Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors Part 1: Margarita Engle

 

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

This is the first in an occasional series about middle grade Latinx authors. We decided to shine a spotlight on middle grade writers and their novels because, often, they are “stuck in the middle”–sandwiched between and overlooked for picture books and young adult novels. The middle grades are a crucial time in child development socially, emotionally, and academically. The books that speak to these young readers tend to have lots of heart and great voices that capture all that is awkward and brilliant about that time.

Today, we highlight Margarita Engle, a Cuban-American author who is one of the most prolific and decorated writers in Kid Lit.

Margarita Engle

Margarita Headshot

Margarita Engle is the 2017-2019 national Young People’s Poet Laureate, and the first Latino to receive that honor. She is the Cuban-American author of many verse novels, including The Surrender Tree, a Newbery Honor winner, and The Lightning Dreamer, a PEN USA Award recipient. Her verse memoir, Enchanted Air, received the Pura Belpré Award, Golden Kite Award, Walter Dean Myers Honor, Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, and Arnold Adoff Poetry Award, among others. Drum Dream Girl received the Charlotte Zolotow Award for best picture book text.

Margarita was born in Los Angeles, but developed a deep attachment to her mother’s homeland during childhood summers with relatives. She was trained as an agronomist and botanist. She lives in central California with her husband.

Q. Who or what inspired you to become a writer?

A. I have been writing poetry since I was a small child, so I think my passion for composing verses grew naturally from loving to read. It was not something I consciously decided to try, just something I did the way I ate, slept, and breathed. As a teenager, I did make a conscious decision to try writing fiction, and I began to dream of someday writing a book about the history of Cuba. That finally happened, but not until I was in my 50s. The Poet Slave of Cuba was published in 2006, and The Surrender Tree in 2008, launching a long series of verse novels about Cuban history. By then, I had already published a great deal of poetry, technical botanical and agricultural articles, and a couple of adult novels about modern Cuba, but I have never been happier than when I write for children.

Q. Why do you choose to write middle grade novels?

A. Most of my middle grade novels tend toward the tween end of the age range, perhaps because I was eleven in 1962, at the time of the Missile Crisis. Losing the right to travel to Cuba was a traumatic, surrealistic experience. I believe that a part of myself was frozen at that age, and did not thaw until 1991, when I was finally able to start visiting again. Now, I love to write for children who crave adventure, and still believe in the wonder of nature, children who are not yet embarrassed to love their families, even though they dream of independence.

Q. What are some of your favorite middle grade novels?

A. There are so many! How can I choose? I’ll try, with apologies to all the fantastic authors I’m leaving out. Some of my favorite middle grade books are actually memoirs, rather than fiction. I love Alma Flor Ada’s Island Treasures, Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, and Marilyn Nelson’s How I Discovered Poetry. For fiction, most of my favorite middle grade novels are written in verse: Inside Out and Back Again, by Thanhha Lai, Under the Mesquite, by Guadalupe García McCall, and Words With Wings by Nikki Grimes. I love books that travel to other countries, so I’ll sneak in Solo by Kwame Alexander and A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman, even though they lean toward YA. If I had to choose one middle grade prose novel, it would be the very poetic Echo, by Pam Muñoz Ryan.

Q. If you could give your middle-grade self some advice, what would it be?

A. Don’t be so self-critical. It’s okay to be a bookworm. Stop trying to please everyone else. Just be yourself.

Q. Please finish this sentence: “Middle grade novels are important because…”

A. Middle grade novels are important because that is the age when children are imaginative, wonder-filled, curious, and open to learning about the whole world.

 

Margarita’s newest verse novel about Cuba is Forest World, and her newest picture books are All the Way to Havana, and Miguel’s Brave Knight, Young Cervantes and His Dream of Don Quixote.

Books forthcoming in 2018 include The Flying Girl, How Aída de Acosta learned to Soar, and Jazz Owls, a Novel of the Zoot Suit Riots.

                                                                                                        

 

 

photo by Saryna A. Jones

photo by
Saryna A. Jones

Cindy L. Rodriguez was a newspaper reporter for The Hartford Courant and researcher at The Boston Globe before becoming a public school teacher. She is now a reading specialist at a Connecticut middle school. Cindy is a U.S.-born Latina of Puerto Rican and Brazilian descent. She has degrees from UConn and CCSU. Her debut contemporary YA novel, When Reason Breaks, released with Bloomsbury Children’s Books (2015). She will have an essay in Life Inside My Mind, which releases 4/10/2018 with Simon Pulse. She can also be found on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

Celebrating Pura Belpré Award Winners: Spotlight on Margarita Engle

PuraBelpreAward

The Pura Belpré Awards turns 20 this year! The milestone was marked on Sunday, June 26, during the 2016 ALA Annual Conference in Orlando, FL. In honor of the award’s anniversary, we have been highlighting the winners of the narrative and illustration awards. Today’s spotlight is on Margarita Engle, the winner of the Pura Belpré Narrative Medal for The Poet Slave of Cuba (2008), The Surrender Tree (2009), and Enchanted Air (2016). Margarita has also won Pura Belpré Honors for The Lightning Dreamer (2014), Hurricane Dancers: The First Caribbean Pirate Shipwreck (2012), and The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette’s Journey to Cuba (2011). 

Reviews of The Poet Slave of Cuba and Enchanted Air by Dr. Sonia Alejandra Rodríguez

Review of The Surrender Tree by Cindy L. Rodriguez

THE POET SLAVE OF CUBA

DESCRIPTION FROM THE PUBLISHER:The Poet Slave of Cuba Cover A lyrical biography of a Cuban slave who escaped to become a celebrated poet.

Born into the household of a wealthy slave owner in Cuba in 1797, Juan Francisco Manzano spent his early years by the side of a woman who made him call her Mama, even though he had a mama of his own. Denied an education, young Juan still showed an exceptional talent for poetry. His verses reflect the beauty of his world, but they also expose its hideous cruelty.

Powerful, haunting poems and breathtaking illustrations create a portrait of a life in which even the pain of slavery could not extinguish the capacity for hope.

The Poet Slave of Cuba is the winner of the 2008 Pura Belpre Medal for Narrative and a 2007 Bank Street – Best Children’s Book of the Year.

MY TWO CENTS: In The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano, Margarita Engle beautifully captures the life of Juanito, a slave in Cuba with a talent and passion for words. Juanito is smart. He can memorize verses, songs, plays simply by listening. He can then recite them off the top of his head. His owner, Doña Beatriz, keeps him as an entertaining pet. The other slave owners call him the “Golden Beak” because of his amazing ability to recite from memory. After Doña Beatriz dies, Juanito is given to La Marquesa de Prado Ameno, a woman who does not find him amusing and is instead bent on punishing him. Juanito’s family is given freedom, but he remains enslaved. The violence he endures eventually forces him to escape. Throughout all the time, Juanito’s love for words never wavered, but instead, he taught himself to read and write.

Juan Francisco Manzano’s biography in verse is an important contribution to the retelling of Latin American history. At first, his owners found his recitations entertaining because they did not believe that he understood what he repeated, but eventually Manzano learned the power of words and would construct his own poems and stories. However, this new understanding of words led to many years of physical and emotional abuse. Engle does not romanticize slavery in this text. Her verses help readers feel Juanito’s innocence and his genuine interest for words. At the same time, Engle’s verses feel painful when Juanito gets whipped. Juanito’s life story is told through the voices of those in his life. The different voices paint a bigger picture of Juanito’s life. His mother’s death is more sorrowful, for example, because their voices formed a part in telling Juanito’s story. Engle’s verses are accompanied by artwork by Sean Qualls. There is something about the art that is also beautiful and sad.

The Poet Slave of Cuba broaches the subject of slavery in Latin America unlike any other text I’ve come across in Latinx children’s and young adult literature. Engle’s verses helps put a human face to those that were oppressed, abused, and killed by slavery. Through her verses, Engle has immortalized Manzano’s story, and, at least in this one way, readers of this text can begin or continue to have conversations about slavery in Latin America.

 

THE SURRENDER TREE

DESCRIPTION FROM THE PUBLISHERThe Surrender Tree CoverIt is 1896. Cuba has fought three wars for independence and still is not free. People have been rounded up in reconcentration camps with too little food and too much illness. Rosa is a nurse, but she dares not go to the camps. So she turns hidden caves into hospitals for those who know how to find her.

Black, white, Cuban, Spanish―Rosa does her best for everyone. Yet who can heal a country so torn apart by war? Acclaimed poet Margarita Engle has created another breathtaking portrait of Cuba.

The Surrender Tree is a 2009 Newbery Honor Book, the winner of the 2009 Pura Belpré Medal for Narrative and the 2009 Bank Street – Claudia Lewis Award, and a 2009 Bank Street – Best Children’s Book of the Year.

MY TWO CENTS: In The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom, which was was the first novel by a Latinx to receive a Newbery Honor, Engle portrays almost 50 years of the life of Rosario Castellanos, known as Rosa la Bayamesa, who grows from a slave, a “witch-child” learning about nature as medicine, to an iconic herbalist war nurse who treated anyone–friend or enemy–and never asked for money. Engle’s novel in verse follows Rosa from 1850-1899, through the Ten Years War, the Little War, and the War of Independence. After all of that fighting, the novel ends with Spain’s surrender to the United States. With Cuba still not free, the characters are left with mixed feelings of disappointment and hopeful anticipation for a better future.

Engle’s poems alternate among five perspectives, those of Rosa, her husband José, a slavehunter known as Lieutenant Death, Captain-General Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau, Marquis of Tenerife, Empire of Spain, and a young girl named Silvia. By including these voices, Engle captures different war experiences and interesting intersections. For example, Rosa meets Lieutenant Death early on, heals him later, and then becomes his target, since Rosa has become a powerful, elusive wartime figure. Also, later in the novel Silvia, an eleven-year-old girl, leaves her farm with her ailing mother and young twin brothers because of the mandatory order for peasants to enter reconcentration camps. Silvia’s grandmother had been healed by Rosa in a previous war, and now Silvia believes Rosa is her only hope for survival.

As in The Poet Slave of Cuba, Engle does not shy away from the brutalities of slavery and war. She explains that the ear of a runaway slave, proof that the slave died resisting capture, earns the hunter four pesos. Later, Rosa notes that “some of the ears come from people whose names and faces I know.” Other times, Engle captures the exhaustion, fear, loneliness, heartbreak, and confusion of the men, women, and children hiding in caves. For example, she writes through Rosa:

The Little War?

How can there be

a little war?

Are some deaths

smaller than others,

leaving mothers

who weep

a little less?

And yet, throughout the novel, the characters also express feelings of pride and hope and a constant sense of purpose that leads to perseverance. While reading, it was easy to see why The Surrender Tree is one of Engle’s many highly-acclaimed and decorated novels.

 

ENCHANTED AIR

DESCRIPTION FROM THE PUBLISHEREnchanted Air CoverIn this poetic memoir, which won the Pura Belpré Narrative Award, was a YALSA Nonfiction Finalist, and was named a Walter Dean Myers Award Honoree, 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?

MY TWO CENTS: Margarita Engle’s non-fiction memoir in verse, Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings, tells of her upbringing in Los Angeles during the Cold War era, learning about the Bay of Pigs invasion, and the palpable fear she felt for her family in Cuba. Engle describes the challenges of growing up with two cultures and always longing for one place while in another. Young Margarita finds herself in words when it feels like she belongs to both culture and neither at the same time. Enchanted Air is the outstanding memoir of a truly amazing writer.

Engle’s memoir in verse is a timely story. War and violence continue to separate many children and their family in one country from their families in another country. Engle describes the isolation she felt due to her different culture when she left Cuba for the U.S. The freedom to roam about as she did in Cuba was not always very realistic in the U.S. She notes that even her mother changed a bit. Engle further recounts the fear and anxiety she felt when she learned that her two countries did not get along.  Engle found solace in libraries and the stories they contained. Poetry gave her the wings to soar again. Her memoir stops in 1965 with her childhood hope that she will one day be able to return to Cuba. Now that relations with Cuba have been renewed and commercial flights to Cuba might soon be available there are probably many that are also glad they will be able to reacquaint themselves with the island of their childhood.

TEACHING TIPS: Both The Poet Slave of Cuba and Enchanted Air tell of the importance of poetry as a tool for empowerment. Ask students to discuss the significance of words in Manzano’s and Engle’s childhood. Explaining the historical context of each text will be important so that students don’t conflate one experience with the other. In other words, slavery and the Cold War are not the same experiences and should be differentiated. Ask students to consider the circumstances that left Manzano or Engle feeling voiceless. How did they each use words (i.e. poetry and stories) to empower themselves?

Storytelling is another common thread in both texts. Ask students to discuss the memoirs, autobiographies, and biographies as genres. What are their cultural significance? In other words, why do people write their or other’s life story? Ask student to journal about whose biography they might write. Encourage students to consider someone in their family or in their community as the potential subject of their biography.

Since almost all of the characters in The Surrender Tree were real people, students could research one of the historical figures and any of the wars outlined in the novel. Another interesting exercise would be to closely examine the ending, when the American soldiers arrive and, while they are met with hospitality, they are at one point called “a foreign tyrant” rather than saviors. Students should be encouraged to read the text closely through the eyes of the Cuban characters to understand the mixed emotions at the end, when the U.S. flag is raised instead of the Cuban flag.

For more ideas on these and other books by Engle, check out her “for teachers” page on her website.

MargaritaABOUT THE AUTHOR (from her website): Margarita Engle is the Cuban-American author of many verse books, including a Newbery Honor winner, The Surrender Tree, a PEN USA Award winner, The Lightning Dreamer, and a verse memoir, Enchanted Air, winner of many awards, including an inaugural Walter Dean Myers Award Honor, the inaugural Arnold Adoff Teen Poetry Award, and the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award. Margarita’s books have also received three Pura Belpré Awards and four Américas Awards, as well as a Jane Addams Award, International Reading Association Award, and Claudia Lewis Poetry Award. Books for younger children include Mountain Dog, Summer Birds, and the Charlotte Zolotow Award winning picture book, Drum Dream Girl.

Margarita grew up in Los Angeles, but developed a deep attachment to her mother’s homeland during summers with her extended family in Cuba. She was trained as a botanist and agronomist before becoming a full-time poet and novelist. She lives in Central California, where she enjoys hiding in the wilderness to help train her husband’s search and rescue dog.

 

FullSizeRender (1)Dr. Sonia Alejandra Rodríguez’s research focuses on the various roles that healing plays in Latinx children’s and young adult literature. She currently teaches composition and literature at a community college in Chicago. She also teaches poetry to 6th graders and drama to 2nd graders as a teaching artist through a local arts organization. She is working on her middle grade book. Follow Sonia on Instagram @latinxkidlit

 

 

photo by Saryna A. JonesCindy L. Rodriguez is a former journalist turned public school teacher and fiction writer. She was born in Chicago; her father is from Puerto Rico and her mother is from Brazil. She has degrees from UConn and CCSU and has worked as a reporter at The Hartford Courant and researcher at The Boston Globe. She and her daughter live in Connecticut, where she teaches middle school reading and college-level composition. Her debut contemporary YA novel, When Reason Breaks, released with Bloomsbury Children’s Books on 2/10/2015. She can also be found on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

Margarita Engle: Books in Spanish Enhance Latino Family Literacy

Margarita

By Margarita Engle

A few months ago, I received a set of wonderful letters from a grandmother and her 10-year-old granddaughter. They were reading Enchanted Air together, discussing it, and using it as a way for the grandma to share her own childhood experiences during the Cold War.

It occurred to me that many Latino families can’t do this, simply because most books by U.S. Latino authors are not available in Spanish. With a few wonderful exceptions such as the works of Pam Muñoz Ryan and Alma Flor Ada, in general only bestsellers by non-Latinos, and a few specialized small press books by Latinos, ever get translated.

Soon after those heartwarming grandma-granddaughter letters arrived, I visited a Washington, D.C. eighth-grade class where Latino students asked me for books in Spanish. All I had to offer was one of my oldest books, The Surrender Tree/El Arbol de la Rendición, a dual language paperback that resulted from this title’s status as a Newbery Honor winner.

Surrende Tree NotableMy next school visit was to a rural sixth-grade class in California’s agricultural Central Valley. The students were all Latino, and most spoke English, but teachers informed me that many of the parents and grandparents were not bilingual. The only way those families could participate in their children’s education was in Spanish. Fortunately, the school had a grant to provide a signed copy of The Surrender Tree/El Arbol de la Rendición to each student. Those books will go home and be available to the whole family. That’s no guarantee that parents will read and discuss them, but at least it is a possibility.

The need for bilingual books for older children has been on my mind so much that when I served on a diversity panel at a national teachers’ conference, I answered the question, “What are your wishes for the publishing industry?” with the statement, “I wish for translations.”

I pointed out that fifty million people in the U.S. speak Spanish, and that just because the publishing industry has never figured out how to reach this vast “market,” that doesn’t mean it will never be reached. We can’t give up. Until there are more translations, family literacy in this country will never be complete.

Fortunately, I will soon have another bilingual book. A new and innovative small press called HBE Publishing has set a fall 2016 release date for a middle grade historical verse novel that I wrote in the style of magic realism. There will be both English-only and bilingual options, so that schools or individuals can order their preferred format. I won’t receive any advance, but the royalty will be much higher than the usual 10%, a trade-off I’m happy to make, in exchange for a beautiful bilingual edition that children can share with their abuelitos. Perhaps innovation is what it will take to resolve the problem of too few translations.

 

Margarita Engle is a prolific author of books for young readers, most recently of Enchanted Air and Drum Dream Girl. She has won countless awards for her work, including the Pura Belpré and the Newbery Honor. Her guest posts on this blog are favorites with readers. Check out her essay on researching and writing the stories of historical heroes. For more information on Margarita’s writing, please visit her official author website.

The same day that this guest post published, Margarita received the 2016 Pura Belpré Author Award for Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings. Congratulations, Margarita! 

 

Margarita’s experiences point to the shortage of Latin@-authored Spanish editions for middle-grade readers. When we researched available titles, we came up with the following modest sampler. Help us expand it! In the comments, please tell us about good bilingual MGs or fully Spanish editions that you’ve run across. Remember, we’re not looking for translations of mega bestsellers like the Harry Potter or Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. We’d like to identify books that center on Latin@ characters and themes. Thanks in advance for your suggestions!

Note: Some of the bilingual book covers shown below don’t include their Spanish title. 

