April 19, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Margarita Engle Wins PEN Literary Award


Margarita Engle Photo by Marshall W. Johnson

Cuban-American Margarita Engle, the first Latino author to receive a Newbery Honor for The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom (Holt, 2008), was honored by the PEN Center USA on August 21 with the top prize in Children’s/Young Adult Literature category for her The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist (Houghton Harcourt, 2013). Now in their 24th year, the PEN Literary Awards, given by the literary nonprofit based in Beverly Hills, honors the best writing in the western United States. Engle’s novel in verse about the real life 19th-century Cuban abolitionist and feminist, Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, has already garnered several accolades, including a 2014 Pura Belpré Author Honor and a 2013 SLJ Top Latino-themed Book.

Reka Simonsen, Engle’s editor on the winning work, and currently an executive editor of Atheneum at Simon & Schuster, has been a longtime supporter and advocate for the author’s work. “Margarita Engle and I started working together nearly a decade ago, when my then-assistant Robin Pinto discovered the manuscript for The Poet Slave of Cuba (Holt, 2006) in the slush pile and thought I should take a look. I did, and I fell in love with Margarita’s incredible writing, which is so graceful and spare, yet so very powerful. She can take an aspect of history that many of us don’t know about and show readers the universal aspects of it, and she does this beautifully in The Lightning Dreamer. I’m grateful to Margarita for giving me and thousands of other readers the chance to get to know this brave woman,” says Simonsen.

Mary Wilcox, vice-president and editor-in-chief at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers is equally delighted by Engle’s recognition. “Margarita once again galvanizes the power of her elegant verse writing to further the fight for freedom of spirit and freedom of expression for all people.”

lightning dreamerThe young adult fictional biography follows the main character, Gómez de Avellaneda, and her growth from privileged young woman to eventually the author of Sab, published in 1841, a novel often compared to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In its review, SLJ said of Lightning Dreamer: “Engle adds another superb title to her lengthening list of historical novels in verse. This is a must-have for collections where Engle’s other works are known and loved or for anyone in need of a comparative study to our own country’s struggle with slavery.”

Engle is ecstatic about the honor and its significance to Latino literature for children.  “The PEN Award is unique because of the organization’s international efforts to defend every author’s freedom to write.  I think Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda would be thrilled to know that her life story is being honored, because she was a true freedom-to-write champion, tackling difficult topics under circumstances of strict censorship. The PEN Award offers treasured encouragement in my quest for verse novels about courageous Latinos who have been ignored or forgotten by history books in the [United States],” she shared with SLJ.

The  awards will be presented at the 24th Annual  Literary  Awards  Festival  to  be  held on  November 11 at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.

Shelley Diaz About Shelley Diaz

Shelley M. Diaz (sdiaz@mediasourceinc.com) is School Library Journal's Reviews Team Manager and SLJTeen newsletter editor. She has her MLIS in Public Librarianship with a Certificate in Children’s & YA Services from Queens College, and can be found on Twitter @sdiaz101.