November 21, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

A Forest of Poems: Young People’s Poet Laureate Margarita Engle

Margarita-headshot

Margarita Engle Photo by Marshall W. Johnson

Margarita Engle, recently named our Young People’s Poet Laureate, is a Cuban American poet, novelist, agronomist, botanist, feminist, and peace dove who believes passionately in freedom for all. Her first book for young people, The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano (Holt, 2006), retells through poetry the story of Juan Francisco Manzano, who was born into slavery and eventually became a celebrated poet.

Engle’s books have won dozens of prizes, including a Newbery Honor, a Golden Kite, and multiple Pura Belpré Medals, Américas, and Jane Addams Awards and Honors. Like The Poet Slave of Cuba, most of her works for older children are written in free verse, with multiple voices. Her verse memoir Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings (S. & S., 2015) and verse novels such as The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom (Holt, 2008), Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba (Holt, 2009), The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette’s Journey to Cuba (Holt, 2010), Hurricane Dancers: The First Caribbean Pirate Shipwreck (Holt, 2011), The Wild Book (HMH, 2012), The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist (HMH, 2013), Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal (HMH, 2014), and Lion Island: Cuba’s Warrior of Words (Atheneum, 2016) bring Cuban history to life and connect it to the history of the world. Engle has also written picture books such as Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music (HMH, 2015), winner of the 2016 Charlotte Zolotow Award.

Engle begins writing as soon as she wakes up, while she still feels close to her dreams, she says. Mornings, she writes at home in rural central California. To take a break, she feeds her neighbor’s chickens and goats or goes for a walk with her husband and dog in the pecan grove next door. During the afternoons, she reads or researches the unusual characters who populate her books. Engle also gives voices to plants, insects, birds, and howler monkeys in her books. On weekends, she often packs a sandwich and a book and hides herself happily for hours in the nearby mountains so that her husband’s wilderness search and rescue dogs can practice finding a “lost” hiker.

Engle grew up in Los Angeles and spent childhood summers in Cuba, and she returns as often as she can. We sat down to celebrate her many successes.

Wow! Congratulations on becoming Young People’s Poet Laureate.
Thank you! I am thrilled to follow Jacqueline Woodson, the first Young People’s Poet Laureate. Before her, the position was filled by Children’s Poet Laureates such as Kenn Nesbitt, but the role has now been expanded to include poetry for young adults.

As laureate, what are your plans?
I hope to take poetry to places authors never visit, such as farm worker towns that don’t even have public libraries. I’m looking forward to participating in ongoing Teachers Institute and Youth Poetry Festival programs in Chicago.

I’ve decided to focus many of my poetry readings on the bilingual theme of peace/paz, in every sense of the word, but especially peacemaking. In a time when grown-up world leaders don’t seem to value peace and friendship among ethnic groups, or between countries, I think children and teens from opposing factions can listen to one another’s voices and discover common ground.

I’m open to suggestions. I’ve already asked for ideas from local branches of REFORMA and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, as well as the Arne Nixon Center for the Study of Children’s Literature.

What was it like to have new Cuban titles, especially your childhood memoir, Enchanted Air, come out just as the United States took action to improve relations with Cuba?
Drum Dream Girl is about perseverance in seeking freedom, so it seems appropriate for a time when women are still struggling for equal rights. Advanced review copies of Enchanted Air arrived on my doorstep during the week when President Obama announced a restoration of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba. The book was released very close to the day when the U.S. Embassy in Havana reopened after more than half a century of Cold War hostility. Fortunately, in between those two thrilling moments, I was able to revise the historical note and time line at the end of the book, changing a memoir that had been intended as a plea for peace into a song of thanks.

How do the subjects of your books  fit into the school curriculum?
Well, a lot of the verse novels are historical, with social justice themes, but I’m also enthusiastic about STEAM education. My first career was as a botanist and agronomist. Forest World (Atheneum, Aug. 2017) is my new middle grade verse novel set in Cuba in 2015. The story combines adventure, sibling rivalry, and an environmental theme, with a focus on biodiversity, Lazarus species, and World Biosphere Reserves. Hopefully, even adults who don’t know what those terms mean will read this book and share it with children.

