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Debut Author Interview: Kaela Rivera and Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls Giveaway

Happy Monday Everyone! Today I’m thrilled to have debut author Kaela Rivera here to share about her MG adventure story Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls. I was fortunate to get an ARC from NetGalley and loved this story set in a Mexican village that is based on Mexican folklore. As some of you know, my late husband was Mexican-American, and I really enjoyed learning more about his heritage.

Here’s a blurb from Goodreads:

Living in the remote town of Tierra del Sol is dangerous—especially in the criatura months, when powerful spirits break free from their home in Devil’s Alley to threaten humankind. But Cecelia Rios has always believed there was more to the criaturas who roamed the desert, much to her family’s disapproval. After all, it’s common knowledge that 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, everyone in town believes she’s lost forever. But 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.

Hi Kaela! Thanks so much for joining us!

1. Tell us about yourself and how you became a writer.

Hi everyone! Thanks for inviting me, Natalie; I’m so excited to be here.

When I first started learning how to write as a kid, I actually had a hard time with it. I struggled to string words together, and I found the process slow and frustrating. But my mom was wonderful and taught me to stick through hard things. Eventually, with her support and after working extra hard at it, I came out loving writing so much that I wrote a string of picture books from age seven all the way up until ten years old.

At ten, I sat down and wrote my first novel. It was terrible, and I loved it (still do!), but I knew I wanted to get better at doing this. So I kept writing novel after novel. It was at fourteen years old that I realized I wanted to get officially published, and I started researching and taking the writing and publishing process more seriously.

It took several more novels through high school and college before I really hit my stride as a writer. But it was when I finished what would become Cece Rios and the Desert Of Souls that I finally felt I’d reached the level that I’d been working towards—and eventually (with plenty of revisions, of course), it seemed my future agent and editor agreed.

2. That’s awesome that you started writing at such a young age. Where did you get the idea for Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls?

Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls was born out of pairing an idea I’d had for a long time—what would happen if there were creatures who had their souls on the outside?—with the relatively recent experience I’d had reconnecting to my Mexican heritage through my abuelo and his stories about growing up in northern Mexico.

As I started weaving those initial sparks together into an actual plot, I found the thematic heart of the story came from working through some personal, difficult experiences at the time. It became a way to voice my thoughts on how kindness is an enormous strength even if it’s often overlooked. 

3. Tell us about the Mexican folklore you drew on, like the criaturas, brujas, and curandero, in creating your story and how you used it to develop a story that was your own. How did you research this all?

The folklore background of Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls came together bit at a time, layered first with stories from my abuelo, next with Mexican-American legends I’d heard from friends, then lots of time spent in the Mexican Bestiary: Bestiario Mexicano (thank you, David Bowles!), and finally hunting down more ancient stories and practices from Mayan, Aztec, Toltec, and other tribes native to Mexico and Mesoamerica. I wanted to pay homage to the mixed background of Mexico, its people, and descendants. That’s why you’ll find the criaturas, particularly, come from a wide variety of backgrounds—anything from the more modern El Chupacabra to the ancient Tzitzimitl. I give some background on these legends in the glossary at the end of Cece—including a couple anecdotes about my abuelo’s encounters with brujas and curanderas.

I also did plenty of research on the history of Mexico—Cece’s fantasy world is modeled after the 1920s northern Mexico my abuelo would have grown up in, so I had to learn a lot about what technology would have been there at the time (even if my abuelo hadn’t had it) and what wouldn’t have. I’ve found some pretty interesting books and had to hunt through obscure geology (history of mining wasn’t something I’d expected to ever research) to get a fuller understanding of the world I wanted to create.

4. I was really glad that you included the glossary. It had so much helpful info. One thing I loved about your story was how you created the town of Tierra del Sol and the people who lived there. I felt like I was really there. What was your world building process like?

