The Lightning Queen, by Laura Resau (Scholastic, Oct 2015), is one of my favorite books of 2015 (I hope it wins the Newbery). If you are looking for a truly beautiful, heartwarming multicultural story about kids who make their dreams come to happen through undaunted determination, this is one I can recommend wholeheartedly.
Every summer, Matteo leaves Maryland with his mother to visit her family in a village on the Hill of Dust, in Mexico. The summer is even more special than usual--Matteo's grandfather Teo tells him a magical story from his own childhood, a story that beings when Esma, self-styled Gypsy Queen of Lightning, comes to the village. Esma's family are Gypsys who travel across Mexico, bringing moving pictures to isolated villages like Teo's, mesmerizing the audiences, but often being met with prejudice and outright hostility.
But Teo and Esma become friends, real life-long best friends, and the two of them make a peace between the villagers and the Romini so that Esma can stay longer, and be sure to come back. Which she does...
Esma dreams of becoming a great singer, but her family don't want to let her go pursue her dream. Teo wants a life of more than goat herding, but Maestra Maria, the teacher at the regional school is harsh and prejudiced against indigenous Mixteco people like Teo (and it doesn't help much that he's accompanied to school by his pet skunk, one of the many animals he's rescued and cares for). But the two of them persevere, and their dreams come true--Teo gets his education, with Esma's help, and Esma gets a chance to sing, with Teo's.
Music takes Esma far from the Hill of Dust, where Teo stays, living a rich life of his own as the doctor to his community. But now, this summer in which he's telling the story of Esma to his grandson, he feels Esma's pull on his spirit. It is time to find her again.
Matteo uses the power of google back in Maryland to track Esma down, and just as he does so, his grandfather flies in from Mexico, having somehow known that the moment had come. And so they meet again--two best best friends, with Matteo and Esma's grand-daughter all set to continue the family tradition.
There's so much to like here, like the rich cast of supporting characters, and the lovely balance Resau achieves between celebrating Teo's indigenous culture and vividly creating a strong sense of place without being romanticizing or patronizing. But its the eminently loveable characters of Teo and Esma who really win the reader's heart. It's not really a fantastical story, except for Teo knowing it is time to fly to America, and perhaps Esma's grandmother's skill at fortune telling. It doesn't need supernatural magic, though, to be magical--the friendship at the heart of the story does that just fine all by itself.
Backmatter about the Mixteco and the Romini people pushes the story into even more of an mind-broadening experience for young readers who might think of Mexico as a cultural monolith. Back in 2009 I interviewed Laura Resau about the intersection between anthropology and fiction (both of us have an academic background in anthropology) and it remains one of my favorite blog posts.
disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher