Educator’s Guide: Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings

Vamos a Leer | Educator's Guide | Enchanted Air by Margarita EngleEnchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings by Margarita Engle is the selection for the LAII’s Vamos a Leer book group meeting scheduled for March 7, 2016.

The following information comprises a standards-based educator’s guide that the LAII has produced to support using Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings (Engle, Atheneum, 2015) in the classroom.  The standards are not included here, but are included with the lesson plans in the PDF. The complete guide is available for download at no cost: Vamos a Leer Educator’s Guide: Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings.

To read our thoughts on the novel, see our book review.


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?


  • ALA Notable Children’s Books
  • ALA/YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Finalist
  • CBC/NCSS Notable Social Studies Trade Book
  • CCBC Choices (Cooperative Children’s Book Council)
  • Eureka Nonfiction Gold Award (CA)
  • Kansas State Reading Circle Senior High Titles
  • Pura Belpré Award
  • Walter Dean Myers Honor Book
  • Wisconsin State Reading Association’s Reading List


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:

For those of you looking for lesson plans for teaching Margarita Engle’s books, here are some useful resources:


While it is not absolutely necessary in order to use the book in a classroom, background information on Cuba, the revolution, and certain political movements, theories or concepts will be quite helpful in providing your students context and knowledge with which to understand the ideas and the events presented in the novel.  Below you will find a list of links to various resources for teaching about Cuba in the classroom.   These resources could be used before, during and/or after reading the book.

The following lesson plans are comprised of two sections:

  • A short section of suggested activities that can be used before, during or after the reading of the novel which are organized thematically by different subject areas
  • Guided reading questions organized by parts of the book and extended response writing prompts.   These questions have been written to support the types of reading and critical thinking skills required in standardized reading comprehension tests.  The following key words and skills are highlighted: analyze, infer, evaluate, describe, support, explain, summarize, compare, contrast and predict.

In addition to the lesson plans and activities included here, check out the curriculum guide created by Sylvia Vardell, a professor in the School of Library and Information Studies at Texas Woman’s University, and the author of ALA’s popular Poetry Aloud Here, poetry columnist for Book Links magazine, coeditor of the Poetry Friday series, and keeper of the Poetry for Children blog.  It’s an excellent guide that provides a number of research and reflective writing questions, and complementary literature suggestions all linked to Common Core Standards.

Social Studies and History:

Find Cuba on a map of North and South America.  How close is Cuba to the United States? Do you think that the U.S. and Cuba are close enough that events in the two countries could potentially affect each other? In the past, could U.S. citizens travel to Cuba? Could Cubans travel to the U.S.? How do you think these travel restrictions affected relations between the United States and Cuba?  How have travel restrictions changed in the last year?
What is Communism:
Using a history textbook or appropriate print and online resources, research communism.  What is communism? Communism is often held in contrast to capitalism.  Using similar resources find a definition or explanation for capitalism.  How would you compare and contrast the two?

The Cuban Revolution:
The Cuban Revolution took place in 1959.  Research what Cuba was like prior to the revolution.  Who was Fulgencio Batista? What was life like when he was in power? Why were so many willing to support Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution?

Cuban Immigration:
There have been various waves of Cuban immigration during different periods of U.S. history.  One of the first groups to come over in large numbers was children through the Pedro Pan Operation.  In more recent years, smaller numbers of immigrants have continued to come to the U.S.  Research these different periods of immigration.  What was the Pedro Pan Operation? Watch the film Balseros to get an idea of what immigration has been like for Cubans in the past 15 years.  How has the experience changed over the years?

Literature Studies:

Vamos a Leer and the LAII have created Educator’s Guides to the following books that are also about Cuba.  Any of these books could be used to provide another literary representation of Cuba.  The last two by Engle take place in different historical periods than her memoir.  These could be used to expand upon the content provided in Engle’s memoir through small reading groups, differentiated instruction, or independent reading.

Guided Reading Questions:


Review the genre of memoir with students.  Be sure they understand that the author (Margarita Engle) is writing about her own life experiences.

Love at First Sight, Valentine’s Day 1947 | Page 1-4

  1. How and where did Margarita’s parents meet? (p. 3)
  2. Why couldn’t they speak to each other? (p. 3)
  3. What was Margarita’s mother’s first act of courage? (p. 3)
  4. What does “love at first sight” mean? (p. 3)

Magical Travels, 1951-1959 | Pages 5-60

  1. Where does Margarita travel to meet her mother’s family?
  2. Who are the “ordinary people” who “do impossible things”? (p. 7)
  3. What kinds of things does Margarita hear in Cuba? Can you think of a place that you associate with a specific sound? What is the place and sound? (p. 8)
  4. How is Margarita brave in Cuba? (p. 8)
  5. What makes Margarita fall in love with the Cuban farm? (p. 9)
  6. What emotions does Margarita associate with her first visits to Cuba? (p. 10)
  7. What is the double meaning of aires? (p. 10)
  8. What shape does Cuba appear to be on the map? What aspects of Cuba aren’t visible via a map? What aspects of the United States aren’t visible via a map? (p. 11)
  9. What do you think Margarita means by the following lines?
    “Sometimes, I feel
    Like a rolling wave of the sea,
    a wave that can only belong
    in between
    the two solid shores.”
    (p. 11)
  10. How are the plants in Cuba different from those in California? (p. 12)
  11. How does Margarita’s identity as both a Cuban and an American make her feel divided? (p. 13)
  12. What does abuelita do when Magdalena gets polio? Does your family have any similar traditions they follow when someone becomes seriously ill? (p. 14)
  13. Where does Margarita’s family move when their father gets a new job? How is this place different from Los Angeles? (p. 15-16)
  14. Who wrote the poem about la rosa blanca? What is it about? (p. 16)
  15. Why does Margarita’s family move to the foothills near Los Angeles? (p. 18)
  16. How does the fire affect the family? What lingers even after they move to a new house? (p. 18)
  17. What does Margarita’s father portray in his portrait of her? What do these things mean? Why do you think he sees these things in Margarita? If Margarita’s father drew a similar portrait of you, what would it reveal about you? (p. 20-21)
  18. What is Margarita’s first story about? Is it a story with written words? What is her teacher’s response to it? How does Margarita respond to this?  How could the teacher have responded in a more supportive or encouraging way? (p. 22)
  19. What is Margarita’s answer when people ask her if she will be an artist? What can we infer from her personality based on this? (p. 23)
  20. How does Mami deal with her homesickness? Have you ever felt homesick? What did you do to cope with those feelings? (p. 24)
  21. Mami’s expectations for how Mad and Margarita should spend their time are different from what the girls like to do.  How does Mami support their interests even if they might be different from her own? (p. 24-25)
  22. What is Queen for a Day? Why does Mami participate?  Think about how shy Mami is.  What does her willingness to participate demonstrate? (p. 26-27)
  23. How are Mami’s Cuban family stories different from the stories told my Margarita’s Ukranian-Jewish-American grandma? (p. 28).
  24. What do you think the following stanza means?
    “Apparently, the length
    of a grown-up’s
    growing-up story
    is determined
    by the difference
    between immigration
    and escape”
    (p. 29)
    Whose stories are longer, Mami’s or the Ukranian grandmother’s? Who immigrated and who escaped?
  25. How does Margarita describe the self that is at home in Cuba? Do you ever feel like you’re divided into two different people or two different identities? Maybe you’re one person at home and a different person at school? Describe a time when you felt like Margarita. (p. 31)
  26. Why doesn’t Margarita feel like she belongs in school anymore? What does she turn to?
  27. Where is the only place that Margarita gets to horseback ride? (p. 34)
  28. What does Margarita see while she’s in Mexico? (p. 35-39)
  29. Why does Margarita like the palm-leaf raincoat so much? How does it make her feel? (p. 38)
  30. Why do you think Margarita describes courage as an “invisible shadow?” Do you think that courage is like a shadow? How would you describe it? How can you tell if someone has courage?  (p. 39)
  31. What is happening in Cuba when the family returns from their summer in Mexico? (p. 41)
  32. Has anything ever happened where you wished it were a story that you could quickly flip through the pages so you could reach a new story? What was it? (p. 42)
  33. When relations start to deteriorate between the U.S. and Cuba, how do Margarita’s classmates and teacher respond to her Cuban identity?  Has anyone ever asked you “What are you?” How did it make you feel?  Have you ever asked anyone “What are you?”  Can you think of a better way to ask someone about their family history or background? (p. 43)
  34. What seems to change in the neighborhood after relations between the U.S. and Cuba change? (p. 46-47)
  35. Who comes to investigate the family? Why is the family investigated? Why does this frustrate Margarita? What message is being sent about the difference between her father’s family and her mother’s family? (p. 48-49)
  36. What does the FBI threaten Margarita’s father with? (p. 51)
  37. What happened to Japanese Americans when they were all considered enemies during WWII? Why is Margarita afraid this could happen to her family? (p. 52)
  38. How do Cubans communicate what is happening across their country, even to those who can’t read? (p. 53)
  39. How does Margarita cope with the violence of the war in Cuba, the FBI threats, and her own confused feelings? What do you do to cope or feel better when you feel uncertain, scared, sad, or overwhelmed? (p. 54)
  40. Who is coming to visit the family in California? (p. 55)
  41. How can a piece of paper like a passport be so powerful? Can you think of any other ‘pieces of paper’ that are equally powerful? (p. 57)
  42. What do you think Margarita would be like if she lived in Cuba instead of the United States? How would you be different if you lived in another country? Explain and include the country you’re thinking of. (p. 58)