I’m so glad you enjoyed it! The scenery and description of Tierra del Sol came early in the process because I was basing it on the stories my abuelo told me about growing up in northern Mexico. I wanted it to capture the feeling of the land Abuelo described to me and the culture he grew up in and created in our familia in America as well. Having his example, experience, and history is what made Tierra del Sol come alive for me, too.

The more concrete aspects of Tierra del Sol, like the exact mapping of the area, the Ruins, and the particulars rule of the magic system all came later. The tone feels so alive because, I suppose, it’s taken from real life and breathed into a new world.

5. Cece is such a sympathetic character. She sees herself as weak but finds her strength when she goes on the secret mission to save her sister from a powerful and scary criatura. Share about how you developed her as a character and some of your favorite things about her.

At first, when I sat down to write Cece, I just wanted a simple character progression from crybaby to brave hero. I often felt scared growing up, so grappling with fear and summoning courage to overcome it was something I could speak to from personal experience. But as I wrote Cece’s journey, a lot of difficult things happened in my life—particularly the way people were mistreating my mother because they thought her empathy and ability to be vulnerable were signs of weakness. Cece’s journey took on new depth as I wrote through that experience. It became a way for me to defend my mother’s strength—and how her empathy and kindness weren’t pathetic like some people thought they were. These traits were mighty in their own right and could change the world.

I often say now that Cece is who I want to be when I grow up. I love that she is kind, loving, and protective—and how she learns to apply that strength to both herself and others. Cece isn’t perfect, but she’s constantly looking for ways to improve and grow. I want to be like Cece—fully embracing the good in myself and finding ways to help others without being so afraid of getting hurt that I become like those who inflict the damage.

6. That’s cool how you tied Cece’s character growth to what you saw your mom going through. Your story is a real page turner. How did you plot it out? What tips do you have for other writers on how to make a fast-paced story that readers don’t want to put down?

It’s so good to hear that because I don’t consider myself a strong plotter. In fact, plot has been my weakness for a long time, so I concentrated on it harder while writing CECE, to make sure it had the tight pace I imagined. I found I had to heavily simplify the story beats in my head in order to execute it well. The three-round structure of the Bruja Fights ended up helping me the most. I’m excited to try more complicated plots out in the future.

My number one piece of advice for a forward-moving adventure is to constantly change the status quo. That can mean with characters, or with the stakes, or with the socioeconomic setting, but each scene should do something to challenge, change, and advance one of those things toward the ultimate end. Just like in life, change is what keeps things interesting.

7. What great advice to change the status quo. You are also an editor at a marketing firm. Has your experience as an editor strengthened your writing? And how do you balance your day job and your writing so that you stay productive as a writer?

Oh, being an editor has absolutely strengthened my writing! Everything from looking up obscure word usage in the dictionary to learning the Chicago Manuel of Style better so I know at a glance what punctuation is needed helps in the long run. And learning how to help someone else revise their work gives me better context for revising my novels as well. All in all, becoming a better writer feeds my experience as an editor, and vice versa. I’m grateful to be in that situation.

As for balancing the day job and writing, I’m still learning how. It’s important to me to give my best to both roles, but they both require a lot of mental energy, so it can be draining to go directly from one to the other.

It helps a bit that I’m a binge-writer, so I don’t need to write every day. I can knock out 4,00012,000 words in a weekend, and the breaks between writing episodes gives me time to gather ideas for the next one. Sometimes, I don’t wait for the weekend, of course. I’ll let myself write on weekdays if I can feel the inspirations in my bones because I know I’ll be productive, even if I’m tired.

8. Your agent is Serene Hakim. How did she become your agent and what was your road to publication like?

It’s a fun story, actually! So, I actually sent Serene Hakim the manuscript I wrote right before CECE: a sci-fi tech thriller centered on a video game tournament (I have a thing for competitions, I guess). Serene read it and liked it, but she said it wasn’t ready and asked if I was willing to revise and resubmit. I read her feedback and ideas on how to improve it, and they resonated with me, so I accepted and started working on it.

