Poets and Poems: #NationalPoetryMonth

Hello, all!

Our wonderful children’s book reviewer, Alice, is away from the blog this week. In  place of her review, we thought we’d share this beautiful resource developed by Bookology Magazine: Poetry Mosaic.

In honor of #NationalPoetryMonth, Bookology has invited authors to read their original poetry and is compiling the recordings into a mosaic of poets and poetry, with a new author highlighted each day. All of the poets selected are amazing, but here are a few of our Vamos a Leer favorites: Jorge Argueta, Pat Mora, and Margarita Engle. Argueta and Engle read both English and Spanish versions of their poems, so this is an even better start to the day for our bilingual readers. Take your pick of language!

Jorge Tetl Argueta     Pat Mora     Margarita Engle
Hope you enjoy this poetic start to the day as much as we did!

Cheers,
Keira

10 Children’s and YA Books Celebrating Latinx Poetry and Verse

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Hello all –

I am thrilled to be celebrating National Poetry Month with you!  As with many of you, poetry holds a dear place in my heart.  As a young person, I recall writing poem after poem and finding such liberation in exploring my voice, playing with syntax and line breaks, and testing out vocabulary that had yet to find a place in my daily life.  Poetry allowed for a freedom and creativity that was unmatched in other mediums.  And because of this, I believe that writing poetry enables us to develop our own voice, author our own truths, and honor our own experiences; all of which play an integral part in a young person’s social, emotional, and cognitive development.

Needless to say, there is absolutely room for poetry in both formal and informal settings.  I was introduced to poetry in the classroom and not long after, I carried it with me into my home.  For this, I am entirely grateful to those teachers.  For those of you who are not sure how to introduce poetry into your classroom or simply would like new ideas, please check out the Academy of American Poets website.  You will find a wealth of resources, including: information about National Poetry Month, ideas for how to celebrate, as well as easily searchable lessons plans for elementary through high school aged students.  I also invite you to check out the work that Vamos a Leer has done around poetry.  For starters, you can find an excellent resource that Katrina has compiled in her En la Clase post titled, Rhythm and Resistance: Teaching Poetry for Social Justice.  Additionally, this month’s Reading Roundup will highlight several previous Vamos a Leer posts which both focus on poetry and provide information about authors, activity ideas, and other relevant content.  Here’s to making this month an extra special one for your students and/or children!

Happy reading and writing everyone!

Colleen

Laughing Tomatoes and Other Spring Poems/Jitomates risueños y otros poemas de primavera
Written by Francisco X. Alarcón
Illustrated by Maya Christina Gonzalez
Published by Children’s Book Press
ISBN: 978-0892391998
Age level: Ages 6-11

Description (from Good Reads):

Tomatoes laugh, chiles explode, and tortillas applaud the sun! With joy and tenderness, delight and sadness, Alarcón’s poems honor the wonders of life and nature: welcoming the morning sun, remembering his grandmother’s songs, paying tribute to children working in the fields, and sharing his dream of a world filled with gardens. Artist Maya Christina Gonzalez invites us to experience the poems with her lively cast of characters–including a spirited grandma, four vivacious children, and playful pets who tease and delight. Follow them from page to page as they bring each poem to colorful life. Laughing Tomatoes and Other Spring Poems is a verbal and visual treat, giving us twenty opportunities to see everything for the first time.

My thoughts:

This is not the first time that Alarcón’s Laughing Tomatoes and Other Spring Poems/Jitomates risueños y otros poemas de primavera has been featured on the Vamos blog.  In 2015, Lorraine wrote an excellent ¡Mira Look! post that offers a well-rounded overview of the book as well as thoughtful resources for the classroom!  Here, I would like to say that I am happy to re-feature this award-winning, bilingual work.  Not only are the themes of family and nature always in season, this is an excellent way to introduce poetry to young readers.  Happy (re)reading!

Round is a Tortilla: A Book of Shapes
Written by Rosanne Thong
Illustrated by John Parra
Published by Chronicle Books
ISBN: 9781452106168
Age level: Ages 3-5

Description (from Good Reads):

Round are tortillas and tacos, too Round is a bowl of abuela’s stew. In this lively picture book, children discover a world of shapes all around them: Rectangles are ice-cream carts and stone metates, triangles are slices of watermelon and quesadillas. Many of the featured objects are Latino in origin, but all are universal in appeal. With rich, boisterous illustrations, a fun-to-read rhyming text, and an informative glossary, this playful concept book will reinforce the shapes found in every child’s day!

My thoughts:

Although Thong’s Round is a Tortilla does not fall within the “traditional” likeliness of a poetry book –its lyrical nature and playful use of words makes for a perfect fit to this month’s theme.  As Katrina writes in her En la Clase post, the book “really inspire[s] the reader to be fully aware of all the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures around them;” skills that are essential for any developing poet.  Additionally, within Katrina’s post you will find some excellent ways to link this (and Thong’s other highly recommended book, Green is a Pepper) to poetry.  For an overview of both Round is a Tortilla and Green is a Pepper, head on over to Lorraine’s review!

Talking with Mother Earth/Hablando con Madre Tierra
Written by Jorge Argueta
Illustrated by Lucía Ángela Pérez
Published by Groundwood Books
ISBN: 978-0888996268
Age level:  Ages 5-8

Description (from Good Reads):

Tetl’s skin is brown, his eyes are black, and his hair is long. He’s different from the other children, whose taunts wound him deeply, leaving him confused and afraid. But Tetl’s grandmother knows the ancient teachings of their Aztec ancestors, and how they viewed the earth as alive with sacred meaning. With her help, he learns to listen to the mountains, wind, corn, and stones. Tetl’s journey from self-doubt to proud acceptance of his Nahuatl heritage is told in a series of powerful poems, beautifully expressed in both English and Spanish. Vivid illustrations celebrate nature’s redemptive powers, offering a perfect complement to the poignant story.

My thoughts:

I am always a fan of Argueta’s work and Talking with Mother Earth/Hablando con Madre Tierra is no exception.  This masterfully written and colorfully illustrated bilingual book of poetry focuses on self-love and nature.  What I find to be particularly valuable about this book, however, is that it challenges dominant ideas of what is considered acceptable and ‘the norm.’  This books invites us to look within ourselves to discover who we are and love ourselves not despite this, but because of this!  This book is also a great way to explore the theme of (de)colonization.  For more ideas on how to incorporate this theme and get a general sense of the book, please see Lorraine’s ¡Mira Look! post.

Somos como los nubes/We Are Like the Clouds
Written by Jorge Argueta
Illustrated by Alfonso Ruano
Published by Groundwood Books
ISBN: 978-1554988495
Age level: Ages 7-12

Description (from Good Reads):

Why are young people leaving their country to walk to the United States to seek a new, safe home? Over 100,000 such children have left Central America. This book of poetry helps us to understand why and what it is like to be them.

