Book Review: The Lightning Dreamer by Margarita Engle

By Lila Quintero WeaverLightning Dreamer notable

DESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: Tula is a girl who yearns for words, who falls in love with stories, but in Cuba, girls are not allowed an education. No, Tula is expected to marry well—even though she’s filled with guilt at the thought of the slaves Mamá will buy with the money gained by marrying Tula to the highest bidder.

Then one day, hidden in the dusty corner of a convent library, Tula discovers the banned books of a rebel poet. The poems speak to the deepest part of her soul, giving her a language with which to write of the injustice around her. In a country that isn’t free, the most daring abolitionists are poets who can veil their work with metaphors, and Tula becomes just that.

In powerful, haunting verses of her own, Margarita Engle evokes the voice of Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, known as Tula, a young woman who was brave enough to speak up for those who could not.

MY TWO CENTS: The novel begins in 1827. Tula’s mother, who twice made the mistake of marrying for love, is desperate to prevent her thirteen-year-old daughter from taking a similar path. Mamá’s motivations are clear-cut. A wealthy connection through Tula is the family’s only hope for propping up their shaky economic status. In 19th-century colonial Cuba, arranged marriages are the social norm, but Tula’s mother worries that a girl who buries her nose in books will not attract the right kind of husband–a rich one.

Who is Tula? Margarita Engle is acclaimed for novels in verse that bring to life history’s outliers, young men and women from previous centuries who thought and acted in surprisingly modern ways, and Tula stands tall among them. She’s based on Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, a Cuban poet who championed liberty for all humans and wrote Sab, an abolitionist novel, the first of its kind in Spanish. Sab predated Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the Harriet Beecher Stowe classic, by eleven years. Avellaneda’s importance as an abolitionist and feminist writer is not widely known in English-speaking America. The Lightning Dreamer corrects this oversight and imagines Avellaneda’s formative years, just as she began to discover the life-changing force of poetry.

Marriageability is not the only issue that arises from Tula’s penchant for reading. She happens upon the forbidden poetry of José María Heredia, whose sharp observations awaken Tula’s passion for justice. In colonial Cuba, injustice is everywhere. Her eyes take in the plight of African slaves, biracial babies abandoned to the convent, lovers kept apart by miscegenation taboos, and girls like herself, doomed to business arrangements thinly masquerading as marriages. Tula expresses her ardor for justice through poetry, which she burns to keep her mother from discovering.

When Tula refuses the marriage that her grandfather arranges, she must rise to meet a string of new challenges. The inheritance is lost and her family is condemned to relative poverty. For a while, Tula finds refuge in a storyteller’s community, where she becomes entangled in an unrequited love. She moves away from the countryside to Havana, where she supports herself through tutoring. In 1836, her brother, Manuel, warns her that their mother is cooking up another arranged match. Tula flees for Spain, expecting to find greater social and creative freedom there.

The Lightning Dreamer is written in free verse and is voiced through multiple characters. Tula is the most frequent speaker. Short segments provide other characters’ point of view. A partial list includes Tula’s mother; Manuel; Caridad, the freed slave who works for the family; the nuns who offer Tula space to read and write in peace; and Sab. Each character speaks in first person. I imagine them as a series of stage players delivering brief and sometimes prejudicial monologues reflecting on Tula’s choices. This approach perfectly suits the fictionalized treatment of a young poet. The language is spare and often stunning, capturing vivid images and profound interiority, as in this excerpt:

When we visit my grandfather

on his sugar plantation,

I see how luxurious

my mother’s childhood

must have been,

surrounded by beautiful

emerald green sugar fields


by row after row

of sweating slaves.

How can one place

be so lovely

and so sorrowful

all at the same time?

READING LEVEL: 12 and up

TEACHING TIPSThe Lightning Dreamer is an ideal jumping off point for exploring a wide array of subjects suggested in the novel. These range from colonialism, to New World slavery and racism, to patriarchal societies and the history of women’s political movements. At the back of the book, extensive notes provide comparisons between the historical Avellaneda and Tula, her fictionalized counterpart. This section also includes Spanish and translated excerpts of Avellaneda’s poetry and a bibliography of related sources.

Margarita contributed a guest post to Latin@s in Kid Lit that illuminates her love of biographical writing.

Henry Louis Gates’ PBS series, Black in Latin America, may be of interest for classroom use, in conjunction with the reading of The Lightning Dreamer. The episode “Cuba: The Next Revolution” focuses on the ongoing struggle by Afro Cubans to overcome centuries of racism. There’s no mention of Avellaneda in this one-hour documentary film; nevertheless, interviews and scenery enriched my reading. The film is particularly effective in its treatment of Cuba’s history of slavery and the role of freed slaves in the protracted battle for independence from Spain. The ruins of sugar plantations dating back to the book’s era starkly reminded me of Tula’s world.

RECOGNITION FOR THE LIGHTNING DREAMER: Awards and honors continue to flood in. They include:

2014 Pura Belpré Honor Book

School Library Journal’s Top Ten Latino-themed Books for 2013

YALSA 2014 Best Fiction for Young Adults

For a full list of awards and more information, please visit Margarita’s author website. I also recommend following her on Facebook, where she frequently posts updates on appearances, interviews and release dates for new books.

MargaritaTHE AUTHOR: Margarita Engle is a native of California and the author of many children’s and young adult books. She is the daughter of an American father and a Cuban mother. Childhood visits to her extended family in Cuba influenced her interest in tropical nature, leading to her formal study of agronomy and botany. She is the winner of the first Newbery Honor ever awarded to a Latino/a. Her award winning young adult novels in verse include The Surrender Tree, The Poet Slave of Cuba, Tropical Secrets, and The Firefly Letters.

FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT The Lightning Dreamer, visit your local library or bookstore. Also check out,,,,, and Houghton Mifflin/Harcourt.


Guest Post: Margarita Engle’s Passion for Writing About Hope and Forgotten Heroes


By Margarita Engle

Recently, I was asked what “legacy” I hope to leave by writing. Legacy is an intimidating word, but at least one portion of the answer is fairly simple. I love writing about independent thinkers who have been forgotten by history. These lost heroes might have been celebrated in their own times, or they may have worked in such obscurity that their names are unknown. Many are famous in their countries of origin, but have never been introduced to readers in the U.S.

Just a few years ago, any library search for children’s books about Latinos would have revealed little more than a series of shamefully inaccurate works glorifying brutal conquistadores. During the interim, excellent biographies of César Chávez and Sonia Sotomayor have been added, along with a handful of beautiful picture books about artists, writers, and musicians.

Surrende TreeThe work of reclaiming lost heroes has barely begun. My own approach is not strictly biographical because I love writing verse novels, and I also love writing first person interpretations of historical events. I often mix historical figures with fictional characters. In other words, I feel free to explore, experiment, and imagine. It’s a process that feels like time travel. Diaries, letters, and journals are my most important research materials, because they contain the emotional essence of history, along with the meticulous details of daily life. When I wrote The Poet Slave of Cuba, I was fortunate to have access to Juan Francisco Manzano’s autobiographical notes, which had been smuggled off the island by British abolitionists. For The Surrender Tree, I could not find anything written by Rosa la Bayamesa or any of Cuba’s other courageous wartime nurses, so I read the diaries of rebel soldiers, as well as interviews with reconcentration camp survivors. The Lightning Dreamer is based on the poetry and prose of Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, who wrote a groundbreaking interracial romance novel that was published more than a decade before Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Not only was Sab far more daring, it was also more influential in Europe and Latin America. So why don’t North Americans know Avellaneda’s name? Does it make sense to learn only about our own little corners of the world?