I finished that R&R shortly before I finished CECE and sent the new manuscript back to her. She’d just started reading the new revision when I finished revising CECE and submitted it to a contest called #PitchAmerica, where it was put into an agent showcase. Serene was one of the participating agents and read the first chapter of CECE. I got offers from her and two other agents shortly thereafter (something I’m still immensely grateful for). All the agents were wonderful, but because of past experience, I knew Serene and I were on the same editing wavelength, and her agenting style matched my needs best. So we signed a contract at the end of 2017, Serene got to work giving me feedback on revision, I got to work on them, and we sent CECE on sub toward the middle of 2018.

Things moved pretty quickly after that. We heard HarperChildren’s were interested but wanted some revisions by fall of 2018 so CECE stood a better chance at acquisitions. I’m a pretty fast reviser, so I got to work and had it back to my wonderful editor a couple months before the end of the year. She took it to acquisitions, and after we mutually agreed to change the age group (It’s true! Cece was originally a YA novel, but it shines so much in MG), we had the deal ironed out and the contract signed by early 2019.

 9. How are you planning to market your book in light of the pandemic? Are you able to do more online events and if so, how are you finding these opportunities?

 Oof, yeah, that’s been hard, hasn’t it? The experience definitely hasn’t been what I’d pictured back in 2018 when HarperChildren’s offered to buy CECE, but I’ve at least had a year to adapt, which is more than I can say for the early 2020 debuts. 

That said, I’ve mostly relied on online events. The most helpful things have been 1. my knowledge of book events in my area and online that I already liked and knew I wanted to apply to and 2. opportunities passed on by the wonderful humans in my debut group, the 21ders.

I’ve also been immensely grateful for the people and outlets who approached me or my publisher themselves. It’s a validating experience, and I wouldn’t have known about some of the amazing things they do and offer readers without their initiative. The whole thing has definitely made my book world grow, and I love that.

10. Since your story is about Mexican folklore, are you planning to reach out to more Mexican-American kids who would love to learn more about their heritage? If so, how are you doing this?

Mostly, I’m interested in working with schools, libraries, and book festivals to reach and support their latinx students (all students, of course, since I believe in bringing my culture to other to foster multicultural appreciation, but supporting latinx kids is of particular interest to me) wherever they live—whether in a high latinx population area or a low population area. Perhaps even particularly in the low population areas, since I know what that’s like having grown up in rural Tennessee.

Consider that an invitation to contact me for virtual visits, teachers and librarians! Just head to my website (see below).

11. What are you working on now?

I work on multiple projects at a time, but my two major ones right now are 1. another entry into Cece’s world and 2. A YA fantasy about a girl who makes a blood-pact with flower magic to usurp her Aztec-inspired kingdom for her father.

Thanks for sharing all your advice, Kaela. You can find Kaela at




Giveaway Details

Kaela has generously offered an ARC of Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls for a giveaway. To enter, all you need to do is be a follower of my blog (via the follower gadget, email, or bloglovin’ on the right sidebar) and leave a comment by April 24th. If your e-mail is not on your Google Profile, you must leave it in the comments to enter the contest. Please be sure I have your email address.

If you mention this contest on Twitter, Facebook, or your blog and/or follow me on Twitter, mention this in the comments and I'll give you an extra entry for each. You must be 13 years old or older to enter. The giveaway is U.S. and Canada.

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday is hosted by Greg Pattridge. You can find the participating blogs on his blog. 

Upcoming Interviews and Giveaways

Wednesday, April 14th I have an agent spotlight interview with Emily Fortney and a query critique giveaway

Friday, April 16th I’m participating in the Rainbow on Roses Giveaway Hop

Monday, April 19th I have an interview with debut author Laekan Kemp and a giveaway of her YA contemporary Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet

Monday, April 26th I’m reviewing and giving away Rescue, a MG historical by Jennifer Nielsen, one of my favorite authors

Tuesday, May 4th I’m participating in the Life’s a Beach Giveaway Hop

Wednesday, May 5th I have an interview with debut author Daniel Aleman and a giveaway of his YA contemporary about immigration Indivisible and a query critique by his agent Peter Knapp and my IWSG post

Monday, May 10th I have a guest post by author Jessica Lawson with a giveaway of her MG fantasy How to Save a Queendom and a query critique by her agent Tina Dubois

Hope to see you on Wednesday!