This powerful book by award-winning Salvadoran poet Jorge Argueta describes the terrible process that leads young people to undertake the extreme hardships and risks involved in the journey to what they hope will be a new life of safety and opportunity. A refugee from El Salvador’s war in the eighties, Argueta was born to explain the tragic choice confronting young Central Americans today who are saying goodbye to everything they know because they fear for their lives. This book brings home their situation and will help young people who are living in safety to understand those who are not.

Compelling, timely and eloquent, this book is beautifully illustrated by master artist Alfonso Ruano who also illustrated The Composition, considered one of the 100 Greatest Books for Kids by Scholastic’s Parent and Child Magazine.

My thoughts:

As mentioned above, I am a fan of Argueta!  In a time when migration and borders are the forefront of everyone’s minds, this book feels particularly salient.  Undoubtedly, it challenges much of the political rhetoric around those who make their way into the US by humanizing and articulating the realities of why people immigrate.  The verses are simple, yet extraordinarily powerful.  Additionally, Alfonso Ruano’s artwork is simply captivating.  For a more in depth review of Somos como los nubes/We Are Like the Clouds, head on over to the Kirkus Review.

Poesía eres tú
Written by F. Isabel Campoy
Illustrated by Marcela Calderón
Published by Santillana USA
ISBN: 978-1631139642
Age level: Ages 7-10

Description (from Amazon):

For decades, F. Isabel Campoy has been delighting us with her poetry in various publications. Here, we can enjoy all of it. An endless party!

My thoughts:

I am sure that many Vamos readers are familiar with the award winning author and educator, F. Isabel Campoy.   Being fairly new to the field of children’s literature, I am just beginning to familiarize myself with her work – and I am delighted to be doing so!  Campoy’s Spanish language poetry anthology, Poesía eres tú, is diverse in themes; playful in sound, cadence, and rhythm; and rich in colorful art!  You can find a sampling of some of the poems at the publisher’s, Santillana USA, website.  I also encourage you to explore Campoy’s website, where you will find a wealth of books that she has both written and co-written (with Alma Flor Ada, below) in English, Spanish, and both!

Todo es una canción
Written by Alma Flor Ada
Illustrated by Maria Jesus Alvarez
Published by Alfaguara Infantil
ISBN: 978-1616051730
Age level:  Ages 7 and up

Description (from Santillana USA):

This delightful book gathers a selection of the most notable poems written by Alma Flor Ada—Latina writer, teacher, and passionate advocate for bilingual and bicultural education in the U.S. Organized by curriculum themes, this anthology is a fundamental tool for teachers who rely on imagination, play, and creativity to expand concepts and to enrich students’ vocabulary. Some of the themes included in the anthology are the parts of the body, numbers, vowels, family, animals, the city and the countryside, food, nature, bilingualism, and much more.

My thoughts:

Similar to F. Isabel Campoy, I am just beginning to discover the prolific writings of author, poet, and educator Alma Flor Ada.  Todo es una canción, an anthology of Ada’s poems, has been a great way to get acquainted!  The Spanish language book offers educators a variety of themes to work with in the classroom and young readers a wealth of ideas for writing their own poems.  And in case you are in need of additional education resources (who isn’t?) please head over to her website and explore videos, activity pages, and learn about the other books she has authored, or co-authored (with F. Isabel Campoy)!

Cool Salsa: Bilingual Poems on Growing up Latino in the United States
Edited by Lori Marie Carlson with Introduction by Oscar Hijuelos
Published by Square Fish
ISBN: 978-1250016782
Age level: Ages 8-12

 Description (from Good Reads):

Here are the sights, sounds, and smells of Latino culture in America in thirty-six vibrant, moving, angry, beautiful and varied voices, including Alicia Gaspar de Alba, Ana Castillo, Sandra Cisneros, Luis J. Rodríguez, Gary Soto, and Martín Espada.

Presented in both English and Spanish, each poem helps us to discover the stories behind the mangoes and memories, prejudice and fear, love and life–how it was and is to grow up Hispanic in America….

My thoughts:

For exploring poetry with older readers, educators will find Cool Salsa: Bilingual Poems on Growing up Latino in the United States to be an invaluable collection.  This bilingual book of poetry brings together diverse voices from the Latin@ community with writings that invite adolescent and older readers to think about their own stories of growing up.  Overall, I really enjoyed the poetry within this book.  I do, however, think this book may be more appropriate for 12 and up, as some of the poems are more mature in content – despite the indicated age level of 8-12.  What are your thoughts?

CrashBoomLove: A Novel in Verse
Written by Juan Felipe Herrera
Published by University of New Mexico Press
ISBN: 978-0826321145
Age level: Grades 9-12

Description (from Good Reads):

In this novel in verse–unprecedented in Chicano literature–renowned poet Juan Felipe Herrera illuminates the soul of a generation. Drawn from his own life as well as a lifetime of dedication to young people, CrashBoomLove helps readers understand what it is to be a teen, a migrant worker, and a boy wanting to be a boy.

Sixteen-year-old Cesar Garcia is careening. His father, Papi Cesar, has left the migrant circuit in California for his other wife and children in Denver. Sweet Mama Lucy tries to provide for her son with dichos and tales of her own misspent youth. But at Rambling West High School in Fowlerville, the sides are drawn: Hmongs vs. Chicanos vs. everybody vs. Cesar, the new kid on the block.

Precise and profound, CrashBoomLove will appeal to and resonate with high school readers across the country.

A California farmworker kid’s season in hell, told through fast-verse lines that careen to the beat of a fiery heart.

My thoughts:

As Katrina writes in her En la Clase post, novel in verse is an excellent way to introduce young people to poetry.  Juan Felipe Herrera’s book, CrashBoomLove: A Novel in Verse, is a great option.  The narrative, featuring a male protagonist, offers a glimpse into the challenges of being a young person when there is a lot going on around you.  The themes – along with the element of grittiness – are certainly something that my younger self would have appreciated reading about.  Additionally, it is novels (in-verse) such as these that can further encourage young people to reflect on their own stories, their own experience, and their own surroundings; prompting their creative ability to think of their lives in poetic terms.  Consider including this one on shelves if it’s not already!

Bravo!: Poems About Amazing Hispanics
Written by Margarita Engle
Illustrated by Rafael López
Published by Henry Holt and Co.
ISBN: 978-0805098761
Age level: Ages 8-12

Description (from Good Reads):

Musician, botanist, baseball player, pilot—the Latinos featured in this collection come from many different countries and from many different backgrounds. Celebrate their accomplishments and their contributions to a collective history and a community that continues to evolve and thrive today!

Biographical poems include: Aida de Acosta, Arnold Rojas, Baruj Benacerraf, César Chávez, Fabiola Cabeza de Baca, Félix Varela, George Meléndez, José Martí, Juan de Miralles, Juana Briones, Julia de Burgos, Louis Agassiz Fuertes, Paulina Pedroso, Pura Belpré, Roberto Clemente, Tito Puente, Ynes Mexia, Tomás Rivera

My thoughts:

Bravo!: Poems About Amazing Hispanics, written by Margarita Engle is a unique look into the lives of influential and inspiring Latin@s.   Like many of the books on this list, Bravo! can serve multiple purposes.  Not only does it introduce poetry, it also teaches about people that are often overlooked in our school text books.  I certainly learned about several people that I did not know about, including botanist, Ynés Mexía, from Mexico and arms dealer, Juan de Miralles, from Cuba.  Rafael López’s artwork is also stunning!

Under the Mesquite
Written by Guadalupe Garcia McCall
Published by Lee & Low Books
ISBN: 978-1600604294
Age level: Ages 14-17

Description (from Good Reads):

Lupita, a budding actor and poet in a close-knit Mexican American immigrant family, comes of age as she struggles with adult responsibilities during her mother’s battle with cancer in this young adult novel in verse.

When Lupita learns Mami has cancer, she is terrified by the possibility of losing her mother, the anchor of her close-knit family. Suddenly, being a high school student, starring in a play, and dealing with friends who don’t always understand, become less important than doing whatever she can to save Mami’s life.

While her father cares for Mami at an out-of-town clinic, Lupita takes charge of her seven younger siblings. As Lupita struggles to keep the family afloat, she takes refuge in the shade of a mesquite tree, where she escapes the chaos at home to write. Forced to face her limitations in the midst of overwhelming changes and losses, Lupita rediscovers her voice and finds healing in the power of words.

Told with honest emotion in evocative free verse, Lupita’s journey toward hope is captured in moments that are alternately warm and poignant. Under the Mesquite is an empowering story about testing family bonds and the strength of a young woman navigating pain and hardship with surprising resilience.

My thoughts:

Under the Mesquite, written by Guadalupe Garcia McCall, has been highlighted several times on the Vamos blog throughout the years.  With good reason, too!  Winner of the Pura Belpré Award, this novel in verse is a riveting read and great way to introduce and encourage poetry with high school aged readers.  Here, I would like to turn to Katrina’s thoughts on the book from 2013, because they are just as applicable and meaningful today:

Under the Mesquite is a beautiful book.  While it was a quick read, it lingered in my mind.  I found myself continuing to think about it days after I’d finished it.  It’s a book that is certainly worth a second (or even third) read.  The first time through I was engrossed in the story, only subconsciously aware of the beauty and simplicity of McCall’s verse. When I returned to the  novel later, I found myself incredibly moved by the imagery and sentiments conveyed through McCall’s words.  I think Lyn Miller-Lachmann describes it best in her own review: “. . .one of the most achingly beautiful novels I’ve read in a long time. It is a story from the heart, not written to fit into a marketing category but to remember, to honor, and to bear witness.”

Sobre Marzo: Más Resources for Teaching About Latinx and Latin American Women

Vamos a Leer | Más Resources for Teaching about Latinx and Latin American Women

Hola a tod@s!

This month we’re joining many around the country in celebrating Women’s History Month. Of course, we hope that the discussion of womyn (past, present, and future) can be constant and valued within the standard curriculum that’s used all year long, but we don’t deny that Women’s History Month provides a timely opportunity to hone in and heighten that effort. More than just acknowledging women, though, we want to draw attention to the diversity of women whose struggles and experiences have led us to the present day. Unfortunately, information that goes beyond the White (largely middle class and US-focused) experience is scarce. It’s rather hard to identify, let alone come by, resources that  shine a light on the breadth and depth of women’s experiences.

While they get some props for trying, even the Smithsonian Education division only goes so far toward remedying the lack of materials. On their Women’s History Teaching Resources site, for instance, they offer materials that focus on African American Women Artists and Native American Women Artists, but make no mention of Hispanic/Latina/Chicana women!  In all honesty, though, the portal was just recently launched and we can only hope that the content is still a work in progress.

On a more positive note, organizations such as Teaching for Change are making significant strides toward diversifying the conversation. Starting March 1st, they’re daily highlighting diverse books featuring women’s accomplishments every day AND offering a 20% discount on book purchases from their non-profit, indie bookstore (code Women2017). Check out their page on “Women’s History Month: A Book Every Day” for the details.

And courtesy of Colours of Us,  blog dedicated to multicultural children’s books, we’ve been enjoying “26 Multicultural Picture Books About Inspiring Women and Girls” and “32 Multicultural Picture Books about Strong Female Role Models

For our part, we’re going to bring you suggestions for worthwhile children’s and YA literature over the next few weeks, all with the goal of highlighting women’s accomplishments. Stay tuned for our blogging team’s thoughts and contributions! If you’re hard at work diversifying the conversation in your classroom, please share your experiences with us — we’d love to hear what you’re doing to change the world!

En solidaridad,
Keira

An Américas Award Interview: Margarita Engle

Saludos! We’re excited to start the new year by bringing you a second Américas Award interview, this time speaking with Margarita Engle. We’re delighted to have the chance to talk with Margarita about her work and the importance of Latino/Latin American children’s and YA literature. We hope you enjoy, and keep an eye out for her 2017 releases (including All the Way to Havana, Bravo! Poems About Amazing Hispanics, and The Flying Girl: How the First Woman Pilot Learned to Soar).

~Hania


vamos-a-leer-interview-margarita-engle-finalMargarita Engle is an acclaimed children’s book author of many award-winning books written in verse. Before embarking on her journey as a poet and novelist, she pursued studies in botany and agronomy – a background that influences many of h­er works to be rich with descriptions of natural resources and an emphasis on ecological preservation and appreciation.

Among her many accolades, Engle has been recognized several times over by the Américas Award. In 2016 alone, her memoir, Enchanted Air, and children’s book, Drum Dream Girl, were Commended Titles. In 2015, her historical novel, Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal, was an award winner. In earlier years, the A­méric­­as Award has recognized in similar form the exceptional contributions that Engle makes to Latin American and Latino children’s and YA literature.

Here, the author converses with Hania Mariën of the Vamos a Leer blog as she poses questions about the Engle’s ties to Cuba and how her background has influenced her work. For more about Engle’s work, including publications and supporting educational resources, visit http://www.margaritaengle.com/. This interview is also available as a PDF.

Lastly, if you’re piqued by Margarita’s answers here, you may enjoy hearing/reading other interviews with her:

“Finding the Poetry in History: A Lecture” (video) – VOCA: The University of Arizona Poetry Center
Discussion with Margarita Engle (video) – VOCA: The University of Arizona Poetry Center
Interview with Margarita Engle (written) – Yarn: Young Adult Review Network
Interview with Margarita Engle: One Voice, Two Voices (written) – BookPage
Neighboring Nations | Margarita Engle on Her Work, Cuba, and the History that Binds Us (written) – School Library Journal

DECEMBER 5, 2016

HANIA MARIËN: You’ve mentioned that many of your stories (including The Wild Book) wildbookwere inspired by your grandmother. Do you think her voice comes out in your writing? How might teachers use your books as springboards to encourage students to explore their family histories through writing?

MARGARITA ENGLE: The Wild Book was inspired by stories my grandmother told me about her childhood, and Enchanted Air is my own childhood memoir, but most of my verse novels are based on first person accounts written by historical figures such as Juan Francisco Manzano (The Poet Slave of Cuba), Fredrika Bremer (The Firefly Letters), Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda (The Lightning Dreamer), and Antonio Chuffat (Lion Island).  I do think teachers can use The Wild Book and Enchanted Air to encourage students to interview older family members.  Perhaps the best way to do this is to call it time travel.  My memoir and all my historical novels are written in present tense specifically for the purpose of bringing the past back to life.

HANIA MARIËN: In an interview with Colorín Colorado you mention that you gradually combined your love for the outdoors with writing. How did you learn that writing and the sciences were not mutually exclusive? How can teachers encourage students to bridge their passions with writing?

silverMARGARITA ENGLE: As a botanist and agronomist, it always feels natural for me to include plants and animals in my verse novels about people.  In certain books, such as The Surrender Tree and Silver People, wilderness actually feels like a character in the plot.  I’m enthusiastic about STEAM education, so I would encourage teachers to take their students outdoors for little walks, or to show them videos of natural habitats, and let them wonder how it feels to be a tree or a bird.

HANIA MARIËN: Mountain Dog was inspired by your husband’s volunteer work in the Sierra Nevada forests. Summer Birds focused on one of the earliest female scientists and explorers and was selected for Scholastic Knowledge Quest. Most recently you’ve written about the lesser known ornithologist Louise Fuerte in Sky Painter. What role do you believe (historical and/or fictional) narratives play in science education? Do you think (historical and/or fictional) narratives can play a role in all curricular subjects?skypainter.jpg

MARGARITA ENGLE: I love to write picture book biographies about great scientists who have been forgotten by history.  Several are included in Bravo! Poems About Amazing Hispanics, which will be published by Holt in March, and is beautifully illustrated by Rafael López.  I think history text books have a tendency to check off categories such as ‘bird artist,’ leaving room for no one but Audubon. On the other hand, children are smart enough to know that the world needs more than one bird artist. Fuertes pioneered the painting of living birds in flight, ending the tradition of killing and posing birds. That is an accomplishment children respect and admire. I do think historical narratives can play a role in any area of study.  For instance, can you name a Latino Nobel prize-winning medical researcher, or the wildlife biologist who established our National Park conservation policies?  The first is Venezuelan-American, Baruj Benacerraf, and the second is Salvadoran-American, George Meléndez Wright, both included in Bravo!  These are inspirational figures who can serve as role models for children.  Women are even more likely to be omitted from history books.  In Bravo!, I’ve included Fabiola Cabeza de Baca, New Mexico’s pioneering nutritionist, and Ynés Mexía, a Mexican-American plant explorer.

HANIA MARIËN: As a writer you’ve said you were influenced by several Latin American “magic realistic” poets including Octavio Paz, Jorge Luis Borges, Jose Martí and Rubén Darío. Can you share a bit about why those particular writers were so influential or inspiring?

MARGARITA ENGLE: Whenever I’m asked about poets, I just start listing names, because there are so many. Martí and Darío actually precede magic realism, and I also love Dulce María Loynaz from Cuba, and some of the twentieth century poets from Spain, such as Antonio Machado and Jorge Guillén.  I find each of these writers to be inspiring on a particular day, in a certain mood, when I absolutely need to read a verse about freedom, or flying horses, or walking beside a river.  One of my favorite contemporary English-language poets is Mary Oliver, because I find her odes to nature so comforting.

HANIA MARIËN: Freedom is a recurring theme in your books. In an interview with Colorín Colorado you mention that you wrote several of your longer books with a “transitional age in mind” – when readers begin to seek “mature topics, such as freedom and justice.” What make “freedom” and “justice” “mature” topics? At what age do you believe kids can (or should) be exposed to thinking about these ideas? How can books (yours or others) enrich these conversations in the classroom?

MARGARITA ENGLE: Freedom and justice are accessible to very young children primarily in the form of a personal story, such as my picture book, Drum Dream Girl.  Older children and teens are able to grasp broader, more general aspects that cover longer periods of time.  When I say “mature,” I’m not just referring to images of violence from history, but to concepts of time.  Very young preschool children don’t understand centuries, because they haven’t even grasped the difference between yesterday and tomorrow.

HANIA MARIËN: The latest election cycle has generated discussions and debates about the boundaries of freedom of speech. How can educators engage students in discussions that support such freedoms but also respect the outcomes of freedom of expression?

MARGARITA ENGLE: This is a heartbreaking dilemma.  I think we are in a moment of history when it would be unfair to ask Latino and Muslim children to utilize their freedom of expression without caution, because they have been directly threatened by a screaming man on the television screen, a man who is now extremely powerful.  In a memoir unit, facts revealed about families could place them on lists for deportation or internment.  Tragically, it’s very likely that hostile classmates will be encouraged to report certain groups to their parents.  This is a time for teaching poetic devices, showing children how to use metaphors, so that emotions can be expressed indirectly, without placing oneself in danger.  It’s the way poets survive in repressive regimes.

HANIA MARIËN: There has been a lot of rhetoric recently around students feeling unsafe lionand/or uncertain about their futures in and out of the classroom. You say one thing you have noticed about people who are doing amazing things in history is that they “made hopeful choices in situations that seemed hopeless.” What “hopeful” choices can youth and educators make to create supportive communities and classrooms that affirm and validate student experiences?

MARGARITA ENGLE: I think educators can use history to show how people found hope.  There are so many examples of nonviolent heroes who used words to change the world.  Even though history’s mistakes keep getting repeated, history’s freedom advocates always respond.

HANIA MARIËN: Recent events, including the U.S. presidential election and the death of Fidel Castro, present a renewed necessity for understanding the relations between Cuba and the United States. If you were a parent or teacher interested in broaching this topic with youth, how might you structure that conversation? Where would you start?