Si, Somos LatinosEsperanza Renace  Antes de ser libres  Beisbol en abril  Yo Naomi Leon  La travesia de Enrique La Casa en Mango Street  El Color de mis palabras   Cajas de carton  Cool Salsa    Alla Donde Florecen  Upside-Down-and-Backwards-350x550  Una momia en su mochila  Tomando partido  Tia Lola Terminó  Nacer bailando  Lemon-Tree-Caper-The-350x550  Gabi Esta Aqui  El Monstruo  El Caso de la Pluma Perdida  Cuentos Sazon  con-carino-amalia-love-amalia  Cartas del cielo  Cuentos para chicos y grandes  Cuentos de Apolo

Drum Dream Girl Story Walk: A Literary Stroll Around My Neighborhood

 

By Sujei Lugo

My public library has been collaborating with a local non-profit community organization for more than 10 years, and when I started working there as the children’s librarian earlier this year, one of my plans was to continue building our relationship with this non-profit. This organization offers youth development programs meant to engage young people in a variety of activities including community organizing, advocacy, and educational programs. The majority of the programs focus on Afro-Latino dance, music, and community-theatre workshops and classes. I’ve invited participants, mainly Afro-Latino teens, to offer workshops and put on performances at my library. Such activities help them to develop leadership skills and give them a sense of empowerment and visibility in their community.

Drum Dream Girl Story Walk page 1 and map located at the library entrance

Drum Dream Girl Story Walk page 1 and map located at the library entrance

A couple of months ago, I contacted their arts and cultural programs director to discuss a great new picture book, Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music, by Margarita Engle and Rafael López. This book seemed like ideal material to adapt into a play. Not long after that conversation, the organization’s special-projects manager stopped by my library and we had an informal chat about future collaborations. We wanted to work together on programming that would connect my library with their youth community center, located just five blocks away. This is when I shared my idea for a story walk, which seemed like a perfect way to integrate the community, cover the physical area between both buildings, and support literacy initiatives. She loved the idea, and it fit our mutual vision, for the following reasons: A. our community has a huge Latin@ population with lots of Latin@-owned businesses; B. a group of Afro-Latina teen drummers is active in the non-profit; C. my obsession and support for Latino children’s literature; and D. the Cuban restaurants in our neighborhood seemed like a natural tie-in for Drum Dream Girl in the context of a story walk.

Now we needed to move to the fun part: the planning.

First, we identified and contacted local businesses and organizations to talk about our story walk idea and our interest in incorporating them into the program. We explained that we were going to take a picture book, create poster boards for each page, and post them in storefront windows. Participants would walk down the street from the library to the youth community center, and following a Drum Dream Girl Story Walk map, they would read the page displays along the route. Community members responded enthusiastically, from “Eso está genial. Todo sea por la biblioteca y los niñ@s,” to “That’s so cool. Of course we are in.” Using their storefront windows was a great way to integrate them into our story walk. In the neighborhood surrounding the library, 90% of the businesses and organizations are locally owned and they include a significant number of non-profit endeavors. What’s more, 11 out of the 15 storefront participants turned out to be Latin@-owned businesses. Once they agreed to take part in the walk, we created a map containing the street addresses of each storefront and the corresponding page number(s) from the book located at each address.

Next came the creation of the story pages which would be posted in the windows. A successful story walk works best when using a picture book with a simple, easy-to-follow narrative, featuring single page illustrations, and minimal text. In this case, we made allowances for Rafael López, who paints some of the most beautiful illustrations in children’s literature, but which are usually double-page spreads. This posed a bit of a challenge. We first purchased three copies of the book, since we needed to use actual pages and not scans or photocopies. Then, using an X-acto knife, a pair of scissors, and a lot of patience, I carefully separated and cut the pages. This was done using two copies of the book, to ensure the display of all pages, front and back. (The third copy was a backup, in case of errors.) To maintain the look of the full spreads,  I carefully rejoined separated pages with hidden adhesive tape. Using glue sticks, I attached the pages to poster boards and added a prepared label containing the book’s title, the author’s and illustrator’s names, the correct page number, and the names of the sponsoring library and community organization. The final step was to trim and laminate each poster board.

From beauty salons to Cuban restaurants and health centers, the Drum Dream Girl Story Walk boards

From beauty salons to Cuban restaurants and health centers, the Drum Dream Girl Story Walk boards

 

For our story walk inauguration, we selected a Saturday morning. The actual story walk was designed to be read independently, which allowed families and individuals to follow the story at their own pace. They would pick up a map at the library, walk down the main street reading each story poster, and end up at the youth community center where related activities were being offered. To enhance the reading experience, we encouraged kids to jot down certain details of the story, such as the number of people they saw on each poster, which quickly turned into a game for them and increased their attentiveness. Since this book is about an Afro-Latina drummer, several activities were music-related. At a craft table, children created their own drums, maracas, and other instruments, using recycled materials. In a separate room, story-walk readers had the opportunity to participate in a drumming workshop conducted by Latina teen drummers. These activities brought an already wonderful book to life, and provided a way to celebrate the power of music as well as elements of Latino heritage.  The publisher was kind enough to furnish a few copies of the book, which were given out as prizes to the first kids that finished the story walk.

The Drum Dream Girl Story Walk was up for a two-week period. During this time, patrons stopped by the library to pick up maps, children flocked to the crafts area to make musical instruments, and many picked up a copy of the book, while others shared their excitement about how well the story walk integrated their community. A copy of the map was located outside, at the front of the library, so that even during our closed hours, anyone interested could follow the story on their own. A lot of people who knew nothing about the program enjoyed the story as they passed through the neighborhood, leading to greater awareness about the story walk, the library, the community, and of course, the courageous Cuban girl who changed a piece of music history.

