February 18, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Neighboring Nations | Margarita Engle on Her Work, Cuba, and the History That Binds Us

Prolific poet, novelist, and storyteller, Margarita Engle has long enchanted readers through folktales and portrayals of figures from Cuban cultural and natural history. Engle’s free verse titles include a Newbery Honor for The Surrender Tree, a Charlotte Zolotow Award for Drum Dream Girl, and numerous Pura Belpré Awards recognizing books affirming Latino culture. From The Poet Slave of Cuba to Tiny Rabbit’s Big Wish, Engle’s works dig deep into her Cuban roots. Sky Painter: Louis Fuertes, Bird Artist and Mountain Dog reflect the California native’s passionate interests (bird-watching, hiking, and search and rescue dogs) as well as her years as an agronomist. Read on for a glimpse of her writing life.

Did you write as a child? What inspired you to pen The Poet Slave of Cuba for a young audience?


Author Margarita Engle. Photo courtesy of Sandra Ríos Balderrama.

I wrote poetry in my youth and didn’t try to create stories until my teens. In college, I studied botany and agronomy, so for many years my creative writing often overlapped with technical prose. Until I started returning to Cuba in 1991, I mostly wrote individual poems and stories. I struggled for 10 years to write about the poet slave Juan Francisco Manzano. Only when I switched to free verse did I find success. I wrote The Poet Slave of Cuba for children because Manzano’s autobiographical notes relate to his early years, and I wanted to be faithful to the spirit of his voice.

My process usually begins with an outline, but it changes as I go along. Sometimes it feels like making a sand castle, with everything constantly crumbling and needing to be rebuilt.

Talk about your mentors. Do you have suggestions for young writers on how to find a mentor?

I was a tenured professor of agronomy and an “all-but-the-dissertation” PhD candidate when I took a creative writing seminar with Tomás Rivera, the first Latino chancellor of a University of California campus. I loved his bilingual children’s book, Y No Se Lo Tragó La Tierra/And The Earth Did Not Swallow Him. Rivera encouraged me, so I kept writing. He told me to never mind about getting published—to write from the heart because I have something to say. It’s that simple.

I am just beginning to serve as the first middle grade mentor for We Need Diverse Books (WNDB). I was given twelve excellent finalists to choose from, based on their writing samples. I selected Charlene Willis McManis, who was born on the Grande Ronde Indian Reservation in Oregon. The first and last lines of her novel excerpt absolutely blew me away—and everything in between is fantastic, too. McManis has a unique, powerful voice, and a historically important story to tell. Because of her already great talent, it will be a challenge for me to find ways to help her. I’ll probably just end up paraphrasing the advice Tomás Rivera gave to me.

In addition to the new WNDB program, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and other various college programs can be instrumental in helping inspiring writers find mentors.

You’ve won many awards; how do you feel about such prizes? How did you find out about your first award and Newbery Honor?

I love each award, which feels like an honor for my child—the book—not myself. If books could grow legs and stand up to make their own acceptance speeches, they would do a much better job than authors! The Pura Belpré Award for The Poet Slave of Cuba came as a complete shock, because they were only given in alternate years back then, but I didn’t know that. The publication year had passed and nothing had happened. Then, the whole committee called, put me on speaker phone, and shouted, “¡Felicidades!”

The call for my 2009 Newbery Honor for The Surrender Tree was even more of a surprise. I knew so little about how things were done. The Newbery calls are made on Monday morning; not Sunday night, so once again, I was caught off guard. I was on my way to drop my husband off at the airport and take a dog to the vet. I almost didn’t answer the phone. When I did, I heard something about a library association, but I thought those calls were over, so I asked suspicious questions, “which library association, what do you mean….” I was so clumsy, totally clueless!

You’ve mentioned José Martí; when did you first learn about this Cuban hero poet?

My mother recited Martí poems when I was little. I’ve known about him all my life. Poets play a more important role in Latin American culture than in the United States. They are revered in Latin America, not regarded as niche or oddities.

What do you hope your American readers will learn about Cuba?

I hope young Americans will be interested in the culture, history, and natural history of Cuba. I hope the era of shunning the island will end and the two neighboring nations can be friends.

When were you last in Cuba? Are you working on new books?Lion-Island-Engle

I was in Cuba last April. I have two verse novels coming out in 2016. Lion Island, Cuba’s Warrior of Words (Atheneum, August) is a YA biographical novel about Antonio Chuffat, a Chinese African Cuban messenger boy who documented the freedom struggle of indentured Chinese laborers. In my research, I learned that during the 1860s and 1870s, 5,000 Chinese Californians fled to Cuba, escaping anti-Asian violence in Los Angeles and San Francisco. But in Cuba, the life of a Chinese indentured servant was extremely difficult as they, along with African slaves, were forced to work and live in horrendous conditions.

The second 2016 verse novel is a middle grade historical tale about a situation so unusual that I had to write it in the style of magical realism. The story is inspired by true events, beginning with the early 20th-century importation of war orphans from Cuba to the Raja Yoga Academy in San Diego, where they were taught music, theater, literature, gardening, and yoga. Librarians might be surprised to learn that the first president of the American Library Association worked at the Raja Yoga Academy. When I became familiar with the “Raja Yoga Cuban Kids,” I decided to interweave a fantasy element [into the story], simply because this seemed like a case of history being stranger than fiction. Morning Star Horse will be published in the fall, by an innovative new small press, HBE Publishers, with both bilingual and English-only versions available. For me, it’s an absolute dream come true to have a publisher willing to offer a bilingual middle grade fantasy.

Your family’s search and rescue dogs are important to you. Is Mountain Dog based on real rescue stories?

In 2001, a stray Australian Shepherd/Queensland Heeler mix adopted my husband. He named her Maggi. Right after September 11, he started training her for search and rescue. Since we live close to wilderness, he focused on searching for lost hikers. A few years later, he received a National Search Dog Association scholarship from a generous 9/11 firefighter’s widow to buy an energetic Labrador retriever. His name is Chance, and he’s still working with us. All the rescue stories in Mountain Dog are inspired by searches involving various volunteer members of our K-9 team. A lot has changed during the two years since Mountain Dog was published. Use of bear dogs has been outlawed in California, the one-room school closed, and thanks to GPS technology, fewer hikers get lost, but volunteers still train faithfully, in case they are needed. I hide in the forest regularly, so the dogs can practice.

Note: Check back early April for Focus On: Cuba.

Barbara Wysocki is a retired librarian. When Wysocki visited Cuba in October 2015, she delved into many of Engle’s free verse titles, so it was a delight to interview the talented Cuban American author.

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