Here’s our review of this month’s featured novel, Enchanted Air. I had such a great time discussing it with our book group last night. They loved it as much as I did! It’s a perfect book for this month’s focus on Women’s History, and may even give you some great ideas for April’s National Poetry Month.
Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings
Written by Margarita Engle
Published by Atheneum Books For Young Readers, 2015
Age level: 12 years and up
In this poetic memoir, which won the Pura Belpré Author Award, acclaimed author Margarita Engle tells of growing up as a child of two cultures during the Cold War.
Margarita is a girl from two worlds. Her heart lies in Cuba, her mother’s tropical island country, a place so lush with vibrant life that it seems like a fairy tale kingdom. But most of the time she lives in Los Angeles, lonely in the noisy city and dreaming of the summers when she can take a plane through the enchanted air to her beloved island. Words and images are her constant companions, friendly and comforting when the children at school are not.
Then a revolution breaks out in Cuba. Margarita fears for her far-away family. When the hostility between Cuba and the United States erupts at the Bay of Pigs Invasion, Margarita’s worlds collide in the worst way possible. How can the two countries she loves hate each other so much? And will she ever get to visit her beautiful island again?
Engle is well-known for her historical novels-in-verse that offer glimpses into different periods of Cuban history. Her passion for Cuba is obvious through her commitment to bringing often little or unknown historical figures and periods to life. Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings shares this same passion, but its deeply personal nature as a memoir-in-verse sets it apart from her other books. As a coming-of-age memoir-in-verse, it’s a unique and engaging way to introduce students to the genres of memoir and autobiography through poetry. Like her other novels, it’s written with beautiful lyricism and descriptions. It would be an excellent way to model for students the power of well-crafted simile, metaphor, and other literary elements.
It’s also useful for teaching content beyond genre or writing style. With references to the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Civil Rights Movement, and JFK’s assassination, Engle’s memoir provides the historical context for teaching about a pivotal historical period. With the state of U.S.-Cuban relations as the backdrop for the majority of the book, the memoir offers a history lesson that is far more personal and engaging than any textbook could offer. The timeline in the back matter provides the means to contextualize the major global events that took place during the period covered.
Engle’s book is compelling for far more reasons than just the content-driven implications discussed above. I was so moved by the reflective, vulnerable, and self-aware nature of her writing. Throughout her memoir, Engle reflects on who she is, the ways she’s changing, how her experiences impact her, and how she comes to understand and process others’ perceptions of her. Self-awareness can be such a powerful tool. What better way to teach this to our students than using Engle’s novel as a model for how we can explore our own understanding of who we are and how we came to be that way. Engle doesn’t shy away from discussing the more vulnerable or intimate aspects of growing up. She lets us in as she examines the feelings surrounding her struggles to fit in and being an outsider. Too often this kind of vulnerability is seen as a weakness. But in her book, it becomes a means to be bold, brave, and courageous. As she writes about her ability to be bold with words, she creates the space for our students to explore writing as the means to examine themselves, be reflective, practice vulnerability, and thus be bold themselves. Perhaps, our students will begin to think about the ways in which they can practice courage in their everyday lives, and not just relegate it to the protagonists in their favorite fantasy novels or comic books. Reading and writing are powerful tools, and Engle demonstrates this through the impact they had on her.
As immigration remains at the forefront of media and political conversations, I hope that Engle’s memoir influences the ways in which we approach this topic as educators. Many of our students are immigrants or children of immigrants. Engle’s experience is relevant to them and should be relevant to us as their educators. Her memoir humanizes the experience of what it’s like to be an immigrant or refugee. Our students who come from multiple languages and multiple cultures need books that help them to explore how this complicates and shapes their identities. In last month’s review of Names on a Map we talked about the idea of inherited exile. It’s an idea that’s clearly relevant here as well, as we read about the ways in which Engle grappled with her Cuban identity and others’ perception of that cubanidad.
As a teacher, I always had a soft spot for my more rebellious students. Certainly, they drove me crazy at times, but I couldn’t help but respect their ability to hold their ground. Engle had that rebelliousness. When a teacher tells Engle that her first story is wrong, Engle’s response is that the teacher is wrong (which she was, given she had no knowledge of plant life in Cuba). When a teacher attempts to shame her over her Cuban identity, Engle thinks “why should such an ignorant grown-up imagine that she knows me?” (p. 44). Not all our students are courageous or independent enough to decide that a teacher who makes them feel badly about who they are or what they know is ignorant or wrong. I can only hope that our students will take note of this rebelliousness and remember it when they need it.
Hopefully it’s obvious that I loved the book. It’s certainly one that deserves to be on the shelves of all our classrooms and libraries.
If you’d like to read what others have thought about the book, check out the links to other reviews below:
- The Pirate Tree’s Complicated Family Histories: A Review of Enchanted Air
- The New York Time’s Sunday Book Review: Sonia Manzano’s ‘Becoming Maria’ and Margarita Engle’s ‘Enchanted Air’
- Kirkus Review: Enchanted Air
- Horn Book Review: Enchanted Air
We’ve featured a number of Engle’s books (many of which take place in Cuba) as part of our book group. They all come highly recommended. The links below will take you to the Educator’s Guide page for each book.
- The Surrender Tree
- The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist
- Hurricane Dancers: The First Caribbean Pirate Shipwreck