Celebrating Poetry: Margarita Engle

By Kate Hosford

Margarita Engle is a Cuban-American author of young adult novels in verse. Most recently, The Wild Book (Harcourt, 2012). The Surrender Tree: Poem’s of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom (Henry Holt, 2008) received many awards, including the first Newbery Honor granted to a Hispanic writer.

Margarita has received two American Library Association Pura Belpré Awards, and two Pura Belpré Honors. Her books have been honored by the International Reading Association, the Library of Congress, and the International Youth Library in Munich.

She lives in central California, where she enjoys helping her husband with his volunteer work for wilderness search and rescue dog training programs.

Congratulations on the release of your latest novel in verse, The Wild Book (Harcourt, 2012). Could you tell us a bit about the evolution of this project?

Thank you! I’m really excited about The Wild Book. It was inspired by stories my grandmother told me about her childhood. She was born in 1901, and grew up on a farm in Cuba during the chaos that followed U.S. occupation of the island after the Spanish-American War.

She also suffered the inner turmoil of dyslexia, so I wanted to write about her struggle to learn to read, and her fear of being kidnapped by bandits.

I tried to portray traditional rural aspects of Cuban culture. For instance, poetry was an essential part of daily life on farms at that time.

What was your connection to poetry as a child?

I was a bookworm, constantly reading. I copied poems out of books and tried to memorize them, although I was never great at reciting. I’m more of a silent reader and writer than a performer.

My love of books led to writing poetry while I was very young. Later, during my teen years, I experimented with all sorts of complex rhymed forms, eventually discovering that I love the simplicity of Japanese forms. Free verse now seems to combine complexity and simplicity in a way that feels natural to me.

Almost all of your books are set in Cuba. What is your personal relationship to that country?

At a Havana book fair with old books representing research.

My parents met when my American father traveled to my Cuban mother’s hometown after seeing pictures of the colonial architecture in National Geographic Magazine. He’s an artist, so he decided to paint the quaint town. They met on his first day there, which happened to be Valentine’s Day. They didn’t speak the same language, so they communicated by passing sketches back and forth.

I was born and raised in my father’s hometown of Los Angeles, but during long summer visits to Cuba, I grew close to my mother’s extended family and fell in love with Cuban culture. My passion for tropical nature eventually led to the study of botany and agriculture, but I never stopped writing.

Tragically, diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba broke down during one of my childhood visits, in 1960, right around my ninth birthday. Two years later, after the Missile Crisis, travel restrictions isolated the island. I was unable to visit again until 1991, but since then, I have been back many times, to visit relatives.

I live with constant hope that someday soon, travel and diplomacy might be normalized.

All of your novels are historical fiction written in free verse. Why is free verse the right vehicle for your books?

There’s something about the flow of emotions that fits the form. Free verse has a lot in common with dreaming. Things happen that aren’t expected, even by the author. Images that don’t seem to belong together suddenly join: The Poet Slave of Cuba, The Surrender Tree, Tropical Secrets, The Firefly Letters, Hurricane Dancers, The Wild Book.

All my titles feel as if they’ve emerged from dreams, when really, they just come from the flow of visual images.

I love the way writing a historical novel in verse allows me to distill complex situations down to their emotional essence. I hope to offer an un-crowded page that will invite reluctant readers, while at the same time tackling the mature themes that young adults deserve. They don’t need baby books. They’re bursting with ideas and emotions. They can understand history.

I love it when middle school students send me letters telling me they think my books are easy to understand. The stereotype of poetry as difficult to understand is a relic of the past.

Besides the connection of setting, what are some of the other themes that you see emerging in your body of work?

No matter what story I tell, I usually discover, somewhere along the way, that I’m writing about freedom, whether social, emotional, or spiritual. All my stories have hopeful endings. If I research a topic that I find fascinating, but I find that in real life it had a depressing outcome, I don’t choose that story as one for young people.

When I find real life people who were far ahead of their time, such as Juan Francisco Manzano in The Poet Slave of Cuba, Rosa la Bayamesa in The Surrender Tree, Fredrika Bremer in The Firefly Letters, or Maria Merian in my picture book, Summer Birds, then I know that those are great role models for young people. They are people who became independent thinkers while they were young, rather than accepting unjust concepts taught by the adults around them.

There is also a common theme of nature. Cuba is tropical, lush and green. Everything in the hot, wet tropics grows swiftly, and rots swiftly. There is a duality that suits my perception of human cruelty in places of great natural beauty. Paradise lost, in a sense, yet always with hope.

Your books are filled with descriptions of nature, and I see you also have a background in agriculture and botany. What role did nature play in your childhood?

There were two great contrasts between my life in Los Angeles, and those childhood visits to Cuba. One was contact with my mother’s extended family, the Spanish language, and Cuban culture. The other was nature.

In Los Angeles, I was forced to live as a city mouse, but I always felt out of place. I am a country mouse at heart. In Cuba, I was in the small town of Trinidad, and on a nearby farm, where every plant fascinated me, every animal, every bird…I just couldn’t get enough of nature.

I am still the same way. I became a botanist. My husband is an entomologist, and a volunteer trainer/handler for wilderness search and rescue dog programs.

