Las Musas is celebrating the release of Karla Valenti’s debut middle grade novel Lotería, out this week!. In their starred review, School Library Journal describes the novel as, “A magical, philosophical tale rooted in Mexican lore that will hold readers from beginning to end with its verdant language and setting.”
Scroll on for a conversation between Musas NoNieqa Ramos and Karla Valenti!
NoNieqa Ramos: Karla, your novel is captivating, breathtaking, and unforgettable. I postponed reading the ending so I could emotionally prepare. How did you conceive of the idea for Lotería? How did you feel when it went to auction?
Karla Valenti: For almost a decade I had been brainstorming a story about a girl who doesn’t know she’s trapped in a game. I tested out a number of variations of this theme, but none of them seemed quite right. Then my father gave my kids a game of “Lotería” (similar to Bingo but with images on the cards instead of numbers).
Around this time we were also headed to Oaxaca City (Mexico) for my brother’s wedding. Oaxaca is a very special city, and suddenly I found myself surrounded by its enchanting colors and sounds, food and music, an ancient culture wedded with a contemporary lifestyle. It was the perfect brew to jump start the story.
As soon as I returned from my brother’s wedding, I wrote the book… but, my first agent didn’t like it. I had suffered so many rejections at that point that I was devastated. I began to doubt that the story actually had any merit or that I had any talent as a writer. Fortunately, one of my dear critique partners had enough faith in the book (and me) to talk me off the ledge.
She also reminded me that this business is highly subjective, which allowed me to see that my agent at the time (a kind and lovely person) was probably not the right business partner for me and the kind of storytelling I wanted to do. We decided to part ways and I used Lotería to pitch new agents. To my immense delight, I received four offers of representation and ended up signing with the wonderful Ammi-Joan Paquette (EMLA). Shortly after, the book went out on submission. I was blown away by the enthusiasm it received, and I still cannot believe it went to auction.
How did that feel? Exhilarating, of course. But also, validating. At that point, I had spent more than a decade writing, revising, learning, revising, building my writing community, revising, and being rejected (hundreds of times!). To have my debut novel go to auction (as a two-book deal) helped me understand how important those ten+ years of work had been.
NoNieqa: The characters Clara and her cousin Esteban are crafted so tenderly and lovingly. What were you influences in creating these characters and their powerful relationship?
Karla: The short answer is: my family.
I am incredibly close to my parents and siblings, and I grew up with large extended families on both my father and mother’s side. I married into a family that is equally close (and quite large too), and we have raised our children to value family above all else.
While Clara and Esteban are not based on anyone particular in my life, their relationship with each other (and their families) is very much grounded in my experience with my loved ones.
NoNieqa: Have you ever played LOTERÍA? In your novel, Life and Death debate whether our choices are made by destiny or choice. In your own writer’s journey, what choices do you think were fate? What choices did you make that led to your success today?
Karla: I grew up playing “Lotería” and in fact, I played it while I wrote the book. This turned out to be a handy little trick to overcome writer’s block. As the story unfolded, any time I reached a point where I wasn’t sure how to proceed, I would flip a card. I would then use that card as inspiration for the next plot point. It actually took the story in many unexpected directions.
For example, the immortal child king plays a central part in Clara’s story, but he didn’t actually show up until almost the very end of my first draft when I flipped the card “La Corona”!
As for my journey as a writer, I would have to say that where I am now is the inevitable result of thousands of choices I made over the last decade—many of which were not ideal, but made me grow in important ways. It has been a long and winding road, paved with a million choices, big and small!
Another motif is that of free will versus determinism. This is actually the central theme of the book: whether we have the power to shape our destiny or if we are simply pawns in a greater game of life, destined to live out a fate that has been pre-determined for us. It’s a big question, but one I think middle grade readers are quite capable of exploring.
NoNieqa: Can you describe your home library for us? If you could have the fantasy library of your dreams, what would it be like?
Karla: My dream library would be large enough to merit a sliding ladder, with floor to ceiling shelves for “all” the books and lots of sunshine to light up those books!
Alas, my home library is significantly smaller. It has lots of books that inspire my mind (philosophy, behavioral science, psychology), books that inspire my heart (from picture books and middle grade novels to Isabel Allende and Markus Zusak), and books that help me figure out how to inspire the minds and hearts of readers (the craft of storytelling!). Fortunately, I live near one of the best city libraries in the country, so I am perfectly fine with my mini home library (for now).
NoNieqa: What advice do you have for pre-published writers?
Karla: You are the real deal. Being published is not what gives you your legitimacy. Conversely, being rejected does not make you any less of a writer.
