Today’s ¡Mira Look! posts highlights acclaimed author, poet and journalist, Margarita Engle. Our January book group will be studying her Hurricane Dancers, The First Caribbean Pirate Shipwreck and I thought it appropriate to give our faithful readers some information on this outstanding author.
Margarita Engle is a Cuban-American who is the first Latina/o to win a Newbery Honor award in 2008 for The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom. Engle describes her love of Cuba, its history and countryside as deeply personal. Her father, a Ukrainian immigrant to the US, whose family fled the pogroms, saw a picture of Trinidad, Cuba and decided he needed to go there. He went and fell in love with Margarita’s mother. For a while, Engle and her family visited Cuba during the summers where she formed deep relationships with her grandparents, cousins, the countryside and the culture. In 1960, when the political climate between Cuba and the US became very strained, Engle and her family had to stop these visits and indeed much of the correspondence between her Cuban family and herself. (US policy at the time would not allow letters/mail to enter into Cuba and Cuban policy would not allow the reverse).
Engle describes her love for Cuba as stemming not only from her personal connection to the island and its people, but also because of her relationship with her great grandmother who grew up in the 1800s on the island. Engle says, “If a child would go to the oldest person in their family and start asking questions. And if the oldest person also remembered conversations and stories told by their grandparents or even great grandparents, you really can go back an amazing length of time and it comes to life” (Colorín Colorado interview). This ability to learn and travel back in time comes to vivid life in Engle’s books. She says, “Writing a historical novel in verse feels like time travel, a dreamlike blend of imagination and reality. It is an exploration” (author’s web site).
Engle has a special ability to bring to life the outdoor landscape so important to her books, in addition to the wonderful characters she bases off real life, or creates. Her appreciation and connection with the outdoors even inspires her to write her poetry in the wilderness, free from distractions of the modern world. “I spend a good deal of time outdoors, allowing the words to inhale fresh air, letting them move to the rhythm of the my gait. The process feels like time travel, an exploration, the journey of a seeker; I’m discovering the flow of my characters’ thoughts and feelings” (interview Teaching Books Blog). This flow she gathers from writing outdoors, solidly and beautifully comes through in her writing about historical characters from Holocaust refugees in Cuba to Cuban suffragettes, to rescue dogs. Engle’s free verse books lend a unique element of freedom and discovery to her writing, almost as if the words are truly being carried on the wind through the pages, to the reader’s ears.
Engle’s award list is exhaustive and deserved, from multiple Pura Belpré Awards, Américas Awards and ALA book awards to countless others, Margarita Engle has a unique ability to transport her readers, young and old, to various points in Cuban history. Her deep affection for the island’s nature, people and the myriad of stories this small island holds, are gently placed in the reader’s hands and hearts. I encourage you to join our January book group to read Engle’s Hurricane Dancer’s and to learn more about her at the links posted below. Young or old, American, Cuban, European or any mix, you will appreciate Engle’s truly unique and beautiful gift.