On a typical Saturday morning, I hide in the Sierra Nevada forest, so our dogs can practice finding a “lost” hiker.

My next picture book is When You Wander, a Search-and-Rescue Dog Story (Holt, March 2013). It will help children understand how to stay found in the woods, and what to expect if a dog is coming to the rescue.

What are some of the daily rituals that feed your poetry?

I love peace and quiet. I write best when the weather is pleasant enough to be outdoors a lot, walking or swaying in a hammock, pen and paper in hand. I’m a morning person. I like to write as soon after dreaming as possible, during that phase when magical realism works its way into the mind, and onto the paper.

For later drafts, I have to come indoors and work at a computer, but at that point, it starts to feel like real work, not just daydreams. Also, I dread deadlines.

I work best when I pretend that time does not exist.

Historical novels in verse require a great deal of research. What was your most difficult research project?

Definitely Hurricane Dancers! The farther I moved back in time, the less reliable information I found.

In the case of this first-encounter tale of Cuban Indians and a shipwrecked pirate, the only first person accounts of the native culture were by Spanish priests. Without a written language, the indigenous point of view has survived only as legend, so I tried to combine what is known with what I feel free to imagine.

Halfway through the research process, I was invited to become a subject of the Cuban DNA Project, and discovered that my maternal mitochondrial DNA is Amerindian. In other words, I learned that I am a descendant of the people I was writing about, Ciboney or Taíno, both considered “extinct” for nearly five hundred years. I carry Haplogroup A, the same genetic marker found in Plains Indian tribes.

Essentially, five centuries of history books were wrong. This not only shows how little we know about history, but also how powerful the survival of a few individuals can be, in an era of genocide. For me, it made the writing of Hurricane Dancers extremely emotional.

I’m so grateful that the book has received the American Library Association’s Pura Belpré Honor, is on the International Youth Library’s White Ravens List, and on Oct. 5, will receive the Américas Award at the Library of Congress.

You were recently invited to speak at the Asian Festival of Children’s Content in Singapore. What was it like to know that your books have traveled so far from home?

It was amazing. The conference was truly multicultural, with participants from all over the world. This year’s regional theme was the Philippines, so I had the chance to meet teachers who are using The Surrender Tree in their classrooms. There is a shared love of poetry, and also the shared colonial Spanish history.

I also had the chance to visit some wonderful museums in Singapore, and learn a bit about the local cultures, and since my husband was with me, we took the opportunity to spend a few days in Sarawak, on the Malaysian side of Borneo.

Seeing orangutans in the rain forest was one of the most magical wilderness experiences of my life.

Would you like to tell us about a project you are working on presently?

My next novel in verse is The Lightning Dreamer (Harcourt, March 2013), about the childhood and youth of Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, Cuba’s great nineteenth century abolitionist/feminist poet.

Unlike male abolitionists, she paired her anti-slavery views with a campaign against arranged marriage, which she regarded as the marketing of teenage girls.

While she was very young, she wrote a daring interracial romance novel that was published eleven years before Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and was far more influential in Europe and Latin America.

I’m also working on a search-and-rescue dog middle grade chapter book in verse that grew out of my story, Trail Magic, which is included in Ann Martin’s anthology titled Because of Shoe and Other Dog Stories (Holt, 2012).

I was amazed when Ann Martin asked me to expand it into a full-length book, to be published by Holt.

I don’t know the exact publication date yet, but it is a contemporary setting in the California mountains, not Cuba, so it was a challenge, an opportunity that was both difficult and thrilling.

What advice do you have for emerging children’s poets?

Never give up. Summer Birds sat in a drawer for thirty years before I pulled it out and finally got it published. Only submit your best work for publication. Think of the rest as practice.

Writers need to rehearse, just like dancers or musicians. We don’t like to admit this, because writing is so slow, but we really do need to practice, so don’t rush. Be calm.

Cynsational Notes

Kate Hosford grew up in Waitsfield,
Vermont, and graduated from Amherst College in 1988. She was happy to
return to her home state to attend Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she received her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults in 2011.

Before becoming a writer, Kate worked as a foster care worker, a
teacher, and an illustrator. Kate is publishing three picture books with
Carolrhoda Books, a division of Lerner Publishing Group: Big Bouffant
(spring, 2011), its sequel, Big Birthday (spring 2012), and Infinity
and Me (fall, 2012). She loves writing picture books, children’s poetry
and middle grade novels.

She has lived in India, Germany and Hong Kong, but presently resides in Brooklyn, New York with her husband and two sons.

3 thoughts on “Celebrating Poetry: Margarita Engle

  1. Great interview! I love Engle's books–though I am behind. I just put Hurricane Dancers on reserve at the library since this post reminded me I had never gotten it somehow. And The Wild Book is there now, waiting for me to pick it up. I really enoyed hearing Engle's voice and thoughts in this, especially about the novel in verse as a form. Thanks!

    (And I'm looking forward to Kate Hosford's Infinity and Me–talk about tackling the big topics!)

  2. Thanks Laura. Margarita was just as delightful and interesting as her books!

    I'm glad that you are looking forward to Infinity and Me as well:-)

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