Winged Summer, 1960 | Pages 61-118

  1. Where do Mami and the girls go for the summer? (p. 64-65)
  2. What does Margarita see for the first time in New Orleans? What do signs for “Colored” or “White” mean? Why does this confuse her? (p. 66)
  3. How has the island changed since the last time the family was there? (p. 70-71)
  4. Why doesn’t Margarita feel like she completely belongs in Cuba now? (p. 72-73)
  5. Where does Margarita’s mind wander when they’re out in the fields? What does she find? (p. 74-75)
  6. How is Margarita’s North American self different from her island self? (p. 76-77)
  7. Describe Margarita’s great grandmother or la mamá de abuelita. (p. 79)
  8. How are abuelita and la mamá de abuelita different? (p. 81)
  9. What replaces the library and books for Margarita while she’s in Cuba? (p. 82)
  10. How is the life-style of many in Cuba different from what Margarita is accustomed to in the U.S.? (p. 83)
  11. How does riding the horse make Margarita feel airborne and earthbound at the same time? Can you think of a time when you felt airborne—either literally, or figuratively, as in a time you were incredibly happy? (p. 86)
  12. While Mami describes much of what they see as poverty, Margarita sees something else. What does Margarita see? Why do you think this appeals to her? (p. 93)
  13. Why does Margarita feel more at home at the farm in Trinidad? (p. 95)
  14. Why does Margarita get so upset when her relative calls her gordita? How does Mami try to explain it? Did the woman mean it as an insult? (p. 100)
  15. Why does Margarita begin to question if she is brave enough to be a farm girl? (p. 103)
  16. What chores do Mad and Margarita have to help with? Why these chores? (p. 105)
  17. How do they turn death into music? (p. 109)
  18. While Margarita is too young to do many things, what does her uncle promise her for the next summer? (p. 111-112)
  19. How does Margarita respond when she falls off the horse? What does this tell us about her personality? (p. 114)
  20. What does Margarita leave Cuba with? How do you think she has changed over the summer? (p. 116)

