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The Enchanted Life of Valentina Mejía


About The Book

“An exceptionally well-crafted story brimming with mythological creatures, captivating characters, and non-stop adventure.” —Christina Diaz Gonzalez, bestselling author of Invisible

Encanto meets The Chronicles of Narnia by way of Colombian folklore in this “fast-paced…thrilling” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review) middle grade fantasy adventure. To save their father’s life, a brother and sister must journey across a land full of mythical creatures and find the most powerful and dangerous of them all: the madremonte.

Twelve-year-old Valentina wants to focus on drawing the real world around her and hopefully get into art school in Bogotá one day, but Papi has spent his life studying Colombia’s legendary creatures and searching for proof of their existence. So when Papi hears that a patasola—a vampire woman with one leg—has been sighted in the Andes, Valentina and her younger brother Julián get dragged along on another magical creature hunt.

While they’re in the Andes, a powerful earthquake hits. Valentina and Julián fall through the earth…and find an alternate Colombia where, to Valentina’s shock, all the legends are real.

To get home, Valentina and Julián must make a treacherous journey to reach this land’s ruler: the madremonte, mother and protector of the earth. She controls the only portal back to the human world—but she absolutely hates humans, and she’ll do anything to defend her land.


Chapter One ONE
Three hours into their trek through the Andes, Valentina heard it. At first, she was sure it was another coati. The whining of the raccoonlike animal had been following them for a few miles. But now she thought she heard the distinct sound of heavy breathing.

The skin on her arms erupted in goose bumps.

“¿Escuchaste?” Papi whispered.

“Maybe,” Valentina said, a little too loudly. “It’s probably the wind.”

Papi brought a finger to his lips. “You’re going to scare it away.”

Her brother, Julián, bounced on his heels, his eyes almost black beneath the shade of tall ferns and even taller trees, which blocked out most of the light in this patch of the jungle. They were far from their farm and the slopes cultivated with coffee beans.

Valentina blew out a breath.

She loved her dad’s eccentricities. She did. But the last thing she wanted to do on the first day of summer was track down a patasola. According to legends, the one-legged woman wandered through the countryside looking for victims. Usually, men. She lured them with beautiful singing or cries for help, and when they were within reach: bam! She caught them and sucked their blood.

Kind of like a vampire, but cooler.

One thing was listening to the stories in the comfort of Papi’s study, though, and another was trudging through the Colombian jungle in search of a creature that didn’t exist.

“Sí, Vale,” her brother said. “Just ’cause you’d rather be drawing your stupid pictures doesn’t mean you have to ruin the fun for everyone.”

Valentina opened her mouth to retort, but Papi hissed, “Stop it. Both of you. Don’t make me regret bringing you.”

“This was your idea,” Valentina mumbled. “I would’ve much rather stayed home.”

Papi frowned. “You know that’s not an option. You’re twelve—”

“Almost thirteen,” Valentina corrected.

“Too young. Now basta. Let’s go.” He pushed deeper into the trees without waiting for an answer.

Julián stuck his tongue out at her, then bounded after their dad.

It wasn’t fair. Papi insisted on treating her like a little kid. It’s not like she would’ve been alone, anyway. Doña Alicia, their housekeeper, would’ve been there.

Why did Mami have to be called away for work this weekend? She had been sent with her team to el Nevado del Ruiz, near Manizales, because the volcano was threatening to erupt again. Mami, who was a geophysicist, was part of a group of scientists who were studying the recent eruptions and earthquakes happening across Colombia, especially since they were getting stronger and occurring more often. Valentina knew Mami’s job was important, but she wished she didn’t have to be dragged through the jungle, all because Papi didn’t trust her to stay home without him.

If you asked him, though, the reason he’d brought them was so they could “get to know the magic running in the veins of this country.”

As if magic really existed.

Again the heavy breathing came, sending shivers down Valentina’s spine.