Drum dreamers

Drum dreamers

 

The Drum Dream Story Walk was a great event to plan and implement in an urban setting, and although it took time and patience to create the poster boards, I would definitely do it again. Alternative programs like this contribute to breaking down the physical barriers that often exist between a library and the community it serves, and also tighten relationships with local groups, businesses, and library patrons. I foresee future story walks in my library work, using diverse picture books and bilingual titles. I also intend to invite school classes and local groups to form story-walk read-alouds. And let’s not forget that music and art-making activities enhance the story-walk experience and help bring a book to life in memorable ways.

 

SujeiLugoSujei Lugo was born in New Jersey and raised in her parents’ rural hometown in Puerto Rico. She earned her Master’s in Library and Information Science degree from the Graduate School of Information Sciences and Technologies at the University of Puerto Rico and is a doctoral candidate in Library and Information Science at Simmons College, focusing her research on Latino librarianship and identity. She has worked as a librarian at the Puerto Rican Collection at the University of Puerto Rico, the Nilita Vientós Gastón House-Library in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the University of Puerto Rico Elementary School Library. Sujei currently works as a children’s librarian at the Boston Public Library. She is a member ofREFORMA (The National Association to Promote Library Services to Latinos and the Spanish-speaking), American Library Association, and Association of Library Service to Children. She is the editor of Litwin Books/Library Juice Press series on Critical Race Studies and Multiculturalism in LIS. Sujei can also be found on Twitter, Letterboxd and Goodreads.

About that Embargo: Nancy Osa and Margarita Engle

Library Shelves YA

The End of the Cuba “Embargo” in YA Lit

By Nancy Osa

In the late 1990s, I wrote a young-adult novel about a teenager who protests the United States–Cuba trade embargo and sent it out to major publishers. I may have set a record for rejection letters. No children’s publisher dared broach the subject of U.S.-Cuba politics—not even from a humanitarian perspective. I’ll wager that such a reticent attitude is about to die. Soon, all things “Cuba” will be the next hot topics to follow zombies and vampires.

The true theme of my book, though, was not Cuba’s worthiness of respectful neighborly relations but rather Americans’ right to challenge policy through peaceful protest. Which topic were publishers really shying away from? In the 1990s, acts of dissent had been appropriated and/or stigmatized by publicity-hungry groups—Million Man March, anti-WTO factions, abortion clinic terrorists. Exposing teens to international politics, publishing interests seemed to surmise, might only incite high schoolers to riot.

I argued that young American readers should understand their options for agreeing or disagreeing with their homeland’s diplomatic policies. Information, discussion, and even provocation are necessary elements to learning to think critically. Simply ignoring the far-reaching trade and travel restrictions was a disservice to maturing readers, who, by their nature, are quite open to efforts to make the world a better place. When I was 10 years old, for instance, I formed a club and held a fundraiser to buy a trash can for my local park. On the heels of that success, I embraced various causes: women’s rights, resource conservation, humane treatment of animals, etc. When I reached voting age, I voted, marched, petitioned my legislators, and canvassed door-to-door. Not until my thirties did I think deeply about my Cuban heritage, though, and the implications of our national policies to my personal and cultural relationships. I wondered what it would have been like to grow up informed and in touch with my relatives on the island, instead of ignorant and forcibly separated. This was the impetus for writing my book.

When I submitted my novel to publishers, I knew that many young readers would welcome my story about an American girl who joins a protest rally to improve conditions for her family members in Cuba. I couched the topic in typical high-school drama, with a large dose of humor. It wasn’t vitriolic or pointedly critical of any one faction. Still, mainstream publishing houses, librarians, book buyers, and teachers were afraid to raise the hot-button Cuba issue. I suspect they were equally put off by the topic of protest. That book was never published, but another novel about a traditional coming-of-age ceremony—the quinceañero—was. Both Cuba 15books used humor to engage readers in a debate about factionalism: kids vs. parents, traditionalists vs. progressives . . . America vs. Cuba. The book that focused on dresses vs. pants, however, won out over the one that more literally discussed right vs. wrong.

As we face a new relationship between the U.S. and Cuba, I’d like to remind readers and thinkers that people like me have been politely protesting the political stand-off for decades. Twenty-fifteen marks the twenty-third year that the group IFCO/Pastors for Peace has practiced civil disobedience by gathering and delivering goods to Cuban people in need. Communist partisanship is not the motivator; charitable sentiment is.

