Among the Volcanoes is a coming-of-age story written for young adults and set in a place far removed from the environments familiar to American readers. Castañeda was able to write the novel in part due to funding from a Fulbright Fellowship for research in Central America that allowed him to study more closely the culture and people of his heritage. Published in 1991 in the United States, the novel is intended for readers between the ages of twelve and eighteen. It is set in the author's native Guatemala and tells the story of a teenager, Isabel Pacay, who experiences the same feelings and uncertainties as any adolescent, but in a very difficult place and time. The political climate is hostile and very dangerous, her mother is afflicted with a debilitating illness, she must stop attending school in order to care for her family, and she is having problems with her fiancé. To make matters worse, Isabel does not always think like the other members of her community. They are very tradition-minded, while she has dreams of taking a different path with her life than the one she is expected to follow.
Although critical response was scant, those who reviewed the novel praised it for its compelling and realistic portrayal of Mayan culture in Guatemala. At the same time, critics felt that the universal themes would appeal to Castañeda's young audience. The book addresses betrayal, love, the difficulties of making decisions as teenagers approach adulthood, the discomfort of not quite fitting in with the rest of the community, discovering one's identity, and the nature of family relationships. The story is about Isabel's responsibility, not just to her family and her fiancé, but ultimately to herself.