“Wait!” she called, sprinting after her father and brother. She did not want to be left alone with whatever was out there.

As she reached Julián, she pushed back the damp locks that had come loose from her ponytail. Sticky sweat dripped down her face, and her T-shirt clung to her skin. She’d give anything to be in her room, drawing in peace and feeling the sweet, cool breeze drifting through her open window. It was her favorite spot on the whole farm.

She and her brother walked in silence behind Papi as he scouted the area, listening closely for any signs of the imaginary patasola.

Nearby, a bird warbled. Valentina craned her neck until she found it perched on a bare branch a few feet away. She itched to stop and draw its bright red head and yellow beak, which contrasted against its green body. Her gaze shifted to the vines hanging from the branch and to the dried moss clinging to them.

With the hazy light breaking through the treetops, this scene would make a perfect addition to her portfolio, which she’d been building since last year. She thought wistfully of the sketch pad and charcoal pencils tucked in her mochila.

Back home, her finca sat in a valley an hour south of Medellín. From her window, she could see the humps of the Andes, rows of coffee bushes and banana trees, and a smattering of houses from nearby towns. She wasn’t allowed past their property’s fence, so she’d only been able to draw the main house with Mami’s periwinkle hydrangeas, the copse of bamboo surrounding them, the small pond with geese at the center, and Papi’s cottage studio beside it. She’d even drawn a few wild parrots.

While her sketches were nice, they were missing something special.

The way she saw it, if she was being forced to come on this trip, she might as well take advantage and make her portfolio stronger. Then maybe, just maybe, it would be good enough for Señora Ramirez to recommend her for the Bogotá Academy of Arts next year.

And, if Valentina got in, maybe Mami would let her leave their boring finca and go live in the capital with her abuelitos. She could have a normal life, with movies and malls and maybe even sleepovers.

But that was a lot of maybes.

“¡Vamos!” Julián said, tugging her arm. “You’re going to make us lose the patasola. Or”—he paused, grinning mischievously—“she might sneak up behind you when you’re distracted.”

She glared at her brother and followed Papi through the narrow path between trees. Every so often, he paused, placed his palm on the earth, and peered into the bare bushes, as if he were tracking a wild animal. Julián watched their father and mimicked him, which made Valentina shake her head in amusement. They looked ridiculous.

The farther they went, the more her feet crunched on dry leaves littered across the cracked dirt. Everywhere around her, the earth seemed to thirst. Valentina realized the worst drought in Colombia’s history had reached this jungle. It had started in the northern tip of the country several years ago, and slowly, like spilled ink spreading across canvas, it had stretched toward their finca and continued south.

To here.

According to Mami, the drought and the increase in earthquakes and eruptions went hand in hand. Mami blamed it on deforestation and pollution, which had gotten worse in recent decades and which, in her words, were “going to destroy our land.” There was rarely a night when Mami wasn’t ranting about greedy people and the extinction of Colombia’s ecosystems.

A familiar uneasiness settled over Valentina as the nightmare from the night before rushed forward. In it, she stood at the edge of her finca, drawing the scenery. Suddenly, the earth trembled so fiercely it knocked her down before bursting open at her feet. Fire sparked and spread across their fields, reaching toward home. Valentina remembered screaming for Julián and her parents, just as volcanoes jutted out from the crevice, shooting lava and boulders from their craters.

The earth is not happy.

Valentina shuddered as the words flashed through her thoughts. She’d been having the nightmares more often recently. The weirdest part was that afterward, her body tingled with an ache so strong, it felt like someone she loved had died. She couldn’t explain it, and when she’d made the mistake of mentioning it to Mami, her mother had scoffed. “Your papá’s stories are filling your head with cucarachas.”

Honestly, Mami and Papi were as different as the sun and the moon. One chased science, the other tracked leyendas. How they got along was beyond her, but they did. They seemed as happy as when they’d first met at the university. She’d even caught them dancing vallenato in the kitchen a few times, when they thought no one was looking.