As someone whose birth was sandwiched between the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, I have always felt helpless to influence U.S.-Cuba relations politically. But when I joined a Pastors for Peace “Friendshipment,” I gained the power to positively affect Cubans on a personal level while protesting the trade embargo. Does this type of humanitarian overture influence diplomacy? I hope so; but no one has suggested that it prompted President Obama’s executive decision to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba. Let’s face it: peaceful protest does not make for sexy news stories. First Amendment rights of free speech, assembly, and freedom of the press, though, should be considered fitting fodder in young-adult literature.

Nancy OsaNancy Osa is the author of Cuba 15 (Random House), a Pura Belpré Honor Book and winner of the Delacorte Press Prize for a First Young Adult Novel. Her most recent work, Defenders of the Overworld (Sky Pony Press), is an unofficial Minecraft fiction series for young-adult readers. To learn more, visit her website.

 

 

Enchanted AirThe Magic Realism of Memory

By Margarita Engle

The great Cuban poet Dulce María Loynaz wrote a poem called En Mi Verso Soy Libre—In My Poem I Am Free. She spoke of rising up inside the poem, where she is herself. The same is true for me. I reveal my secret self inside the covers of my verse memoir, Enchanted Air, Two Cultures, Two Wings.

Even though I am my true self on those pages, now that the book has been published and can be read by strangers, I’ve begun to wonder if I will be misunderstood or disbelieved. My childhood seems so unusual, almost surrealistic. I’m neither an exile nor a refugee. Until 1960, my family traveled back and forth between Cuba and the U.S., ignoring the Cold War.

The question arises: is a surrealistic childhood typical for the children of immigrants? Yes, I believe it is, even without the international conflict that separated the two halves of my bicultural family. Visiting relatives in another country can be an incredible joy, but upon returning to the U.S., a child of mixed ancestry can feel disoriented. In that sense, my unusual story is common, because the same could be said for children who move back and forth between two homes within the same country, particularly if their parents live in different cities, or if one lives in an urban area, and the other is rural. Immersed in blended memories, these children may experience the insecurity of feeling uncertain where they belong, but by traveling they also gain insights into more than one way of existing. Perhaps exposing them to verse memoirs will give them a window into their own possibilities. They could write travel memoirs, too. They could write poetry! They could find a safe home-on-the-page for overwhelming emotions.

Telling stories

Margarita and her sister in Cuba

During my teen years, it was easier for a U.S. citizen to walk on the moon than to visit relatives in Cuba. Nothing can ever return those years to me intact. They are fractured. Yet somehow, the act of writing about them in verse felt medicinal. Poetry heals. In the author’s note at the end of Enchanted Air, I came out of the anti-Embargo closet, making a plea for normalization of U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations, travel, and trade. Then, as if in a dream, President Obama announced the first steps toward improved relations. The announcement came during the same week when advanced review copies of Enchanted Air arrived on my doorstep. Joyfully, I revised the author’s note, transforming my plea into a song of gratitude.

With equally dreamlike timing, the U.S. Embassy in Havana re-opened exactly ten days after the release of Enchanted Air. For me, this feels like an era of miracles. Nevertheless, the process of healing the rift between nations will be complex, just as the process of facing childhood emotions to write a memoir is not simple. In Just Write, Walter Dean Myers advised: “I believe your skills as a writer are not so much defined by intelligence or artistic ability as they are by how much of yourself you are willing to bring to the page. Be brave.”

Yes, be brave. There is no other way to face the wounded child inside one’s own mind—a child who never completely outgrows the magic realism of growing up with a memory that contains two distinct ways of perceiving the world. A memory that can turn into verse, where a divided childhood can be made whole, setting the poet free.

MargaritaMargarita Engle is the author of many books for young readers. Her long list of literary honors includes the Pura Belpré Medal, the Newbery Honor and the 2014 PEN USA. The themes and characters of Margarita’s books often reflect her Cuban heritage, including the titles pictured below. Learn much more on her official website.

Margarita offers an abundant selection of books based in Cuba or featuring Cuban characters, as seen below.

MountainDog.highrescvr  drum dream girl cover  Tropical Secret   The Wild Book  Surrende Tree Notable  Poet Slave  Hurricane dancers notable  Firefly notable  Enchanted Air

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review: Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music by Margarita Engle

By Sujei Lugo

drum dream girl coverDESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: Girls cannot be drummers. Long ago on an island filled with music and rhythm, no one questioned that rule — until the drum dream girl. She longed to play tall congas and small bongós and silvery, moon-bright timbales. She had to practice in secret. But when at last her music was heard, everyone sang and danced and decided that boys and girls should be free to drum and dream.

Inspired by a Chinese-African-Cuban girl who broke Cuba’s traditional taboo against female drummers, Drum Dream Girl tells an inspiring true story for dreamers everywhere.

MY TWO CENTS: Inspired by the childhood of Chinese Afro Cuban drummer Millo Castro Zaldarriaga, Margarita Engle and Rafael López enchantingly encapsulate through poetic text and dreamy illustrations a girl’s dreams and her desires to play music. By focusing on our girl’s “dreaming” period and the stage when she finally achieves her dream as a child, the author and illustrator furnish a landscape where children should be free to dream, and one they can relate to and which allows them to see themselves as dreamers.