MARGARITA ENGLE: Cuba has been marginalized by the U.S. for so long that it’s necessary to show a map, even when speaking to adults. The map makes it clear that this is one of our closest neighbors, and that neighbors can be friends.  I’m always saddened when children ask me, “What is Cuba?” instead of, “Where is Cuba?” That means they haven’t studied their close neighbor in class.  Recently I met a high school U.S. History teacher who actually thought that Cuba was still a protectorate of the U.S., like Puerto Rico.  That means she was taught incorrectly.  Ignorance is passed from generation to generation.

HANIA MARIËN: When seeking a perspective on Cuban culture that’s suitable for classroom use, we often turn to your work and that of Alma Flor Ada. Are there other authors or resources that you would recommend?

MARGARITA ENGLE: Thank you! That makes me very happy.  Meg Medina’s Mango, Abuela, and Me is a wonderful picture book about the Cuban-American experience that could be used for any immigration unit.

poems

HANIA MARIËN: We want to draw attention to some of your books and hear what’s on the horizon for you. My colleague, Keira Philipp, returned from her trip to the National Council for Social Studies (NCSS) raving about your new book, Bravo! Poems About Amazing Hispanics  having seen an advance copy (we also learned that it will have a starred review from the School Library Journal!). Keira also heard about your forthcoming book, All the Way to Havana. Can you speak a bit about these projects, their inspirations and where you’re headed from here?

MARGARITA ENGLE: I’m so grateful for her interest!  Since I already mentioned Bravo! above, I’ll focus on All the Way to Havana, beautifully illustrated by Mike Curato.  This is one of the most unusual author-illustrator relationships, because he went to Havana, stayed with my cousins for a week, rented an old car, and rode all the way to Trinidad, in order to make sure his art would be authentic.  It’s a story about a boy and his family driving from the countryside to the city, fixing their car along the way.  It’s a tribute to poor people everywhere, who keep their possessions working because they can’t afford to buy new ones. In addition, I have Miguel’s Brave Knight, a picture book about Miguel de Cervantes, coming out from Peachtree in August, 2017, with absolutely gorgeous illustrations by Raúl Colón.  I wrote it in honor of the power of imagination to offer hope in times of trouble.

I’m a bit embarrassed about the way things have worked out, with three beautiful picture books in the same year.  I wrote them at different times, but somehow they’ve converged.  I hope librarians and educators will order all of them, instead of choosing just one, because they’re for different age groups, about very different subjects. In October, 2017, Atheneum will publish Forest World, an adventurous middle grade novel set in contemporary Cuba, with a strong environmental theme.  It’s a family reunion story, with siblings meeting for the first time, after one parent has lived in Miami, and one in rural Cuba.

surrender-tree-bilingualHANIA MARIËN: For some time now, The Surrender Tree/El árbol de la rendición was your only work available in a bilingual edition. Recently, we’ve been ecstatic to hear about the Spanish language editions coming out, from Enchanted Air to Drum Dream Girl.  Can you speak a little about how this shift has come about and what prompted it?

MARGARITA ENGLE: Thank you!  The publishing world seems willing to experiment at this moment in time, but this has happened before, and it won’t last unless people buy the books—not just mine, but bilingual books and Spanish editions in general.  The brilliant translation of Enchanted Air, by Alexis Romay, will come out in August.  Bravo! will have a Spanish edition.  A middle grade historical fantasy called Morning Star Horse/El caballo Lucero (also translated by Alexis Romay) will be released next month by HBE Publishing, an innovative new small press which is actually making a choice of three separate editions available—English, Spanish, or bilingual.  I feel blessed!

HANIA MARIËN: Lastly, drawing upon your dedication to preserving and promoting Latino/a culture, Cuban and beyond, is there any advice or inspiration you can offer to the teachers reading this interview who may have young Latino/a students in their classrooms?

MARGARITA ENGLE: I hope teachers can help all students enjoy reading about a wide variety of cultures, backgrounds, and experiences.  I hope they can help children feel curious about the whole world.

 


Book images reprinted from Margarita Engles’ website.

Author image of Margarita Engle adapted from photograph by Cybele Knowles, 2014, courtesy of The University of Arizona Poetry Center. Photography copyright Arizona Board of Regents.

 

 

 

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10 Children’s and YA Books about Sung & Unsung Latin@ Heroes

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Hello all!

In case you missed Keira’s Sobre Enero post, this month’s theme honors the many individuals, real or imagined, who populate the rich landscape of Latin@ literature for children and young adults.  This month’s Reading Roundup brings together a few of these heroes, both sung and unsung, whose actions inspired positive change.  While it is a monumental task to choose just a few of the many wonderful books that are out there, I’ve narrowed down the list to books that will encourage our students and children to honor their own truths. I also hope that these books will help expand the literary canon beyond those heroes whose stories are taught repeatedly. The books below encompass a diverse panorama of experiences, accomplishments, and outcomes.  To name a few, these remarkable figures displayed their passion through art, literature, activism, and even by simply passing on their knowledge to new generations.   May you enjoy these works as much as I enjoyed finding them!

Happy New Year!

Abrazos,
Colleen

Sélavi, That is Life: A Haitian Story of Hope
Written and Illustrated by Youme Landowne
Published by Cinco Puntos Press
ISBN: 0-938317-84-9
Age level: 5-7 years old

Description (from Good Reads):

The true story of Selavi (“that is life”), a small boy who finds himself homeless on the streets of Haiti. He finds other street children who share their food and a place to sleep. Together they proclaim a message of hope through murals and radio programs. Now in paper, this beautifully illustrated story is supplemented with photographs of Haitian children working and playing together, plus an essay by Edwidge Danticat. Included in the 2005 ALA Notable Children’s Book List and the Texas Bluebonnet Award Master List.

Youme Landowne is an artist and activist who has worked with communities in Kenya, Japan, Haiti, and Cuba to make art that honors personal and cultural wisdom. She makes her home in Brooklyn, New York, and rides her bike everywhere.

My thoughts:

When reflecting on cultural heroes, it can be easy to focus on already established and well-known figures.  In this, we often miss the opportunity to learn of the everyday heroes who have greatly impacted their communities, improved quality of life for others, and prompted justice in the face of adversity.  Sélavi, That is Life: A Haitian Story of Hope written and illustrated by Youme Landowne, beautifully exemplifies all of the above.  This bold and genuine true story reminds us that our actions make a difference, and that together we are stronger.  As those in the story know, “Alone…we may be a single drop of water, but together we can be a mighty river.”

selaviThis award winning book is presented in two parts: first, a narrative of children protagonists who prompted change in their community and, second, a historical reflection on Haiti written by Edwidge Danticat, an author whom we greatly admire on the Vamos blog.  I hope that you get to read Landowne’s book honoring the strength of the Haiti’s children and community.  If you’re in need of a bit more convincing, however, I invite you to read Alice’s thoughtful and comprehensive review.

Viva Frida
Written and Illustrated by Yuyi Morales
Photographed by Tim O’Meara
Published by Roaring Brook Press
ISBN: 978-1-59643-603-9
Age level: Grades K-3

Description (from Good Reads):

Frida Kahlo, one of the world’s most famous and unusual artists is revered around the world. Her life was filled with laughter, love, and tragedy, all of which influenced what she painted on her canvases.

Distinguished author/illustrator Yuyi Morales illuminates Frida’s life and work in this elegant and fascinating book.

My thoughts:

I became an instant fan of author and artist Yuyi Morales in my first month contributing to this blog when I read, Niño Wrestles the World.  And with each subsequent work that I find of hers, I continue to be enchanted by both her artistry and simplicity of prose; Viva Frida is no exception to this.  The book’s art consists of stop-motion puppets that beautifullyfrida capture symbols present in Frida Kahlo’s life and paintings, including la casa azul, deers, calaveras, Diego Rivera, and her pet dog and monkey.  The bilingual prose is sparse, but manages to convey her bold spirit.  For those young readers unfamiliar with the life and works of Frida Kahlo, they may not grasp the symbolism or understand how the words relate to her life.  Yet, this does not minimize the book’s impact, as it really does stand alone and context feels secondary.  A concluding mini biography of Frida’s life helps lend background info.

For a more extensive review of this book, please check out Lorraine’s ¡Mira Look! post from 2015.  As a highlight from her post, I can’t help but share a short video about how Yuyi Morales created the artwork for this visually stunning book!

That’s Not Fair: Emma Tenayuca’s Struggle for Justice /¡No es justo!: La lucha de Emma Tenayuca por la justicia
Written by Carmen Tafolla and Sharyll Teneyuca
Illustrated by Terry Ybáñez
Published by Wings Press
ISBN: 978-0-916727-33-8

Description (from Good Reads):

A vivid depiction of the early injustices encountered by a young Mexican-American girl in San Antonio in the 1920’s, this book tells the true story of Emma Tenayuca. Emma learns to care deeply about poverty and hunger during a time when many Mexican Americans were starving to death and working unreasonably long hours at slave wages in the city’s pecan-shelling factories. Through astute perception, caring, and personal action, Emma begins to get involved, and eventually, at the age of 21, leads 12,000 workers in the first significant historical action in the Mexican-American struggle for justice. Emma Tenayuca’s story serves as a model for young and old alike about courage, compassion, and the role everyone can play in making the world more fair.

My thoughts:

I really enjoyed this book.  Within the first pages, it becomes abundantly clear why Emma Tenayuca’s biographical story about Emma Tenayuca, a young, Mexican-American activist, story must be included in a post about heroes.   For this post, I would like to highlight Alice’s excellent review of It’s Not Fair/¡No es justo!  She writes:

This book is an excellent contribution to our effort to diversify the immigrant                 narrative, as it exposes not only the initial hardships of immigrating to the U.S., but also the myriad of injustices and human rights abuses that have existed and still do exist for Mexican-Americans upon arrival in the U.S. Emma Tenayuca, from a very young age, recognizes the importance of education and the unfairness of the society around her. Her sympathetic viewpoint, coupled with a focused desire to redress wrongs, leads her to become a pioneer for Mexican-American rights in the U.S.

In her post, you will also find detailed historical information about Emma Tenayuca as well as additional resources that can be used for further teaching.

Tomás and the Library Lady
Written by Pat Mora
Illustrated by Raul Colón
Published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
ISBN: 0-679-80401-3
Age level: Ages 5-7

Description (from Pat Mora):

Tomás is a son of migrant workers. Every summer he and his family follow the crops north from Texas to Iowa, spending long, arduous days in the fields. At night they gather around to hear Grandfather’s wonderful stories. But before long, Tomás knows all the stories by heart. “There are more stories in the library,” Papa Grande tells him. The very next day, Tomás meets the library lady and a whole new world opens up for him. Based on the true story of the Mexican-American author and educator Tomás Rivera, a child of migrant workers who went on to become the first minority Chancellor in the University of California system, this inspirational story suggests what libraries–and education–can make possible. Raul Colón’s warm, expressive paintings perfectly interweave the harsh realities of Tomás’s life, the joyful imaginings he finds in books, and his special relationships with a wise grandfather and a caring librarian.

My thoughts:

Some readers may recall that in celebration of National Hispanic Heritage month, Vamos featured Tomás and the Library Lady.  For the post, Alice wrote an excellent review highlighting the life of Tomás Rivera, provides links to educational resources, and thoughtfully summarizes the book.  Indeed, it is a wonderful fit for honoring the life and works of Tomas Rivera.  Additionally, it is a superb example for this month’s theme of paying homage to the heroes that have inspired us.  In the case of Tomás and the Library Lady, written by Pat Mora and illustrated by Raul Colón, there are multiple “unsung heroes” to be recognized, including the farmworkers and his family.  However, the real hero of this book is “the library lady;” the person whom unknowingly impacted and shaped the life of author and educator, Tomás Rivera.  This very touching book teaches young readers that small actions can have big outcomes!  If you have not yet had a chance to share this book with a student or your own child, please do so – you won’t be disappointed!

A Library for Juana: The World of Sor Juana Inés
Written by Pat Mora
Illustrated by Beatriz Vidal
Published by Alfred A. Knopf
ISBN: 0-375-90643-6
Age level: 5-8 years old

Description (from Good Reads):

Juana Inés was just a little girl in a village in Mexico when she decided that the thing she wanted most in the world was her very own collection of books, just like in her grandfather’s library. When she found out that she could learn to read in school, she begged to go. And when she later discovered that only boys could attend university, she dressed like a boy to show her determination to attend. Word of her great intelligence soon spread, and eventually, Juana Inés was considered one of the best scholars in the Americas–something unheard of for a woman in the 17th century.

Today, this important poet is revered throughout the world and her verse is memorized by schoolchildren all over Mexico.

My thoughts:

Perhaps my admiration for Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz makes me partial in choosing this book about her, but I do so proudly!  Author Pat Mora and illustrator Beatriz Vidal do an excellent job representing this incredible scholar, poet, and activist and advocate.  The story beginsjuana with Juana Inés’ life as child and captures her instinctive thirst of learning.  And although we get the sense that this characteristic love of knowledge is innate to her – that she is truly someone extraordinary – the story’s inspirational tone is not lost on the reader; encouraging us, too, to ask questions, dig for answers, challenge norms, and live up to what we believe is our full potential.  The story of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz is one that every young person should learn about, particularly our young girls.  I am so happy that Pat Mora’s book, A Library for Juana: The World of Sor Juana Inés, makes this possible.

Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & her Family’s Fight for Desegregation
Written and Illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh
Published by Abrams Books for Young Readers
ISBN: 978-1-4197-1054-4
Age level: Ages 7-12

Description (from Good Reads):

Almost 10 years before Brown vs. Board of Education, Sylvia Mendez and her parents helped end school segregation in California. An American citizen of Mexican and Puerto Rican heritage who spoke and wrote perfect English, Mendez was denied enrollment to a “Whites only” school. Her parents took action by organizing the Hispanic community and filing a lawsuit in federal district court. Their success eventually brought an end to the era of segregated education in California.

My thoughts:

For the sake of stating the obvious, Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & her Family’s Fight for Desegregation, is an incredibly important book.  Despite my studies in Chicanx history and literature, I (somewhat abashedly) did not know of Sylvia Mendez and her family prior to reading Duncan Tonatiuh’s award winning book.  The Mendez v. Westminster School District case is not only important to Mexican American history; it is profoundly significant to the history of the U.S. and to the “canon” of civil rights activists who have contributed to creating a more just society.  I am deeply thankful to authors such as Tonatiuh, who bring the stories of often unknown heroes to light and make them accessible to young readers.

To read more on Tonatiuh’s, Separate is Never Equal and for classroom resources, head on over to the Katrina’s review and educator’s guide.           

The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist
Written by Margarita Engle
Published by Houghton Mifflin Publishing Company
ISBN: 978-0-547-80743-0
Age level: Ages 11-13

Description (from Good Reads):

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.

My thoughts:

Margarita Engle’s stunning novel in verse, The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist, introduces readers to a lesser known historical figure and hero.  This Pura Belpré Honor Book is well worth the read and Katrina’s review beautifully articulates why we should all learn about Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda (Tula):

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 Avellaneda 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.”

Celia Cruz, Queen of Salsa
Written by Veronica Chambers
Illustrated by Julie Maren
Published by Dial
ISBN: 0803729707
Age level: Grades 2 – 4

Description (from Good Reads):

Everyone knows the flamboyant, larger-than-life Celia, the extraordinary salsa singer who passed away in 2003, leaving millions of fans brokenhearted. Now accomplished children’s book author Veronica Chambers gives young readers a lyrical glimpse into Celia’s childhood and her inspiring rise to worldwide fame and recognition. First-time illustrator Julie Maren truly captures the movement and the vibrancy of the Latina legend and the sizzling sights and sounds of her legacy

My thoughts:

I simply had to include Celia Cruz in this list!  Why?  She is a phenomenal artist beloved across the globe and if you can’t tell, I am a fan.    And lucky for us readers, author Veronica Chambers and illustrator Julie Maren bring her story to life in Celia Cruz, Queen of Salsa.  I really enjoyed this children’s book on Celia Cruz; it is beautifully illustrated, introduces readers to her childhood personality, and touches on – although briefly- the political climate in Cuba.  Many of us are well aware of Celia Cruz and her importance, and it never hurts to have one more resource to help celebrate and remember her life. Musicians, and their music, are always excellent educational tools!

If you’re curious for more on this book, check out Lorraine’s ¡Mira Look! post.  And for more on Celia, head on over to Jake’s WWW post!

My Tata’s Remedies/Los remedios de mi tata
Written by Roni Capin Rivera-Ashford
Illustrated by Antonio Castro L.
Published by Cinco Puntos Press
ISBN: 978-1-935955-91-7
Age level: Ages 7-11

Description (from Good Reads):

Aaron has asked his grandfather Tata to teach him about the healing remedies he uses. Tata is a neighbor and family elder. People come to him all the time for his soothing solutions and for his compassionate touch and gentle wisdom. Tata knows how to use herbs, teas, and plants to help each one. His wife, Grandmother Nana, is there too, bringing delicious food and humor to help Tata’s patients heal.  An herbal remedies glossary at the end of the book includes useful information about each plant, plus botanically correct drawings.

tataMy thoughts:

My Tata’s Remedies/Los remedios de mi tata, written by Roni Capin Rivera-Ashford and illustrated by Antonio Castro L., is a great representation of “everyday heroes.”  In the case of this beautifully illustrated and bilingual book, that hero is Aaron’s Tata Gus.  Tata Gus lovingly imparts culture, tradition, and knowledge by teaching his grandson about his healing remedies and his profound understanding of plants.  Along the way, Aaron also learns about Tata Gus’ own childhood and what it means to be a part of a community.   This thoughtful book encourages us – and our kiddos – to reflect on who are the “everyday heroes” in our own lives.

The Storyteller’s Candle/La velita de los cuentos
Written by Lucía González
Illustrated by Lulu Delacre
Published by Children’s Book Press
ISBN: 0892392223

Description (from Lee & Low Books):

The winter of 1929 feels especially cold to cousins Hildamar and Santiago—they arrived in New York City from sunny Puerto Rico only months before. Their island home feels very far away indeed, especially with Three Kings’ Day rapidly approaching.

But then a magical thing happened. A visitor appears in their class, a gifted storyteller and librarian by the name of Pura Belpré. She opens the children’s eyes to the public library and its potential to be the living, breathing heart of the community. The library, after all, belongs to everyone—whether you speak Spanish, English, or both.

The award-winning team of Lucía González and Lulu Delacre have crafted an homage to Pura Belpré, New York City’s first Latina librarian. Through her vision and dedication, the warmth of Puerto Rico came to the island of Manhattan in a most unexpected way.

My thoughts:

I would be remiss to not include Pura Belpré in this month’s theme.  She is an exceptional figure that had a direct impact on the communities that she served, the library patrons, and more broadly, on the world of Latino/a Children’s and Young Adult literature as the namesake of the, “Pura Belpré Award.”  Lucía González’s, The Storyteller’s Candle/La velita de los cuentos, excellently introduces the world to Belpré’s talents as a storyteller, her love for community, and how she creatively inspired young Latinos/as to let their imaginations run wild!  Author and illustrator Lulu Delacre provides beautiful artwork to accompany this thoughtful story.  I hope your interest is piqued!  In need of a little more information?  Read Alice’s awesome ¡Mira Look! review!

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Reading RoundUp: 10 Children’s and YA Books with Diverse Latinx Perspectives

 

Vamos a Leer¡Buenos días a todos y todas!

As mentioned in Keira’s Sobre Septiembre post, this month’s Reading Roundup is related to the theme of Hispanic Heritage Month. To guide the direction of this month’s book list, I decided that it was imperative for me to determine what I believe Hispanx/Latinx heritage to be. Initially the task seemed easy enough, as I have certainly carved out an understanding of how I define my own Chicana/Latina heritage. Yet, as I attempted to make connections on a grand scale, I found myself unable. I felt as though I were distilling the vibrancy of an entire collective of people down to a single ingredient, a generalization, and a superficiality.

How does one meaningfully capture the range of cultural practices, traditions, languages, religions, geography, race, and ethnicity – just to name a few – of those who identify as Latinx? How could I be so bold to answer for others the deeply personal question of how they define their heritage? I am only able to define my own.

After much thought, I decided that the best way to view the tapestry of “Hispanx/Latinx heritage” was to hang it up, step back, and explore each pictorial design individually. For that reason, this month’s list will be focused on literature that possesses strong and individual narratives; where the author’s experiences, values, and diversity can seep through the text, allowing their unique Latinidad to be known.

Some of the narratives are rooted in reality, as in Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White. Others are teeming with imagination and the fantastical, as in The Jumbies. Others still may be representative of someone’s reality, somewhere, as in ¡Sí! Somos Latinos/Yes! We are Latinos, or even Niño Wrestles the World.

I invite you to explore and articulate how you define your own unique heritage, or ask your students about theirs. Is the way you define your heritage different from that of your family? Is there literature that represents you? What would be an important element of your heritage that you would want to share with others?

I hope that you enjoy these books as I did and that the diversity within the Latinx experience abounds from their pages!

Mis saludos,

Colleen

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Book Review: Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal

Vamos a Leer | Featured Book | Silver People by Margarita EngleHere’s our review of this month’s featured novel, Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal.  I’m really looking forward to discussing it with our book group next Monday. If you’re an Albuquerque local, we’d love to have you join us!

Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal
Written by Margarita Engle
Published by HMH Books For Young Readers, 2014
ISBN: 978-0544109414
Age level: 12 years and up

Book Summary

One hundred years ago, the world celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal, which connected the world’s two largest oceans and signaled America’s emergence as a global superpower. It was a miracle, this path of water where a mountain had stood—and creating a miracle is no easy thing. Thousands lost their lives, and those who survived worked under the harshest conditions for only a few silver coins a day.

From the young “silver people” whose back-breaking labor built the Canal to the denizens of the endangered rainforest itself, this is the story of one of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken, as only Newbery Honor-winning author Margarita Engle could tell it.

My Thoughts

Without fail, one of the most striking aspects of Engle’s work is her commitment to bringing little or unknown historical figures and periods to life.  Since Engle often writes about Cuba, I was surprised when I heard she had written a book about the Panama Canal. But as I learned more about the story, the choice in topic made perfect sense. Admittedly, I knew very little about the history of the Panama Canal.  Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m alone in that. On Vamos a Leer we frequently reference the idea of the ‘rewriting’ of history. Having now read Silver People, I believe the minimal attention given to the creation of the Panama Canal in our k-12 curricula is an example of one such rewriting.

During the fall students across the U.S. often learn about exploration, conquest, and colonization. They study explorers such as Columbus, de Gama, Cortes, and Lewis and Clark — who are all portrayed as courageous heroes. We’ve talked a great deal on Vamos a Leer about ways in which to provide a more balanced account and understanding of Conquest and Colonization. As I read Engle’s Silver People I realized how relevant her book is to that same conversation. The conquest and colonization of the Americas didn’t stop 500 years ago. It’s been a continual and ongoing process, and Silver People calls attention to this. The construction of the Panama Canal represents some of the most problematic and troublesome aspects of U.S. foreign policy. More than likely, this is one reason why it’s so often glossed over in our textbooks.

This is exactly why a book like Silver People is so important and necessary. Engle brings to life the flora, fauna, and people of a historical period many would prefer not to delve into too deeply. Often, if the Panama Canal is mentioned in textbooks at all, it’s in reference to what a miraculous accomplishment it was. It’s heralded as a pivotal point in the transformation of trade and travel between the U.S. and Latin America. Yet we fail to question what it cost to create such a feat. Engle’s novel offers an answer to this question.

Told from multiple points of view, Silver People recounts the story of the building of the Panama Canal. Engle gives voice to Jamaican and Cuban laborers, overseers, Panamanians, American politicians, and the animals, insects, and plants of the Canal zone. Everyone and everything’s experience is considered. Through the use of both fictional and historical characters, the book provides an excellent example of the ways in which primary source documents and historical and scientific research can be used in creative writing.

In Dr. Laura Harjo’s introduction to the LAII’s recent screening of the film Tambien la Lluvia, she talked about how the effects of colonialism can be seen through the commodification of human beings (such as through the use of slave labor and slave wages) and the deadening of land as it became property that could be owned. I can’t help but connect these ideas to Silver People. Through the voices of the laborers, overseers, engineers, and politicians, Engle brings to light the racism and White privilege that drove the construction of the Panama Canal. Consider the following told from Theodore Roosevelt’s perspective: “All around me, workers with shovels/ are making the mud fly, the white/ Americans supervising while black/ islanders dig, on hillsides/ so steep/ and unstable/ that it would be a real/ waste to risk wrecking valuable machines” (p. 96).  The value of one’s life was determined by a racial hierarchy that sounds very similar to sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s contemporary work on the tri-racial system. The darker one’s skin, the more expendable his or her life was. The Canal laborers were further commodified as they became a tourist attraction: “Towering trees are chopped down/ to build more and more railroad tracks,/ and more gold houses, silver barracks,/ and fancy hotels, so that tourists/ can stare down in elegant safety/ from the high, sturdy rim/ of our danger” (p. 111).  In the Author’s Note, Engle discusses the similarities between Canal Zone Apartheid and Jim Crow Laws. This is an important connection, as it not only contextualizes the Panama Canal through a (hopefully) more well-known US historical period, but also points to the way in which the US exports its racism.

One of the more unique pieces of Engle’s book is the very vivid way in which she shows the living nature of the land of Panama. I know my students would have really enjoyed reading from the point of view of the howler monkeys, the three-toed sloth, or the trees.  The nature-based voices show the ecological devastation of the Canal’s construction. The wilderness areas of the country survived, but, as Engle shows, they suffered great harm in the process.

The hope is that when we use books like Silver People, where multiple points of view and perspectives are considered and given voice, we are creating opportunities for our students and readers to both reflect and develop empathetic responses as they increase their understanding of the complexities of our history. I’m also hopeful that the experience of reading books like Silver People helps our students to see the truth in statements like that of Augusto, who writes: “No one cares because no one knows.  If our history is ever to be told, we must tell it ourselves.  Like howlers in the forest, we must lift our voices about the noise of thunder and dynamite.  Dear friends, amigos queridos, write your memories; help me howl our wild truth” (p. 250).

If you’ve had the chance to read Silver People, I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Just leave a comment below.

If you’re an educator, our Educator’s Guide Page has resources for using the book in the classroom.

We also have Educator’s Guides available for each of Engle’s books that we’ve featured as part of our book group.  The links below will take you to the classroom resources.

Until next week,

–Katrina

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