When I was a small child, I read and sang folksongs like other children read books. One of my favorite songs to sing was "The Wraggle-Taggle Gypsies, O." I was enthralled with my idea of gypsy culture. The images in my family's book of folksongs were of music and dancing and cards and horses. It all looked so wonderful. And so it was that I was thrilled to receive the story of The Lightning Queen from Scholastic. It was as enchanting as I'd hoped it might be. Middle grade readers will enjoy this finely crafted story of two outsider cultures - Mexico's indigenous people and the Roma, or gypsies. Look for it on shelves in October.
Mateo travels with his mother every summer to visit his relatives on the Hill of Dust in Oaxaca, Mexico. This year, his grandfather Teo says that he needs young Mateo's help; he begins to tell Mateo a fascinating story of his youth,
As he speaks, his words somehow beam light onto an imagined screen, flooding the room with people and places from long, long ago. "Mijo, you are about to embark on a journey of marvels. Of impossible fortunes. Of a lost duck, three-legged skunk, and a blind goa - all bravely loyal. Of a girl who gathered power from storms and sang back the dead. Of an enchanted friendship that lifted souls above brutality.The story then retreats to the Oaxaca of the mid-1900s, a time when Mexico's indigenous Mixteco people crossed paths with the mysterious Roma in the hills outside Oaxaca.
He pauses, tilts his head, "Perhaps there will even be an itermission or two. But as of yet, there is no end. That, mijo, will be up to you." He winks, clears his throat, and begins.
"There once was a girl called the Queen of Lightning ..."
Grandfather put his hand on my shoulder and said, "They are like us, outsiders in Mexico. Both our people have little voice in the government. City folk consider us backward. We live on the fringes, the wilds of our country. So it is with the Rom."
I looked at Esma and her grandparents, who were admiring the sawdust mosaic of the flowered caravan. And I wondered if the key to her people surviving had been separating themselves from outsiders - gadjés. Maybe that's what bonded them together as they danced around their bonfires, night after night for hundreds of years.
As was foretold by the fortune teller and against impossible odds, young Teo becomes "friends for life" with Esma, the young Romani singer. It is as if they are bound to each other by magic and music and the power of lightning - their destinies tied inexplicably to one another.
Teo reminisces to his grandson Mateo,
She could work magic. One moment, I'd felt hurt and angry. The next honored that she'd confided in me. And now, inspired, as though anything were possible, if I believed it enough.
She climbed onto the rock, raised her arms. "If you believe you're weak, you'll be weak. You're cursing yourself. Yet if you believe you're strong, you'll be strong. Give yourself a fortune and make it come true."
There is definitely magic between Teo and Esma, the indio boy and the Roma girl, and there is magic in the pages of The Lightning Queen.