Through the first line of Engle’s poem, “On an island of music, in a city of drumbeats, the drum dream girl dreamed,” we meet our Caribbean dream girl, who dreams about congas, bongós, and moon-bright timbales on a island where everyone believes only boys should play drums. This excluding notion and the exposure to such blatant sexism at such a young age do not prevent our girl from dreaming. She plays her own imaginary music, walks around tapping her feet and plays contagious drum rhythms on tables and chairs. When her big sisters invite her to join their new all-girl dance band, the drum dream girl is excited, but her father reminds her that “only boys should play drums.” She keeps drumming and dreaming, until her father realizes that her talent deserves to be heard. With a compelling illustration of her father “pulling” her drumming and dreaming daughter from the sky to the ground, she perseveres and lands back on her island of music, making her dream a reality.

The text is really descriptive, filled with poetic repetition and acknowledgements of the natural landscape of the island. Rafael López’s trademark of colorful and vibrant illustrations enhances the musical and dreamy experience of our character, providing images where you feel you are listening to the music and the beats. Through two-page layout canvases rich with smiling moons, suns, and birds, huge instruments, and our drum dream girl with closed eyes, he captures the spirit, the breeze, and the rhythm of our little drummer. López also successfully portrays the essence of Cuban city life and its racial and ethnic demographics.

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Drum Dream Girl is the story of Millo Castro Zaldarriaga, a mixed race Cuban girl, who defied gender roles in the 1930’s music scene. The girl and her story show the importance of family, teacher, and music-education support to expose and develop our children’s musical talents. The all-girl dance band she joined was Anacaona, an orchestra founded by Cuchito Castro and her sisters. This forgotten and overshadowed group challenged the male-dominated Cuban music scene and an environment where women were seen as incapable of playing music. For more information about this group, look for the book Anacaona: The Amazing Adventures of Cuba’s First All-Girl Dance Band, written by Alicia Castro, Ingrid Kummels and Manfred Schäfer, or watch this preview of the documentary Anacaona: The Amazing Story of Cuba’s Forgotten Girl Band.

TEACHING TIPS: The picture book will work great as a read-aloud and a rich addition to music-themed library programs, where children could also make their own drums. With older children, teachers can incorporate poetry writing, drawing, and visualizing music as poetry. The text, illustrations, and content make this book perfect to be adapted as a musical play.

Other classroom activities can include historical exploration of Millo Castro Zaldarriaga’s life, Cuban music, and other female musicians. Margarita Engle includes a publisher’s discussion guide on her website.

AUTHOR & ILLUSTRATOR:

Margarita Engle is a Cuban-American author, botanist, and professor who enjoys collaborating with her husband in volunteer work for wilderness search and rescue dog training programs. Engle is the winner of numerous awards for her children’s and young adult books, including the Newbery Honor for The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom (2008), becoming the first Latina to win that children’s literature award. In addition to her work as a writer, she also contributes to various periodicals such as Atlanta Review, Bilingual Review, California Quarterly, Caribbean Writer, Hawai’i Pacific Review, and Nimrod. Margarita Engle is a member of PEN USA West, Amnesty International, Freedom House of Human Rights and Freedom to Write Committee.

Some of her titles are: The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano (2006), Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba (2009), The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette’s Journey to Cuba (2010), Hurricane Dancers: The First Caribbean Pirate Shipwreck (2011), The Wild Book (2012), The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist (2013), Mountain Dog (2013), Silver People: Voices From the Panama Canal (2014), Orangutanka: A Story in Poems (2015), The Sky Painter: Louis Fuertes, Bird Artist (2015), and Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings (2015).

Rafael López is a Mexican award-winning illustrator and artist, whose work is influenced by his cultural heritage, colors of Mexican street life, and Mexican surrealism. In addition to children’s books, López has illustrated posters, United States Postal Service stamps such as the Latin Music Legends series, and he has launched street art projects to revitalize urban neighborhoods, such as the Urban Art Trail Project.

He is the recipient of various Pura Belpré Honor for Illustration awards for books such as: My Name is Celia: The Life of Celia Cruz/Me Llamo Celia: La Vida de Celia Cruz (2006), Book Fiesta!: Celebrate Children’s Day/Book Day/ Celebremos El Día de los Niños/El Día de Los Libros (2010), The Cazuela That the Farm Maiden Stirred (2012) and Tito Puente: Mambo King/Rey del Mambo. He also received two Américas Awards for Children’s and Young Adult Literature for My Name is Celia (2006) and ¡Yum! ¡Mmmm! ¡Qué Rico! Americas’ Sproutings (2007).

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For more information about Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music (2015), visit your local library or bookstore. Also check out worldcat.orgindiebound.org, amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, and goodreads.com. You can also watch the book trailer below.