp.    g
9/21    978-0-593-17696-2    $16.99
Library ed.  978-0-593-17697-9    $19.99
e-book ed.  978-0-593-17698-6    $9.99

Unbeknownst to Clara, she is the object of la Lotería, a game of chance being played out by two friends, Life and Lady Death. The events of her life begin to be determined by the game, and when her orphaned cousin Esteban disappears into a giant cactus, Clara follows. The two end up in the legendary Aztec land Aztlán, where the devil has captured Esteban to add to the king’s ill-fated collection of children. Clara cajoles, fights, tricks, and trades to overcome all obstacles, intent on freeing Esteban and ensuring him a full life at home in Oaxaca City. Will she live or die this day? Card by card, the players observe Clara’s choices, arguing for free will (Life says we have it) or determinism (Death’s take on choice). Clara’s unexpected decisions lead to the story’s heart: “Even when you have no choice about what has happened to you, you can still decide what you’re going to do about it.” The tale is a scaffolding for this debate, and what a lush, verdant scaffolding it is. The story (with grayscale illustrations) is filled with Mexican imagery, abundant with descriptions of food, flowers, vegetable gardens, forests, markets, and fetes, and especially of the jungle and ornate architecture, spiral stairs, curlicues, and darksome caves of Aztlán. Clara’s valor and littleness stand out amidst this lavish context. In her author’s note, Valenti explains the sources for her themes and imagery.

From the November/December 2021 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Deirdre Baker
Deirdre F. Baker
Deirdre F. Baker, a reviewer for The Horn Book Magazine and the Toronto Star, teaches children’s literature at the University of Toronto. The author of Becca at Sea (Groundwood), she is currently at work on a sequel—written in the past tense.

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