We had another great book group meeting on Monday night! We so appreciate all of you who come out and spend the evening talking about literature with us! Like all of Engle’s other books, this one got nothing but positive reviews from our readers. With National Poetry Month right around the corner, it’s the perfect book to consider bringing into your classroom for April.
“I find it so easy to forget / that I’m just a girl who is expected / to live / without thoughts.” Opposing slavery in Cuba in the nineteenth century was dangerous. The most daring abolitionists were poets who veiled their work in metaphor. Of these, the boldest was Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, nicknamed Tula. In passionate, accessible verses of her own, Engle evokes the voice of this book-loving feminist and abolitionist who bravely resisted an arranged marriage at the age of fourteen, and was ultimately courageous enough to fight against injustice. Historical notes, excerpts, and source notes round out this exceptional tribute.
I have never been disappointed by one of Margarita Engle’s books and The Lightning Dreamer is no exception. It’s the fascinating true story of a Cuban woman who worked both for the abolition of slavery and equal rights for women. My guess is that many of you have never heard of Gertrudis Gómez de Avellanda, I certainly hadn’t. Engle’s ability to bring to life these lesser known but incredibly important historical characters is part of what makes her work so significant. Her novels in verse make historical characters like Tula accessible and real to younger readers.
In writing this review, I was reminded of my obsession with biographies when I was in elementary school. When I was eight years old I decided that I was going to read every biography in my school’s library. Our biographies were shelved alphabetically by the name of the person the book was about. When I think about the books that I read then, I remember a number of books about Davy Crockett, Grover Cleveland and Amelia Earhart. Obviously, I didn’t make it all the way through, it would seem I stopped somewhere around E. But in thinking back, I’m struck by the lack of diversity in the people represented on my library’s shelves. I can only hope that with the availability of books like that of Engle things aren’t the same now. If books such as The Lightning Dreamer, The Surrender Tree, or Hurricane Dancers had been available to me then, I may have made it past E in my quest to read all those biographies.
In telling the story of Tula, Engle’s book opens up a number of relevant topics for classroom discussion. As Tula becomes increasingly aware of the disparities in society, she begins to both ponder and write about things such as slavery, interracial marriage, and women’s rights. Tula grapples with these moral and ethical dilemmas in a language that invites students to question and struggle with her. She provides a way to teach our younger students about times when equal rights for people of color and women were explicitly denied. While it’s important to continue to discuss the ways in which equality is still not a reality for all people today, it’s just as important to discuss the historical contexts that our contemporary struggles for equality come from.
Engle gives us a strong female protagonist who fights to remain authentic to the things she believes in, but in doing this, Engle also shows how hard it is to be that kind of person. It’s never easy to go against main stream society or to be the outcast among one’s friends or family. Through Tula, Engle gives voice to what it feels like to be alienated or exiled for one’s beliefs. These are powerful ideas for our students to think about—both those who can identify with Tula’s loneliness and those who realize they may be like the people who mocked Tula for being different. Tula is a powerful character, not just because of what she believed, but because of how she chose to stand up for those beliefs. She fought for equality and human rights through her stories and her poetry. She used the power of words as a means to change the minds of those around her. How valuable a lesson for the students in our classrooms—that our words are one of the most powerful tools we have for fighting against the things that try to hold us back. I’ll leave you with the words from Gertrudis Gómez de Avellanda that inspired the title of the book—
“The slave let his mind fly free, and his thoughts soared higher than the clouds where lightning forms.”
The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist has received a number of awards: 2014 YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults, School Library Journal’s Top Ten Latino-themed Books for 2013, Teaching for Change 2013 Favorite, Center for the Study of Multicultural Children’s Literature selection as a Best Multicultural Book of 2013, 2014 Pura Belpré Honor Book, and International Reading Association Top Chapter Book for 2013
Click here to be taken to our Educator’s Guide for the book.
If you’d like to read what others have thought about the book, check out the links to other reviews below: