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A Parents’ Choice Gold Award Winner
“A must-have tale.” —School Library Journal (starred review)
“Weaves together science and magic believably and sensitively.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Pulls on the heartstrings, but gently.” —Booklist

A girl journeys across her family’s land to save her grandmother’s life in this captivating and magical debut that’s perfect for fans of The Thing About Jellyfish.

Yolanda Rodríguez-O’Connell has a secret. All the members of her family have a magical gift—all, that is, except for Yolanda. Still, it’s something she can never talk about, or the townsfolk will call her family brujas—witches. When her grandmother, Wela, falls into an unexplained sleep, Yolanda is scared. Her father is off fighting in a faraway war, her mother died long ago, and Yolanda has isolated herself from her best friend and twin sister. If she loses her grandmother, who will she have left?

When a strange grass emerges in the desert behind their house, Wela miraculously wakes, begging Yolanda to take her to the lone pecan tree left on their land. Determined not to lose her, Yolanda sets out on this journey with her sister, her ex-best friend, and a boy who has a crush on her. But what is the mysterious box that her grandmother needs to find? And how will going to the pecan tree make everything all right? Along the way, Yolanda discovers long-buried secrets that have made their family gift a family curse. But she also finds the healing power of the magic all around her, which just might promise a new beginning.

Chapter One

One
YOLANDA crept to the bedroom door, cracking it just so and peering inside. Her abuela, Wela, was lying in bed with a yellow serape tucked beneath her arms, her chest barely rising. Three orange-and-black butterflies nestled into her long white curls, their wings opening and closing ever so slightly as the morning sun flickered through the tree branches outside the window. It was exactly the same sight it had been for the past two weeks.

Yolanda sighed in disappointment and pushed open the door, letting it groan loudly on its hinges, hoping the sound would cause Wela to stir. Wake up. Wela, please wake up. But Wela didn’t move.

Was this all her fault? She sighed and walked over to the nightstand, twisting the vase of scarlet milkweed blossoms toward the light. Two butterflies sipped nectar from the wilting flowers. She brought the vase to Wela’s fingertips in hopes that her touch would liven the blossoms. But they remained wilted, and she made a mental note to switch them out before she left for school.

The way the light danced across the serape and the fine lines surrounding Wela’s closed pale lips made Yolanda’s heart sink even lower. She’d seen this before, less than a year ago.

Dying.

It was too soon. She couldn’t go through this again.

Wela had fallen into the sleep two weeks ago, and as many things were with Wela, it was a mystery. The doctors said there was no reason she shouldn’t wake. Everything appeared normal on all the tests. Yolanda replayed her argument with her abuela over and over again, desperately hoping it wasn’t all her fault. The sad look in Wela’s eyes and the way she’d held out her arms for Yolanda haunted her. Why did Yolanda have to get so angry? Why couldn’t she let it go? But when she thought of everything that was lost, she felt sick to her stomach.

Yolanda walked over to Wela’s bookcase and ran her fingers along the textbook bindings. Organic Chemistry. Cellular Biology. Human Anatomy. Fundamental Entomology. Botany. They were a mix of Wela’s and Welo’s textbooks. Wela had never gotten around to cleaning Welo’s books out after he died. Next to the books there was a sapphire urn atop a black metal box with a tiny lock. Yolanda averted her eyes as the lump sat heavy in her throat. She couldn’t even look at it without forcing back tears. Even though it had been nearly a year, she still couldn’t bring herself to linger on her abuelo’s urn.

She moved to Wela’s vanity and dug around in her wooden jewelry box until she found her favorite pair of earrings: silver double helices Wela had picked up at a science conference a few years ago. Wela certainly wouldn’t mind her borrowing them for the big day. Yolanda looped them in her ears and shook her head in the mirror. Perfect. They glimmered against her wild chocolate curls and matched her DNA IS LIFE T-shirt. Her fingers brushed the cool stone of the bolo tie at her throat. She closed her eyes. The earrings for Wela, the tie for Welo.

A silver picture frame was lying facedown on the vanity. She picked it up and turned it over, her fingers lingering on the cool metal. Why was it facedown? Had it fallen over? It was a faded black-and-white photograph of three children in front of an enormous pecan tree. Two girls and a boy. The girls stood in front of the tree, their arms outstretched, holding a handful of pecans in each palm. The boy was hanging upside down from the lower branches, making a silly face.

She set the frame upright on the vanity, walked over to the side of the bed, and knelt. As the butterflies opened their delicate wings in Wela’s hair, Yolanda’s tears began to fall, for when she was alone was the only time she let her true feelings out.

“I’m so sorry, Wela. Just tell me how to fix this. How do I fix this?”

Yolanda buried her face in the clean serape, which smelled faintly like green apples.

“It’s not your fault, mija.”

Her head snapped up at Wela’s voice. It couldn’t be … could it? “Wela?”

Wela’s eyes were closed and her chest gently rose with each sleeping breath. She didn’t appear to be awake at all.

“I’m so sorry, Violeta,” Wela whispered, her lips barely moving. “Lo siento, mi hermana.”

Violeta? Yolanda sucked in her breath and her heart leapt. Wela was waking up. Yolanda leaned in, brushing a stray curl from Wela’s forehead, desperately searching her face for any sign of consciousness. “Wela, it’s me, Yolanda, su nieta. Your granddaughter. I’m right here.” She placed a hand on Wela’s wrinkled brown arm to calm her.

For a moment the butterflies in Wela’s long white curls stopped pumping their wings, pausing midair and showing off their lacy patterns.

And Wela opened her eyes.
Photograph courtesy of the author

Loriel Ryon spent her childhood with her nose in a book, reading in restaurants, on the school bus, and during every family vacation. When she wasn’t reading, Loriel built volcanoes, made jewelry, rescued tadpoles with her siblings, and raised butterflies. Now an author of middle grade and young adult fiction and a nurse, she lives in the beautiful New Mexico desert with her husband and two daughters. Visit her at LorielRyon.com.

  • Kansas NEA Reading Circle List Junior Title
  • ALA Rainbow List Selection
  • Bank Street Best Children's Book of the Year Selection Title