Maybe Mami and Papi got along because they had such different personalities; each one kept the other grounded. Meanwhile, Valentina occupied some space between the two of them—too creative for Mami, too logical for Papi—and she felt like she didn’t belong anywhere.

Now, in the jungle, silence descended. No birds warbled. No coatis whined. Even the heavy breathing seemed to vanish.

A twig broke ahead, and Papi froze.

“Did you hear that?” Julián mouthed, his eyes glittering with excitement.

Valentina had, but that could’ve been any of the wildlife living here. Monkeys. Snakes. Mountain tapirs. Bespectacled bears. Even jaguars might be prowling around. She shuddered at the thought of coming face-to-face with a growling carnivorous cat.

Papi met their gazes and pressed a finger to his lips.

Slowly, he slipped out a net from his mochila. He lowered a pair of heat-vision goggles over his eyes and crept forward, keeping low to the ground.

Beside her, Julián tensed.

Part of Valentina wanted to roll her eyes and huff, It’s just another animal. But she couldn’t keep her heart from pumping faster. Could it be? What if they really did catch a patasola? Would the creature look the way Papi described her—one leg, matted hair, sharp fangs? It would be cool if the creatures from Papi’s stories existed. Kind of like magic becoming real, a break from the boringness of farm life.

She wouldn’t say that aloud, though.

Instead, she waited beside her brother beneath the shade of giant robles and watched as her father inched toward the sound, the net clutched in his hands and the goggles making him look like some sort of alien.

Another twig snapped. Then came a shuffle between ferns. Papi crouched even lower. Beads of sweat dripped down his face. His mouth pressed into a thin line. Valentina edged forward, anticipation buzzing in her bones as Julián gripped her arm. Neither of them spoke.

In a single fluid movement, Papi swung the net and a shrill, piercing shriek echoed across the jungle.

Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Guide

The Enchanted Life of Valentina Mejía

By Alexandra Alessandri

About the Book

In this portal fantasy inspired by Colombian folklore, two siblings, twelve-year-old Valentina and ten-year-old Julián, enter a magic cave and find a forgotten land that mirrors their home in Colombia. It all begins during a hike in the Andes with their papi, a scholar of mythical creatures and legends. An earthquake separates the family, leaving Papi stranded in an unstable ditch. Valentina and Julián find the cave, and the tunnel at the back of it, while in search of help. On the other end of the tunnel, they stumble upon a witch’s cottage and are shocked to discover that all the stories their father told them are real! Madremonte, the queen of the magical land, is tortured by the memory of her son, whose kidnapping she blames on humans. Valentina and Julián must face a dangerous journey and beg Madremonte for mercy. Can the mother and protector of the earth put aside her fury and grief, and help reunite a family?

Discussion Questions

1. A recurring message in the book is “the earth is not happy.” What does this mean, and can you think of a real-life example?

2. How did Madremonte keep the world in balance? Use examples from the text. What is one way you practice balance in your life?

3. Valentina called Tierra de los Olvidados “the ghost of Colombia.” Describe the similarities and differences between the land of “reality” and Tierra de los Olvidados.

4. What are the purposes of folktales and myths? Use examples from the book and your own experiences to build on your answer.

5. Empathy can be defined as the capacity to put oneself in another person’s shoes and understand where they are coming from. What are specific examples of how empathy is displayed in the book?

6. Because empathy plays an important role in the story, practice your empathy by connecting with another person. Pair up with someone in your class or club, preferably someone you don’t know very well. Brainstorm six to eight things you have in common, and think outside the box. Do not focus on obvious things like physical appearance, your age, or that you’re both participating in this exercise!

7. How do Julián’s character and attitude change as his journey goes on, and why? Use examples from the text.

8. Valentina makes assumptions and is called out by Doña Ruth, who reminds Valentina that humans “do not have a good reputation here either.” (Chapter twenty-three) This causes Valentina to reflect on her behavior. Take a few minutes to reflect on a situation where you have made assumptions about someone. What is something you can do to not repeat that action?

