In 2020, in the midst of Covid, author Donna Barba Higuera was still practicing as an eye doctor, an essential worker on the road when few ventured from their homes. A public radio listener, she was fascinated by a segment featuring a scientist working on drones in the shapes of birds. “I’ve had a weird mind since I was a kid. I cannot go through a day without hearing something and coming up with an idea. Because I write middle grade, I pictured different forms of bird drones. Then this character came to mind, this boy, and I had my start.”

The result is her forthcoming middle grade science fiction novel Alebrijes, due out October 3 from Levine Querido, the cover of which is revealed here. It’s her third book with LQ, and her second sci-fi title. The first, The Last Cuentista, won the Newbery Medal and the Pura Belpré Award. The setting, senior editor Nick Thomas told PW, “is a world completely destroyed, most of it in ashes. The book is about what happens to the few humans survive. What do they turn into?”

A brother’s devotion to his younger sister propels the story, which takes place in an oppressive, class-divided society in which they’re on the lowest rungs. “Thirteen-year-old Leandro always feels small, but he’s the caretaker for his sister Gabi,” Higuera said. “They live in Pocatel, in a society that banishes people for lying, cheating, stealing.” One day in the marketplace, Gabi sneaks a single strawberry from a fruit stand, and Leandro snatches it from her, knowing what will happen if she is caught. “Banishment is a sure death, yet Leandro takes the fall to protect Gabi.”

The Pocatel Valley, ruled by the Pocatelan Regime, is not the children’s home. They are Cascabel orphans, formerly members of the Cascabeles, a group of human survivors who foraged and hunted in the San Joaquin Valley for generations. Crossing a ridge and descending into another valley, they were surprised to find other humans and even more stunned to be captured. Corralled in a primitive tent encampment, they work the fields of the Pocatelans who, despite living comfortably in stone houses, are also tightly controlled. “It’s a world with parallels to our own,” Thomas said, “in terms of migration, scant resources, and two different groups, the one in power controlling who gets those resources.”

Leandro intends to survive long enough to get Gabi out of Pocatel and escape to the lives they led before. But the Valley is home to giant wyrms kept at bay by a massive and deep Trench that encircles the city. When Leandro is caught and condemned to banishment, he expects he’ll be cast out to cross the Trench and the Valley, a journey no one survives. But because he’s still a child, banishment takes on a different form. Spoiler alert: “Leandro doesn’t spend the whole story in his own human body,” Thomas revealed to PW, “so the book asks some really intriguing questions about what it means to be human: to be in these bodies, to be a good person, to survive.”

Here’s where Higuera worked the drones in. “We’re already talking about AI and putting our consciousness in another form,” she said. “And so my weird mind wondered, what if you could put your consciousness into a drone? What type of drone? I go to science, because that other half of my brain works all the time. Bees, hummingbirds, butterflies—pollinators. There’d be pollinator drones. And delivery drones. And entertainment drones, and puppy drones, because people say, ‘Oh, I wish I could just keep my dog a puppy forever.’ It’s like a puzzle. You find the edges first, then slowly but surely you’ll get those middle pieces as time goes on.”

The book’s title, Alebrijes, references a type of Mexican folk art: colorful fantastical creatures created by Mexico City-based papier-mâché artist Pedro Linares Lopez in the mid-1930s. The cover illustration by David Álvarez, rendered in a dark palette, hints at the drone/alebrijes connection. A metallic face, owlish, narrow-beaked, with sad, almost pearlescent eyes, peeks out from a lighted opening within a mysterious sparkling blackness. Dark stone-like branches crisscross the opening, which will be a physical cutout in the cover of the book. The context is uncertain: the darkness might represent a view of the vast cosmos above, or a glimpse into a tunnel underground. Although the sweetness of the gentle creature is endearing—and a windup key is a clue to its mechanical origin—there’s also a feeling of trepidation and hesitation, and an undercurrent of fear.

Álvarez first caught Thomas’s eye three years ago with a book published in Mexico containing what he called “some of the most gorgeous artwork ever.” Before Álvarez started working on the cover, he gave the book a close read. “For me the first reading is the most important... in that first encounter everything is felt with greater intensity and the text evokes images and emotions that no longer exist in subsequent readings.” He told PW, “I was inspired by the idea of a small being going out to discover the world; the touch of sadness is an echo of the context, a post-apocalyptic world mired in fear and hopelessness.” Working with Álvarez for six months, Thomas said the cover is “exactly what we wanted it to be. It feels beautiful and elegant, but also strange and arresting and eerie.”

Higuera, who admits she often sees things too literally, said she is entranced by “the haunting feel” of Álvarez’s work. “It lends itself to one of the book’s big themes: the secrets we keep, and how things are not quite what they seem. This is a society where people are misguiding and misleading others. That’s reflected in the cover, which, when it’s opened, will surprise you. It’s not what you thought.”

Readers of The Last Cuentista will ask, “Is this a sequel? Are both books set in the same world?” Both Higuera and Thomas are evasive in their answers, not wanting to spoil the ending of the book, which resolves the question. But in their third outing as an author/editor team, Thomas is definitive about one thing: “She’s only gotten better. I love that.”