Laura Resau takes readers to the dusty, rolling hills of Oaxaca, Mexico, with her new middle grade novel, The Lightning Queen. This magical tale begins when Mateo leaves his home in Maryland to visit his grandfather in Southern Mexico for the summer. Slightly bored by his rural surroundings and the lack of an Xbox, Mateo is surprised when his grandfather asks for his help. As his grandfather tells him the story of his childhood in the 1950s, a charming and lively tale of a friendship that defies the impossible unfolds.
We asked Resau a few questions about her time in Mexico, the intriguing history of the "Gypsy" Romani people, the importance of enchanted moments and more.
What inspired this book?
One day, when I was doing cultural anthropology fieldwork in Oaxaca, Mexico, I met a 96-year-old healer who told me enchanting stories about her encounters with the Gypsies, or Romani people. She recounted how, decades earlier, they came in caravans to show outdoor movies and tell fortunes. In her remote Mixteco village without plumbing or electricity, the arrival of the Romani was wildly exciting. After hearing her tales, I felt inspired to learn more about the Romani culture in Mexico and found myself fascinated. I became especially interested in the mutually appreciative relationship between these two marginalized cultures—the Mixteco and the Romani. In The Lightning Queen, I wove this research together with oral histories from my Oaxacan friends and my own experiences in Mixteco villages.
You spent two years living in Oaxaca, Mexico, where The Lightning Queen is set. What is it about the region that moves you?
I’m passionate about indigenous rights issues. More than half of Oaxaca’s population is indigenous, and there are more than a dozen native groups within the state. I first was welcomed into these communities as a teacher since I had a number of indigenous students at the rural college where I taught, and they would invite me to spend weekends and vacations with their families. They were kind and patient with me, helping me grow fluent in Spanish and learn the basics of the Mixteco language. I had the unique opportunity to participate in everyday activities like making tortillas as well as special rituals like healing ceremonies. I especially loved cooking and eating the local, homemade specialties, many of which have pre-Hispanic roots—mole, hot chocolate, atole, tamales, pozole. And the arts are a beautiful part of daily life—weaving palm and textiles, shaping pottery, carving dried gourds, painting little wooden animal sculptures, making dyed sawdust mosaics. I found Oaxaca to be a feast for the senses and spirit.
While Teo is a native Oaxacan, Esma, Queen of Lightning, is actually a Gypsy—a member of the Romani. I was surprised to learn that the Romani traveled so far from Eastern Europe so many decades ago! Can you tell us about the history of the Romani in Mexico?
Over the past several centuries, groups of Romani have migrated to the Americas, often to escape persecution in Europe. The greatest waves of Rom came between the late 1800s and mid-1900s. Some groups first settled in the U.S. or South America and then migrated to Mexico. The Romani do not appear in much of the written history of Mexico since they have been so marginalized. El cine ambulante—the traveling cinema—was popular work for the Romani in the mid-1900s, but after the spread of VCR’s in the 1980s, many Romani have found alternate work, like machine repair; buying and selling vehicles; and performing theater, magic and clowning.
"I’ve observed that children are often more receptive to this natural integration of magic into reality, and don’t feel the need to make a distinction between the two."
There is a strong tradition of magical realism in Mexican literature, and this is woven throughout The Lightning Queen as well. Why is magical realism important, especially in children’s literature?
As an anthropologist and writer, I try to avoid imposing my own cultural categories on the experiences of people in other cultures. Many of my friends in rural Oaxaca, especially my older friends, do not categorize their experiences as being either “magical” or “real-life.” There’s more of an open fluidity in how they describe their experiences, some of which, according to my culture’s category, might be labeled “mythical” or “magical.” I love the genre of magical realism because it respects this fluidity of human experience.
When I was a child, I remember feeling that magic was possible and that it infused my own world. I’ve observed that children are often more receptive to this natural integration of magic into reality, and don’t feel the need to make a distinction between the two. Magical realism in children’s literature lets readers embrace this world view, and encourages them to empathize with and respect cultures and people who accept magic and reality as part of a whole package.
Oaxaca is just one of the many places you’ve traveled in recent years; what location is currently at the top of your travel wish list?
I’ve never been to Southeast Asia—I’d love to go to Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. My aunt is from Thailand and lives there now, so it’s always been on my radar, but recently I find myself dreaming of the tropical landscape, delicious food, vibrant textiles, stunning architecture and other intriguing aspects of these cultures.
Which writer do you turn to for inspiration?
Honestly, these days, the most inspiring writers in my life are the two talented and hard-working women in my writers’ group—Laura Pritchett and Bailey Cates (who has too many pen names to keep track of!). Although they both write for adult audiences, we complement each other well. Laura is always reminding me to dig deep to find the heart of a story, to search for tenderness and not shy away from the gritty and raw. She encourages me to embrace the earthy and the spiritual at once.
And the incredibly prolific Bailey is always reflecting on her creative process, asking herself what’s working and what isn’t, tweaking her routine here or there to make the writing flow more smoothly and feel more joyful. She makes me reflect more, in a pragmatic way, on my own writing habits. And we all give each other heaps of empathy and encouragement through the ups and downs of our writing journeys.
What do you love most about writing for a young audience?
The books that affected me most profoundly were the ones I read as a child and teen. At that time, my worldview was open and flexible enough that these stories planted seeds in me and expanded my understanding of existence. I think that as adults, we tend to be more rigid in our perspectives, and it takes more to tap into our deep empathy. I love getting emails and letters from young people who tell me that my books have changed how they see themselves or the world (in a good way!). It’s an honor to see this coming full circle in my life.
I’ve also noticed that kids are much better than adults at laughing hysterically—with utter abandon—at the funny parts of my books. I love it when kids tell me that something in my story made them roll around giggling on the floor. It’s very satisfying, and not a reaction you’d find in adult readers.
What do you hope your young readers take away from this story?
I’d love it if they develop a fascination with other cultures and languages. I hope the story helps them care more deeply about human rights issues like discrimination and racism faced by marginalized cultures around the world. But I also hope they feel uplifted and enchanted by the fun and magical elements. It would make me happy to see readers take to heart Esma’s advice: “Give yourself a fortune and make it come true.” And I’d be thrilled if the story inspired them to strengthen their own friendships, to help each other see their talents and follow their dreams.
What are you working on next?
I’m in the midst of writing another middle grade novel, also with a Latin American setting and bits of magic sprinkled throughout. Research for this book has involved a trip to the remote Ecuadorian Amazon rain forest, and multiple trips to my local chocolate shop. I’m giving myself this fortune: that there are more rain forest and chocolate shop trips in my near future . . .
Author photo © Harper Point Photography