Is it true that you met your husband in an entomology class?
Yes, it was a class called Introduction to Arthropods, so it included spiders and crustaceans. Both of us still love nature, and it feels instinctive to me to include plants and animals in my books about people. I encourage teachers to take students outdoors for little walks—or to show them videos of natural habitats and let them wonder about how it feels to be a tree or a bird.

I also love to write picture book biographies about innovative scientists who have been forgotten by history. I know that 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 my book Bravo!: Poems About Amazing Hispanics (Holt, 2017). 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 courageous Mexican American plant explorer who began field work in her 50s and went on to discover 500 new species.

What books will we be seeing next from you?
Forest World and two picture books, All the Way to Havana (Holt, Aug. 2017), illustrated by Mike Curato, and Miguel’s Brave Knight, Young Cervantes and His Dream of Don Quixote (Peachtree, Oct. 2017), illustrated by Raúl Colón. The first is a classic car road trip story. Mike Curato actually went to Cuba and stayed with my cousins, then rented an old car and drove all the way to Trinidad, my mother’s hometown. The basic story was conceived and edited by Laura Godwin, who allowed me to turn it into a tribute to poor people everywhere; they keep their possessions working because they can’t afford new ones.

Miguel’s Brave Knight is a book I have wanted to write for many years, inspired by my family’s visit to La Mancha when I was a teenager. I wrote about Cervantes to show the power of imagination as a source of hope in desperate times. The childhood of Cervantes was so difficult! His father was in debtors’ prison, and his family was constantly on the run from bill collectors. The Inquisition prohibited imaginative literature and burned piles of books, but young Miguel never stopped reading, learning, daydreaming, and creating.

You are so prolific!
That’s a fortunate illusion. Some of these manuscripts were written many years ago and just happen to have found publishers at the same time.

You and your husband went to Cuba last February.
I have returned to Cuba as an adult many times, beginning in 1991, but 2015 was the first time my husband went with me. On that trip, we visited relatives, as well as World Biosphere Reserves, which became the inspiration for Forest World. This year we went to eastern Cuba, where I don’t have any relatives. For the first time, I saw the real Surrender Tree on San Juan Hill and visited farms and small towns such as Guantánamo, where maps correctly show the U.S. Naval Base as an illegally occupied territory. Best of all, I made a pilgrimage to El Cobre, a church that was very important to my grandmother.

What advice can you offer to parents or teachers who discuss the changes in Cuba with children?
Cuba has been marginalized by the United States for so long that you have to start out with a map, even with adults. The map makes it clear that this country 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 asked me whether Cuba was still a protectorate of the United States, like Puerto Rico. That means she was taught incorrectly. Ignorance is passed from generation to generation.

You are such an advocate of Latino culture. What advice or inspiration you can offer to teachers and librarians?
I hope they can help all students enjoy reading about a wide variety of cultures, backgrounds, and experiences; [advocate] for equal rights for all groups; and [help] children…feel curious about the whole world. We need a childhood spirit of international friendship to overcome the various hatreds promoted by fear-mongering adults.

One final question. Why poetry?
That’s my favorite question! I used to search for complicated explanations, but now I realize that I choose poetry simply because it makes me happy. No matter how grim the subject, poetry introduces an element of beautiful language and universal, timeless emotions that can serve as a vessel for the empathy, and compassion that lead to peacemaking. I hope to plant a forest of poems where children can wander, experiencing peace.


Angelica Shirley Carpenter is a biographer and curator emerita of the Arne Nixon Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at California State University, Fresno. Her young adult biography Born Criminal: Matilda Joslyn Gage will be published in 2018 by the South Dakota Historical Society Press.

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Comments

  1. Kelly Hollman says:

    A fantastic article on an inspiring writer!
    Thank you!

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