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In 'Loteria,' Life And Death Battle For A Girl's Fate

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

On a hot day in Oaxaca City, a young girl named Clara is chosen for a special game of chance. The game is called Loteria. It's a kind of Mexican bingo. It's also the title of Karla Valenti's new middle-grade novel. Karla Valenti joins us now to talk about it. Welcome to the program.

KARLA VALENTI: Hi. And thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Life and Death are real characters in this story. Talk to me about what their role is in Clara's journey.

VALENTI: They actually were chosen to be guides discussing a philosophical question that's at the heart of this story. So when I wrote "Loteria," my goal was to explore the concept of free will. Do we have control over our lives, the power to make the decisions that shape us, or is everything predetermined? So to guide us through that, I selected these two wise sparring partners, Life and Death, ancient friends who meet once a year to play this game of Loteria.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And tell us about Clara. Who is she, and how does she come to catch the eye of Life and Death?

VALENTI: So Clara is the 11-year-old heroine of this story. She is actually selected as a pawn in the game of Life and Death. So when they set out to play Loteria, they choose a child who will be the recipient of either a long life, in the event that Life wins the game, or she will be delivered into Catrina or Death's domain, in the event that Death wins the game.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And where does this game take Clara because this is sort of a magical adventure story?

VALENTI: The game takes Clara through Oaxaca City, but also into the land of Asrean. The Oaxaca City adventure happens as Life and Death play the cards. They flip over one of these Loteria cards, and there's an image on it. And based on whatever the image says or whatever picture is on the image, this event unfolds in her life. And so it could be a scorpion. It could be a tree. It could be a deer or a rose. And each of these events forces Clara to make a choice. The string of choices that she makes leads to her cousin being kidnapped and taken into this magical land called Asrean.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is a book that is so rich in magical realism. It's so rooted in Mexican folklore. A lot of that inspiration, I understand, comes from your own background.

VALENTI: It does. I was born and raised in Mexico City. I grew up reading and being exposed to magical realism. And in fact, I like to think of it not so much as a genre that I was exposed to in literature or in film or art, but in my day-to-day living, right? So I was pretty certain that my house was full of chaneques and that we had all of these spirits living through the house and keeping an eye on us. We have - you know, I have my abuelita, who had premonitions, and I have aunts who have magical dreams. And so this magical realism, this ability to infuse the day-to-day reality with magic is part and parcel of what it was growing up being me in my house.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, I think so many Latinos grew up like that - right? - not only in Mexico, but the idea of another dimension...

VALENTI: Exactly.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Inhabiting the world in which we live is actually not surprising. They will talk to you in the same breath about, you know, cutting carrots as they will saying they just had a visitation...

VALENTI: Right.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...That they saw a vision in some way. I mean, my house in Mexico City was haunted.

VALENTI: Exactly, exactly.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I fully embrace this.

VALENTI: Well, and that's the feeling I wanted to evoke with Life and Death - right? - that these are characters that of course they're wandering the streets of Oaxaca City. They're not special. They're not extraordinary. They're just part of living in Oaxaca or in anywhere.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You've always written stories for children, but this is your debut middle-grade novel. You know, it's darker, heavier. What drew you to writing for this age group now?

VALENTI: So it's a good question. And I would say that I don't necessarily write for a specific age group. I really am writing to explore an idea. And in this case, this idea is a big idea that really required a lot of storytelling real estate. It required a heavier narrative arc that would allow me to explore in depth the concepts of free will versus determinism.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why is that something that appealed to you? Why did you want to explore that tug between free will and determinism?

VALENTI: Really, the impetus here was to give readers an opportunity to explore these concepts in an easy-to-consume way, right? And by easy, I don't at all mean simplified - right? - or dumbed down. I mean that the concepts are presented in a way that can be digested and consumed by this demographic. But the ideas are big because I think the kids at this age, they're - this is what's happening to them. They're in a phase of transformation. They're entering a new world where they're exploring what it means to be themselves, what it means to have this place in this world.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And where does it land for Clara?

VALENTI: I can't tell you that. That's the big twist at the end.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Clara is on her journey, but you must have an opinion.

VALENTI: So when I started writing the book, I was positive that I knew where I stood on this. And as I began researching the arguments for Life and Death, I found that I was switching my mind, and I argued myself and Life and Death into a bit of a conundrum. And it coincided with Clara's narrative arc as well. And to my great surprise and delight, she found a way beyond the conundrum and allowed us all to move forward with this larger question of Life and Death.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Indeed, indeed. That is Karla Valenti. Her new book is "Loteria." Thank you so much for being with us.

VALENTI: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.