Margarita Engle is a prolific Cuban-American author who writes children’s, young adult and adult books. Many of her books have Latin American protagonists or touch upon themes of Latin American culture and society. Although she tackles complicated and difficult topics, from abolitionism and slavery to racist exploitation and destruction of the natural world, she makes her work accessible by writing in a poetic, free verse prose — a style which readers young and old alike can readily enjoy and understand. For these reasons and more, she remains one of our treasured and most frequent authors here at Vamos a Leer.
As we do for many of our featured authors, we like to take the time to celebrate that author and his or her collective body of work. Previously, we’ve enjoyed discussing several of Engle’s young adult novels, including The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom, Hurricane Dancers: The First Caribbean Pirate Shipwreck, and Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist. This month we are reading Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings, Engle’s poetic memoir which, though recently published, is already award-winning and acclaimed. In part, we return again and again to Engle’s work because it offers teachers a unique opportunity to engage students around lesser-studied histories. The books are relatively short, with an informative free verse writing form that is at once accessible to struggling readers and inspiring for older readers.
Given our appreciation for how well Engle’s books can fit with classroom instruction, it should come as no surprise that fellow blogger Katrina has produced educator’s guides to accompany each of our featured books above and has also written an inspiring post on Rhythm and Resistance – Teaching Poetry for Social Justice, where she discusses Engle’s use of poetry as “the medium through which to write books about often lesser known historical characters, periods, and events.”
In addition to focusing on lesser-known histories, Engle’s work also demonstrates a profound appreciation for the natural world. In her groundbreaking novel about the construction of the Panama Canal , Silver People, for instance, voices representing the ravaged forest are as equally present as the voices of the exploited laborers. More recently, in her novel Sky Painter¸she brings to life the history of Louis Agassiz Fuertes (1874–1927), whose stunning bird illustrations helped inspire ornithological conservation efforts. Engle has attributed her love for plants and nature to the summer spent in Cuba as a child — a period of influence which she explores in Enchanted Air as she discusses her bifurcated childhood spent growing up on the island nation and in the U.S. Currently, when not writing, Engle also works as a botanist and professor at California State Polytechnic University.
We are not alone in admiring Engle. Her work only continues to gain acclaim and recognition. Most notably, in 2009 she became the first Latino author to win the Newbery Honor for her novel The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom. Yet in truth, she has won so many accolades that it would be impossible for us to list them all here.
In an interview conducted by Colorin Colorado, Engle explains the impetus behind her impressive body of work:
Writing a historical novel in verse feels like time travel, a dreamlike blend of imagination and reality. It is an exploration. It is also a chance to communicate with the future, through young readers. I love to write about young people who made hopeful choices in situations that seemed hopeless. My own hope is that tales of courage and compassion will ring true for youthful readers as they make their own difficult decisions in modern times.
Indeed, Engle’s stories take readers on imaginative, fulfilling and informative journeys while also giving children and young adults the hope and courage to pursue their own journeys and dreams.
For those of you interested in learning more about Margarita Engle, here are some additional resources:
- Publisher’s Weekly interview with Margarita Engle on The Surrender Tree
- Books Together Blog interview with Margarita Engle on Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian (children’s book)
For those of you looking for lesson plans for teaching Margarita Engle’s books, here are some useful resources:
- Activity Kit for The Sky Painter (grades K-3), provided by the author’s website
- Unleashing Readers, interview with Margarita Engle and activity ideas on The Sky Painter
- The Surrender Tree discussion guide from Henry Holt (young adult)
- Six Trait Gurus, activities and discussion prompts for The Surrender Tree (young adult)
- Poetry for Children, activities and discussion questions for Hurricane Dancers (ages 11-18)
- Teaching Books Poetry Activity Kit, discussion questions and printable worksheets for The Lightning Dreamer
- Lesson plan for grades 6-8 and ESL students on The Lightning Dreamer, provided by the author’s website
- Reading Can Educate Readers, activities for The Firefly Letters (young adult)
Stay tuned for an introduction to March’s book themes, and some more wonderful books and resources!