Test said...

I have this one on my list to order. Thanks for the great interview!

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I've heard debut groups can be wonderful for new authors. Congratulations on the release!

DMS said...

Congrats to Kaela! This sounds like a great read. The research that went into it sounds interesting. I have added this to my list- sounds like a must read to me. Thanks for sharing!

Sue Heavenrich said...

congrats on this new book! It sounds SO intriguing.

Brenda said...

I've really enjoyed seeing all of these stories being published recently based on stories past down from one generation to the next. Adding Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls to my TBR list and congratulations to Kaela on its upcoming release!!

Patricia T. said...

Congratulations on your new book. I especially enjoyed the interview about how you incorporated your grandfather and mother into the story. Striking cover and a fascinating read!

nashvillecats2 said...

Congratulations on this new book.
I do admore how you get to interview authors.... so interesting to read.


Danielle H. said...

I'm so excited for this book--I love learning about other cultures through books like this one. I follow Natalie on Twitter and have this book on my Goodreads TBR.

Andrea Mack said...

Thanks for this interview! It’s so inspiring to see how someone who loved writing so much as a child has managed to progress and succeed in publishing. Sounds like a great read!

Jenni said...

I really like how she was inspired by her family's stories! I was really touched by what she said about how empathy and compassion is a strength. What a great thing to build a character on!

Greg Pattridge said...

What an intriguing sounding story! Her path to publication was a testament to never give up. Thanks for featuring on today's MMGM.

Kate MD said...

I am so excited for this book. I feel like I've been waiting forever!!

Max @ Completely Full Bookshelf said...

What an excellent interview! It was fascinating to hear about the inspiration for Cece's character and about this story's journey to publication. I'll pass on the giveaway, but thanks for the great review!

Liz A. said...

This sounds like a great book. I work in a heavily Latino school district, and I can see how the kiddos would love this book.

ken ohl said...

this book looks intriguing can't wait

Jessica Lawson said...

This book sounds fabulous! Congratulations to Kaela!

Nancy said...

This would be a nice addition to our family library.

allibrary (at) aol (dot) com

Tonja Drecker said...

Congratulations, Kaela! This one sounds really interesting...going to add it to my TBR list.

Angie Quantrell said...

Great interview! I think this will be an engaging read! Thanks for sharing!

I follow by email and I follow you on Twitter, Natalie. :)
angelecolline at yahoo dot com

One Latina's Pen said...

I’m excited that this book centers on Mexican folklore, mythology and culture as I have a heart for curanderas. I anticipate reading it soon. Tweeting this interview out for other readers.

Rosi said...

Wow, this sounds like a spectacular book. And I can't imagine writing a novel at 10 years old! Very interesting interview. Thanks for the post.

Beverly Stowe McClure said...

Fascinating. I want to learn more about these interesting people.And you. Thanks for sharing your beautiful story. Best wishes to you.

Allison said...

I love reading (and learning in the process) about cultures I am unfamiliar with. I can't wait to read Cece's story. Thanks for the opportunity to receive an ARC! allison.prueitt@gmail.com

Jay Linden said...

wonderful interview - very inspiring - and I love how you use kindness as a strength - really validating to hear all about your writing process and journey - look forward to reading Cece and the Desert of Souls -

Jennifer M said...

I enjoyed hearing about how Kaela became a writer. Kudos to her mother for teaching her at a young age the importance of having "grit" when facing challenges. Looking forward to getting to know CeCe.
* I also follow you on Twitter.

Leela said...

I'm an email susbscriber.

Debra Branigan said...

This sounds like a great MG read. I look forward to reading this one. I shared on twitter.