9. Papi always tells his children, “We have a responsibility to help those around us.” (Chapter twenty-four) Do you agree? Give reasons for your answer.

10. List at least two examples of how the earth/ land is a character of its own throughout the story.

11. While many beings in the magical land distrust humans, Valentina manages to change their minds. Give examples from the book of how she gains their trust.

12. Valentina is upset that an Elder in the duende forest sees her as an enemy for the crimes of her ancestors. If we take a moment to reflect, there may be crimes and acts of violence our ancestors committed against the earth, animals, and other humans. Are we to blame for our ancestors’ decisions? Partner up and discuss what you think. Be prepared to share with the rest of the class.

13. Papi says, “Between being kind and being right, choose kind.” (Chapter twenty-seven) How do you know the difference between right and wrong? Is there ever a situation where it is more important to be right? Can you be right AND kind? Give examples either from the book or from your own experiences.

14. Valentina asks herself how she can be kind to a monster. What is your answer for her?

15. Was Doña Ruth justified in her decision to call Madremonte’s guards on the human children? What would you have done in her place? Think about other characters’ choices, like la patasola’s. Were they justified? How are Doña Ruth’s and la patasola’s decisions similar and different?

16. In the Tierra de los Olvidados, many rumors float around about who kidnapped Madremonte’s son, human behavior, what the queen does to traitors, and more. Who started the rumors and why? What is the purpose of a rumor?

17. Valentina remembers a saying from her mami: “Memories shift and blur the more time passes.” (Chapter forty) Do you have a family story that changes as time goes on? Share with the group if you’d like.

18. [Spoiler Alert] Abuelito shares his experience arriving in Colombia as a small child without family, friends, a way to return home, or an understanding of the human world. He notes that over time his memories faded and he recognized that “surviving means blending in.” (Epilogue) Perhaps you have experienced something similar because you immigrated to the US, moved to a different state, are starting middle school after being in elementary school, or something else. Have you had to change a part of your identity to fit in? Share if you would like. Do you think people should have to do this in order to survive? What is the danger of “blending in?” Please explain your answers.

Extension Activities

1. Valentina and Julián learn that the Tierra de los Olvidados is endangered because humans no longer believe in the magical world and don’t share their stories. Valentina connects this to endangered animals in her world who are losing their habitats due to humans’ decisions to cut down forests and pollute the environment. Choose an endangered animal and create an informational resource that educates people on the animal, its home, why it is endangered, and what people can do to help.

2. As Valentina notes, Colombia and Madremonte’s kingdom are mirror images of each other and are thus affected by similar issues. She mentions learning about “La Violencia” in history class. As a class, research some information about this ten-year civil war in Colombia, along with events happening in the United States at the same time. Were they connected in any way? Why is it important to learn about our country’s and our world’s history? Discuss your findings as a class.

3. Valentina, Julián, and their dad go on many hikes, and their hiking experience and the emergency supplies in their packs help the siblings during their trip through the mountains, rivers, and forests of the magical land. In pairs, research and plan out a hike. You can choose a trail or park where you live or somewhere far away—including Colombia! What materials would you need, including clothing and food? How long would it take you to complete the hike? Would you need to camp? Create a spread of what your nature journal would look like. Even if you don’t go on your planned hike, take just ten minutes to step outside, walk around the playground or block, and quickly sketch what you see.

4. Throughout the book, Valentina struggles with her values of being caring, responsible, honest, and courageous, especially when she doesn’t know the outcomes of her risks. One example is when she puts herself in el silbón’s path to save the baby duende, Felipe. On a sheet of paper, take five minutes to make a list of your values and the different responsibilities you have. How do those responsibilities line up with your values? Circle the responsibility that is the most difficult for you to accomplish. Why do you think that is? Make a plan for steps you can take to make this responsibility more manageable.