Hope is at the heart of every topic I choose. I love to write about people I admire. In general, I admire them because they were independent thinkers, far ahead of their times, or because their courage took the form of kindness. I don’t see history as a series of wars, with dates of battles to memorize and names of generals who are automatically assumed to be heroic. My heroes are the ordinary people who made hopeful choices in times that must have seemed hopeless. Tropical Secrets and Silver People are examples of topics so huge—the Holocaust, and construction of the Panama Canal—that I chose to write primarily in the voices of fictional composite characters, rather than individual historical figures. For Hurricane Dancers, the absence of first person indigenous Cuban accounts of the Conquest forced me to rely on a combination of legends, imagination, and the diaries of priests. I read the journals of conquistadores with skepticism, because they were written with a specific agenda—trying to make themselves look heroic, so that they could apply for additional funds from the Spanish Crown.

final Silver People cover-1Lightning Dreamer notable-1

Not all of my books are verse novels, and not all are for young adults. One of my favorite challenges is writing picture books about people who are not considered “famous enough” for biographical works. This limitation has actually helped me present my historical picture book manuscripts simply as inspiring stories, instead of struggling to make the subjects seem more famous than they are. Some are not famous at all, simply because Latinos, other minorities, and women, have generally been omitted from earlier historical writings. Sadly, recent history books tend to copy the earlier ones. The result is an entire segment of classroom curricula and pleasure reading with no representation of forgotten groups.

At present, I have several biographical picture books already in the publishing pipeline, and several that are still searching for publishers. None of them are about easily recognized names, if you live in the U.S. Thankfully, with the help of wonderful editors and fantastic illustrators, I hope that these picture books will inspire young readers. Drum Dream Girl (Harcourt, 2015) is being illustrated by the amazing Rafael López, whose gorgeous art will help illuminate the life of a ten-year-old Chinese-African-Cuban girl who broke the island’s taboo against female drummers. The Sky Painter (Two Lions, 2015) will have beautiful, scientifically accurate illustrations by Aliona Bereghici, to show how a boy of Puerto Rican origin became the world’s greatest bird artist, by allowing birds to live, instead of following Audubon’s tradition of killing and posing them.

If children have heard Latin jazz or visited New York’s Natural History Museum, they’ve heard and seen the results of Millo Castro’s courage and Louis Agassiz Fuertes’ kindness, even though they are unlikely to have seen those names in a library or classroom. I firmly believe that it is time to make room for books about the lives of people who should be famous, rather than limiting young readers to books about people who are already famous.

No discussion of biographical writing is complete without the subject of autobiography. Writing a childhood memoir has been the greatest challenge of my life. It is strictly nonfiction—no imagining, only remembering. Certain memories are excruciatingly painful. I love recalling childhood trips to visit my extended family in Cuba, but I dread remembering the October 1962 Missile Crisis that ended those journeys. Enchanted Air, a Cold War Memoir (Atheneum, 2015) combines the two. Positive and negative. Joy and sorrow. Despair and hope. With a powerful cover illustration by one of the world’s greatest artists, Edel Rodríguez, this memoir already feels like my life’s work. It is a book that helps me reclaim the separated half of my family, and along with them, the half of my identity that was almost destroyed by politicians.

Writing about lives is a process of exploration, so even though the memoir feels like my life’s work, I’ve already found other people I hope to depict in verse novels and picture books. I’ve returned to the research stage, reading history, and deciding which parts of history have not yet been honestly portrayed.


Margarita-HavanaMargarita Engle is the Cuban-American author of many young adult verse novels, including The Surrender Tree, which received the first Newbery Honor ever awarded to a Latino/a. Her books have also received multiple Pura Belpré Awards and Honors, as well as three Américas Awards and the Jane Addams Peace Award. Margarita’s newest verse novel is Silver People, Voices From the Panama Canal, and her newest picture book is Tiny Rabbit’s Big WishShe lives in central California, where she enjoys hiding in the forest to help train her husband’s wilderness search and rescue dogs. For more information, visit her author site and enjoy interviews by Caroline Starr Rose  and Robyn Hood Black.

The Américas Book Award Winners, Honors, and Commendable Titles

Congratulations to the 2014 Américas Book Award Winner, Parrots Over Puerto Rico by Susan L. Roth and Cindy Trumbore, published by Lee & Low Books. Below are also the Honor Books and Commendable Titles. Congratulations to all!!



Honorable mentions:

 14952858  15842628


Commended titles:

16280082  15814459  15937128  15791044  17270515  15818046  15798660