When I first started down this path, I wish I’d known that all writers pen “garbage” and we all have moments of brilliance; we all receive awful feedback and invaluable critiques; we all dream big and have our dreams crushed. Publishing a book (or 2 or 200!) doesn’t change any of that. The key thing to remember is that this is a long game, and that the only act that will truly defeat you on this journey is walking away.
NoNieqa: How can educators use your book in the classroom? What kinds of school visits do you offer?
Karla: The book itself includes an extensive discussion guide, both on the themes of free will vs determinism, and also the craft of storytelling. Random House has also put together a wonderful educator’s guide that can be found on my site.
As for school visits, I do offer virtual visits. The sessions are pretty interactive and include a story-building exercise, an alebrije draw-off, and a debate on free will vs determinism.
NoNieqa: How can readers, educators, and librarians reach you on social media?
Karla: The best way is to contact me via my website, @KV_writes on Twitter, and on
NoNieqa: You are also an amazing picture book writer. Tell us about your pbs!
Karla: Yay! Thanks for asking. I have a picture book series with Sourcebooks (My Super Science Heroes), illustrated by Annalisa Beghelli, where we explore key traits (super powers) that are essential to science, through the lens of a unique scientist who put that trait to great use in their life (and in so doing, defeated their nemesis). Marie Curie used her power of persistence to discover Radium and Polonium (vanquishing Mr. Opposition along the way). Alan Turing used his power of curiosity to become the father of artificial intelligence (despite Miss Enigma’s attempts to confound and confuse him).
I also have a picture book coming out with Chronicle in 2023. Maria Mariposa (illustrated by Andrea Morrison) is a lyrical, bilingual story about a young girl who receives a gift from her home in Mexico on her first day of school in the United States (and how she finds a way to share the magic of that gift with all those around her).
Esperanza Caramelo will be published by Knopf, and is being illustrated Elisa Chavarri. This is a tale of spun-sugar ornaments come to life and cake catastrophe averted on the eve of Nochebuena. Finally, I am working with Knopf on another picture book that is currently under a veil of secrecy. More to come soon!
NoNieqa: Can you recommend some Must Have middle grade novels or picture books written by others?
Karla: I’ve recently been reading mostly MG novels. Recent summer favorites include Guadalupe Garcia McCall’s Under the Mesquite, Rebeca Balcárcel’s The Other Side of Happy, Rajani LaRocca’s Red, White, and Whole, Tae Keller’s When You Trap a Tiger, Roseanne Parry’s A Wolf Called Wander, and Veera Hiranandani’s The Night Diary. I also loved Lauren Wolk’s Echo Mountain and Mañanaland by Pam Muñoz Ryan.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Your Mama (by the super talented Nonieqa Ramos) which is an absolutely delightful ode to mamas the world around!
NoNieqa: Thank you so much, Karla! I am so elated that Your Mama is a Virginia’s Great Read of 2021. Lotería is destined to entrance readers of all ages!
Buy Lotería today!
Karla was born and raised in Mexico city, but has put down roots in many places around the world (including Japan, France, and most recently Germany). She currently lives in the Chicagoland area with her husband, three kids, two cats, and hundreds of books.
Karla writes picture books and middle grade novels. On the picture book front, she is the creator of the My Super Science Heroes series (Sourcebooks). The first book (Marie Curie and the Power of Persistence) is due out on April 7, 2020. The second book in that series (Alan Turing and the Power of Curiosity) is due out in January 2021. On the middle-grade front, her debut novel, Loteria, sold at auction to Knopf in a two-book deal. Loteria is scheduled for publication in 2021. Karla offers a Master Course on Picture Book Writing and does professional critiques. She is represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette at Erin Murphy Literary Agency.
NoNieqa Ramos is an educator, literary activist, and writer of “intense” literature. She wrote the THE DISTURBED GIRL’S DICTIONARY, a 2018 New York Public Library Best Book for Teens, a 2019 YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults Selection, and a 2019 In the Margins Award Top Ten pick. TDGD earned starred reviews from Booklist, Foreword, and Voya. Lilliam Rivera, author of Dealing in Dreams, called THE TRUTH IS “a gorgeous novel about privilege and prejudice, love and loss grief and gratitude.” Hip Latina named THE TRUTH IS in its “10 of the Best Latinx Young Adult Books of 2019.” Remezcla included TTI in the “15 Best Books by Latino and Latin American Authors of 2019.” Versify will publish her debut picture book BEAUTY WOKE January 2021 and YOUR MAMA April 6th, 2021!
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