5. Madremonte gives examples of what humans did to the land, and in the beginning chapter Valentina discusses the problems humans have created, including deforestation, pollution, and the disruption of ecosystems. Split into small groups and investigate an environmental issue affecting your community. Write a letter to your local government officials about the issue and ask what their responsibility is to their community and what they plan to do to make a difference.

6. Choosing kindness is a main theme in the book, even when Valentina wonders if it makes a difference. Valentina chooses to empathize with the villains and monsters in the book and understand where they are coming from. As a class, brainstorm different acts of kindness you can do in your classroom, school, community, and beyond, along with acts of kindness you would like to receive. Be sure to complete at least one of those acts of kindness. As you continue your day, week, month, and year, take time to notice your surroundings and choose kindness!

Guide written by Cynthia Medrano, Librarian at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, and committee member of Rise: A Feminist Book Project.

This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.

About The Author

(c) Michelle Nicole Photography

Alexandra Alessandri is the award-winning author of The Enchanted Life of Valentina MejíaGrow Up, Luchy ZapataIsabel and Her Colores Go to School; and Feliz New Year, Ava Gabriela!. The daughter of Colombian immigrants, she is also a former associate professor of English, a writer for Curriculum Associates, and a poet. Alexandra lives in Florida with her husband and son.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers (February 13, 2024)
  • Length: 240 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781665917063
  • Grades: 3 - 7
  • Ages: 8 - 12
  • Lexile ® 670L The Lexile reading levels have been certified by the Lexile developer, MetaMetrics®
  • Fountas & Pinnell™ Y These books have been officially leveled by using the F&P Text Level Gradient™ Leveling System

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Raves and Reviews

*Kirkus Reviews Best Books of 2023*

* "With the action beginning on the first page, this fast-paced adventure set in a well-realized world will keep readers on their toes. Modern kids meet traditional tales with thrilling results."

Kirkus Reviews, starred review

"An exceptionally well-crafted story brimming with mythological creatures, captivating characters, and non-stop adventure. A wonderful book to be read by all!"

– Christina Diaz Gonzalez, bestselling author of Invisible

* "Breathtaking. . . An homage both to [Colombia's] beauty and its legends, with a fantastical adventure that will leave readers wishing for more."

School Library Journal, starred review

"Beautiful prose combines with gripping adventure in this magical ode to Colombia and its legends. Fans of Roseanne Brown’s Serwa Boateng’s Guide to Vampire Hunting (2022) and Zoraida Córdova’s Valentina Salazar Is Not a Monster Hunter (2022) will adore this book, for both its mythic monsters and its plucky heroine."

– Booklist

"Alessandri expertly weaves an immersive tale bursting at the seams with folklore, enchantments, and spirit."

– Publishers Weekly

"The Enchanted Life of Valentina Mejía is a fast-paced, epic adventure in a vivid, magical world. Readers will love rooting for Valentina to overcome her obstacles as they devour this enchanting tale."

– Joy McCullough, award-winning author of Code Red and Not Starring Zadie Louise

“An absolute gem of a book that kept me on the edge of my seat. Readers will cheer this plucky Colombian girl as she navigates dangers, learns how the magical world connects to our own, and chooses kindness even at personal risk. The ending made my heart soar! Truly enchanting!”

– Rebecca Balcárcel, author of Pura Belpré Honor Book The Other Half of Happy and Shine On, Luz Véliz!

"This non-stop adventure filled with mythological creatures and magical lands will excite readers and keep them turning the page."

– Adrianna Cuevas, author of Pura Belpré Honor Book The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez and Cuba in My Pocket

"Alessandri embeds Colombian folklore into a thrilling tale that centers sibling relationships, eco-justice, border crossing, and intergenerational family wounds. Readers who love mythology, adventure, and suspense will root for Valentina as she embarks on her hero’s journey."

– Horn Book

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