The Power of Story—Laugh from the Soul

Truly Madly Royally follows goal-getter Zora Emerson, who, at a la-dee-da university’s summer program, meets and falls for an actual prince. She has to learn to navigate a privileged world so different from her own, while sticking to her mission to build an aftercare program for the children in her town.

“When you think of me, laugh. Tell stories.” Through her tears, my mom asked this last thing of me. It was our final conversation before she passed away weeks later.


She urged me to remember the moments that had become legend in our family, some of which my siblings and I had witnessed. Our laughter had cemented them in our memories. But no matter when or where they had occurred, my mom fashioned happenings into humorous stories she relayed to my sisters and me over and over. She never tired of retelling, and we never tired of hearing them. The stories sparked my imagination and nourished my soul.


We even knew in detail her standout moments that happened before we were born. I’m most grateful for those stories because they gave me a more complete sense of who Viviane Rigaud was—not in relation to me, but in her own right. I already knew my mom as an adult woman, an operating room nurse in New York City, the wife of her childhood sweetheart, and mother of four girls. But I also got to view her as a little girl in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, a dutiful daughter, a strong student, a cool cousin and sister to pal around with.


My mom the book nerd had a gazillion adventures with her spirited sister. The time they thought they had to strip off their red school uniform to cross an ornery bull’s path. The time a bully stole an earring right from my mom’s ear, and how her sister got it back. The errands that took nonsensical detours because of all the shenanigans they’d get into along the way (“Hey, you—betcha can’t fight my cousin.”).


There were of course sad stories, hard-to-hear stories, and tons of awesomely creepy stories—after all, Haiti originated zombie tales. The cousin who endured scores of beatings from her hateful mother. The uncle whose death was foretold in dreams. A succession of funeral hearses that mysteriously stalled right in front of her family home until my mother’s feisty grandmother cursed the evil forces thought to be taunting them.


But somehow my mom weaved everything into hopeful tales. Hope was woven into her worldview. Her stories conquered poverty, neglect, colorism and racism, because the victors in them had a secret—they were greater and more eternal than their conditions.


It wasn’t just a story about lacking when she told me about sharing the same school backpack with her sister because that was all they could afford (plot twist: Mom got stuck carrying it during the latter half of the year, when the backpack was no longer shiny and new). It demonstrated what their dynamic characters had in spades—my aunt’s pride, dominance and wily instincts; my mom’s humility, sacrifice, and patience. I loved the impressions her stories made on me. I lived for their powerful takeaways.


Similarly, with my new book, Truly Madly Royally, through the laughs and the deep sighs, a message whispers out to the heart of the reader.


Truly Madly Royally follows goal-getter Zora Emerson, who, at a la-dee-da university’s summer program, meets and falls for an actual prince. She has to learn to navigate a privileged world so different from her own, while sticking to her mission to build an aftercare program for the children in her town.


Thanks to Zora, we come face-to-face with a girl often marginalized to the borders of the popular narrative. We hear her singular voice and learn about her goals. We fail, win and cringe with her. And we do lots of swooning! Yes, black girls enjoy wish fulfillment, too.


Most importantly, we get to know Zora, not as a sidekick, not as an antagonist and not as a minor character. We get to know her in her own right. She is at the center of her world, and we are here to witness all of it. And though there are real-world challenges she has to live with or overcome, we understand that she is bigger than her circumstances. And she’s working to change her world a little each day.


Just as I did for Zora, I am answering my mom’s call to tell her stories and the stories of women and girls like her. They deserve to be heard and seen through a multi-dimensional lens. And when I think of them, I will cheer, swoon, cry, and yes, laugh from the soul.


Debbie Rigaud is the co-author of Alyssa Milano’s Hope series and the author of Truly Madly Royally. She grew up in East Orange, New Jersey, and started her career writing for entertainment and teen magazines. She now lives with her husband and children in Columbus, Ohio. Find out more at debbierigaud.com.

 



This article is part of the Scholastic Power of Story series. Scholastic’s Power of Story highlights diverse books for all readers. Find out more and download the catalog at Scholastic.com/PowerofStory. Check back on School Library Journal to discover new Power of Story articles from guest authors, including Alan Gratz, Jason Reynolds, Rosiee Thor, and more.

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