Paola Santiago and the Forest of Nightmares is a supernatural spectacle filling each page with magic and emotion while pulling on the reader’s heartstrings. Tehlor Kay Mejia’s follow up work for the Rick Riordan Presents imprint places young Paola (Pao) Santiago back in danger, forcing her to confront the past deeds of her parents.

Discovering the truth and defeating the legend of La Llorona in the first book, Pao returns to a new reality as she tries to come back from her journey. Paola Santiago and the Forest of Nightmares is all about how one moves back to ‘normal’ after experiencing events that are extraordinary.

Having saved her friend Emma and battling demons with her friend Dante, Pao is struggling to find her place back in society. Emma, with Pao’s support, comes out to her family and gravitates to a new set of friends. Dante is distant and keeps Pao from talking with his abuela. To make matters worse, Pao’s mother is dating again. It seems like nothing is normal in Pao’s world forcing her to drift into a lonely isolation period.

Plagued by unsettling dreams and an urge to find her father, Pao has no one to turn to except Dante’s abuela. The aged grandmother of her friend collapses and a battle at the hospital reveals to Pao and Dante that demons are near, and danger is close. Pao and Dante set out to seek the help of the Los Ninos de la Luz, only to find them gone north. Naomi, the last member of the group, stayed behind to defend the camp.

Reluctant at first, Naomi agrees to help Pao and Dante travel to Oregon with fleeting hope of finding her father and discovering the truth about her tormenting dreams. The road trip is filled with peril as a legendary monster named the Hitchhiker is summoned to attack Pao and her group. With hope of salvation coming down to how strong and committed Pao is, the answers to Pao’s questions will be found in a trailer on an isolated stretch of land.

Mejia’s first book in the series was a wonderful read filled with terrifying moments, and I was not sure how she would be able to top the first book. I’m happy to report that Paola Santiago and the Forest of Nightmares is not only a fantastic read but diligently expands on our well-loved characters, giving them depth and growth from their previous experiences.  

The Rick Riordan Presents imprint is notable for promoting diversity by having cultural stories being told by diverse authors. What makes the books that come from the imprint so unique is that readers get a chance to experience a wide range of authors and explore the world of middle grade literature with talented writers who enchant readers with their own view of the world. Prior to reading the first book in this series, I knew nothing about the legend of La Llorona except what was distorted for horrific pleasures in some questionable movies.

Tehlor Kay Mejia has constructed a familiar world with Pao and friends, infused it with the magic of Latin American folklore, while giving readers a real snapshot of the true dangers in the real world of this middle grade protagonist. Not only do we see the difficulty of Pao’s school experience, feel the heartbreak and difficulty of being from a low-income family, the everyday racism that she must endure, and the quest for a family. What particularly connects the reader with the story so well is Mejia’s ability to make us empathize with Pao.

She’s a good kid who has had a hard life. All she really wants is for her family to be together. Time and supernatural forces have caused this want to be a dream. I felt the pain and sadness that fills Pao’s life every day. Her compassion and love for her friends is boundless, and as an adult watching her push her friends away is something anyone who went through the teenage years can sympathize with. At the same time as we see Pao deal with the aftermath of previous events Dante and Emma have learned to accept and adapt to the new reality.

For Dante, the danger his abuela faced during their last adventure was too much. His isolation from Pao is a combination of being a teenaged boy who may have more feelings for his friend then he would like, and a way to protect his beloved abuela.

Emma sees the most growth. Her previous adventure and her rescue help her to accept herself. While the other characters are struggling with their identity and their place in the world, Emma is the most confident and assured. Unlike the first book in the series, readers have a chance to meet and see Emma in action throughout Paola Santiago and the Forest of Nightmares.

Pao faces numerous obstacles throughout her life. The fact that she is poor and connected to the supernatural world is a heavy burden to bear, but the loss of her father is what hurts her the most. Paola Santiago and the Forest of Nightmares allows us to see some resolution to her plight, but readers will ache over Pao’s choices and hope for a happy ending. Throughout the battle with monsters and the heartache of losing friends, Pao must come to terms with the nature of family. One’s family can be complicated, and the choices that parents make might seem intolerable for kids, but as Pao learns near the conclusion of the book, parental love is forever.

Paola Santiago and the Forest of Nightmares is the perfect August read. With the twilight coming on the summer and before children settle back into school, have one more adventure with Tehlor Kay Mejia’s incredible work.