Strange Sky, 1961-1964 | Pages 119-164

  1. Why do you think Margarita feels like her true self is waiting in Cuba? (p. 121-122)
  2. How does Mami change with the deteriorating relations between Cuba and the U.S.? (p. 124)
  3. What is a main issue of contention between Cuba and the U.S.? (p. 125)
  4. How does Margarita feel at her new school? Who does she befriend? (p. 127)
  5. Make an inference: Do you think Margarita feels lonely? Explain using examples from the text. (p. 128-130)
  6. How is Margarita’s world becoming “sharply divided, shrinking?” (p. 128)
  7. Books become Margarita’s refuge (p. 130).  What is your refuge?
  8. Why do you think she can’t find any books about Cuba? Think about the nature of political relations between the U.S. and Cuba.  What does this say about the way access to information is controlled by foreign policy? (p. 129)
  9. What is the Bay of Pigs? How does it change relations between the two countries? (p. 131)
  10. How does Margarita feel at the new Junior High School? What does she do to try and fit in? (p. 132-133)
  11. What does Margarita wish she could change about herself? (p. 133)
  12. What causes Margarita’s feelings about school to change? (p. 134)
  13. What makes Margarita feel safe? What makes you feel safe? (p. 134)
  14. What does Margarita notice about the work she sees in the museum? (p. 136)
  15. What new development worsens relations between the U.S. and Cuba? How does it affect the conversations about Cuba in the U.S.? (p. 137)
  16. What is the Cuban Missile Crisis? How do people react to the crisis? (p. 139-142)
  17. How is the crisis resolved? (p. 146)
  18. In what way is Cuba trapped between the U.S. and the Soviet Union? (p. 147)
  19. What happens to many of Margarita’s friends? (p. 151-152)
  20. How does Margarita’s mother become trapped in the U.S.? (p. 155)
  21. Why is Mami afraid to participate in the marches? (p. 157)
  22. How does abuelita communicate with Mami? What has happened to Tío Darío? (p. 159)
  23. How are things in Cuba changing? (p. 159)
  24. What does Margarita learn from her mother? (p. 162)

Two Wings, 1965 | Pages 165-185

  1. How are the family’s summer travel plans complicated by Mami’s Cuban citizenship? (p. 169)
  2. What do they learn about Cuba from abuelita? (p. 170)
  3. What do they teach in school about the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba? (p. 170)
  4. Why is it so easy for Margarita to imagine Don Quixote while watching her father? (p. 177)
  5. What does Margarita realize about the freedom she’s enjoyed in the U.S.? How is it different in Spain? (p. 178)
  6. What is so powerful about poetic metaphors? What does it allow us to do? (p. 178-179)
  7. How does Margarita describe the bravery of her family? (p. 181)
  8. What does Margarita realize about the power of speaking both English and Spanish? (p. 181)
  9. How does Margarita’s passport separate her from the country of Mami’s family? (p. 184)
  10. What is it that Margarita seems to hope for more than anything else? (p. 185)

Reflective Writing Questions:

  1. Re-read the first stanza on page 32 and pages 132-133. Think about how Margarita describes herself in these two sections. Think about the ways in which these are short reflective poems about how she views herself at school and how others see her. What would you include in such a poem about yourself? Write a similar poem reflecting on how you view or understand the person you are at school and how others see you.
  2. Margarita often talks about changing, wishing she could be less timid, more brave, more courageous. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? Why would you change this? How do you think your life would change as a result?
  3. Think about all of the recent press, conversations, and debates about immigration. How can Engle’s memoir help us to better understand the immigrant experience? Having read her book, how does it inform your opinion on immigration? Did it change anything for you? In what ways does Engle’s book provide a humanizing lens with which to understand immigration? Could her book help you understand anyone you know better? Explain.
  4. As a memoir-in-verse, Enchanted Air is a series of poems that create an autobiography. Write your own poetic autobiography. It can span a significant number of years the way that Engle’s does, or it can focus on a shorter period of your life. It can be one longer poem, or a series of shorter poems with individual titles.
  5. Think about the ways in which Engle matures and changes over the course of her memoir. Describe these changes. Before researching more about Engle’s life, predict what career you think she chose (other than writing). Explain your answer.
  6. Consider the cover of the book.  Study it.  How do you think it reflects the themes that Engle explores in her memoir?  Explain the significance of the different parts of the cover.  Think about the themes you would explore in your own memoir.  How could you represent those themes visually? Create a cover for your memoir.


Written by staff at the UNM Latin American & Iberian Institute (LAII), Vamos a Leer Educators Guides provide an excellent way to teach about Latin America through literacy.  Each guide is based upon a book featured in the Vamos a Leer book group.  For more materials that support teaching about Latin America in the classroom, visit the LAII website.  This guide was prepared 3/2016 by Katrina Dillon, LAII Project Assistant and Alice Donahue, LAII Graduate Assistant.