Margarita Engle is an award-winning author and poet whose novels written in free verse have brought to life fascinating and often forgotten characters from history, such as Juan Francisco Marzano, Rosa la Bayamesa, and Maria Merian. In this interview with Colorín Colorado, Margarita discusses her childhood memories of Cuba and the ways in which her quest for her own heritage led to the discovery of these unforgettable heroes and heroines.
A romantic beginning
My parents met in a very romantic way. My father had seen photographs in the National Geographic magazine of my mother's hometown of Trinidad de Cuba on the South Central Coast. It's a very beautiful town. It's now a world heritage site, restored by UNESCO. But at that time, it was extremely remote, could only be reached by train or boat. And my father went there.
And we always look at National Geographic pictures and think, "Oh, I'd like to go there." But he actually did it. He's an artist. And he went to paint the very picturesque colonial architecture. And he met her on his first day there. It was Valentine's Day. And they met in a colonial palace that was being used as an art school at the time, but is now known as the Museo Romántico, the Romantic Art era museum, not named after my parents. But I secretly believe that it should have been.
They did not speak the same language. My father only spoke English. He's from Los Angeles. My mother only spoke Spanish. And because they were both artists, and still are, they passed pictures back and forth to communicate. And they were ... they fell in love, pretty much love at first sight, and were married soon after. And then overcame the language issues and learned each other's languages.
Because I was born and raised in Los Angeles, my father's hometown, they spoke English in the home. My mother did speak Spanish to me. And she sang a lot in Spanish and told stories and things like that. So I did learn both. But I'd have to still say that English is my first language because I grew up in the United States.
Visits to Cuba
When I was a child, we visited the extended family in Cuba as often as we could afford to. Because my father was a teacher, he had the summers off. So it was always a long three-month visit. So three months. And I developed a very deep attachment to my grandmother, great grandmother, aunts, uncles, and cousins and also to the tropical nature in Cuba.
My experience was really not so much in Havana as so many people that you meet in the United States often have come from Havana. It was the smaller town of Chanita and the nearby farms. So, for me, being from Los Angeles, a big urban area, going to Cuba for the summer and getting to be out in wild places was the most amazing experience. And I just fell in love with farms, with wilderness, with nature.
That was really one of the main influences in my first career choice which was I studied agronomy and botany because I loved farms and plants so much. And then I gradually combined that with writing. My last childhood visit was in 1960. It was the summer that ... that diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba really broke down. And we actually had a hard time getting out. My mother was still a Cuban citizen at the time.
After that, there was the Bay of Pigs invasion and the missile crisis. And travel just became impossible. So for me as a child, it was as if Cuba had fallen out of the solar system. It was like science fiction. I had this huge extended family. And suddenly, they were gone. They weren't available. And it was as if they didn't exist. Because communication was also restricted from both sides. You were suspect if you were writing letters to Cuba or making calls. And in Cuba, of course, you were suspect if you were writing letters or making phone calls to the United States. So, for many, many years, contact was basically cut off. We did manage to stay in touch with my grandmother, but not most of the extended family.
Writing about Cuba
I think that my interest in searching for an understanding of Cuban history has been influenced by that experience of childhood visits and then the strange experience of losing the ability to travel there. So much of my thinking about Cuba was done from afar for so long that I think it became very natural for me to read about Cuba rather than actually being there. Until 1991, I wasn't able to go back. Beginning in 1991, I was able to go back many times as an adult and renew relationships with family members and see some of the same places again.
So, that is a wonderful experience. But also, in the meantime, I had developed this sort of written word experience of just reading everything I could get my hands on and researching and reading about historical topics and just anything I can find about Cuba.
The kinds of topics that I've chosen to write about are not really limited by my inability to travel to Cuba as often or as long as I would like. There are some topics where I would really need to go and sit in the archives of both libraries for months on end. And that's not realistic for me because I have a family here. And there are still a lot of travel restrictions. So I have been able to go back many times, but not those long extended visit. So the kinds of topics that I've chosen have been primarily historical topics where I can use a lot of library inter-loan services right here in the United States and have access to university collections and the Library of Congress without actually leaving California.
Writing about freedom
When I'm choosing a topic, I tend to feel haunted by a particular story before I really decide that this is the direction I want to go. If something just keeps coming back to me and I can't stop thinking about it, I discover that no matter what I set out to write, I always seem to be exploring some aspect of freedom.
Whether it's personal, social or spiritual freedom, I always seem to be fascinated by people who were doing amazing things in history, whether it was searching for freedom from slavery or for equality for women, these topics are usually someone in history who's been kind of ignored and forgotten. And when I learn about them, I want to know more. There's not a lot known about these people. And I want to know more. So I really search. And I've noticed that the one thing they all have in common is that they made hopeful choices in situations that seemed hopeless.
A family of storytellers
I became interested in 19th century Cuba I believe partly because I knew my great grandmother who was born in the 1800s. And I think that it doesn't take very many generations to really go back a long way in history. If you, if a child listens to the conversations and stories of older people in their family. If a child would go to the oldest person in their family and start asking questions. And if the oldest persona also remembered conversations and stories told by their grandparents or even great grandparents, you really can go back an amazing length of time and it comes to life.
And so I knew my great grandmother from when I was a child. And then I knew my grandmother later after she finally came as a refugee to the United States when I was already an adult and I did have a chance to finally get to know her better. So the stories that they told, they were real storytellers. They talked a lot. And they put in a lot of details. So they would bring things to life for me about when they were young, about things that happened when they were young.
I wrote poetry as a child. I don't know why. It just for me it was natural. I was a real bookworm. I was constantly reading. I was always at the library, just taking home huge stacks of books every week. And a lot of those books were poetry. And poetry just spoke to me and went to my heart. And so, I would write my own poems. Now when I look back at them, I think, "Oh, I better get rid of these. I don't ever want anybody to see them." I thought now as an adult reading those poems, I think that they were really amateurish. But I was a child.
So any effort was completely spontaneous and heartfelt. It was completely without training. And I hadn't studied poetry. So if there are young people who love poetry, I think that reading it will make them want to write it. I think that's just the natural extension of reading. Then late as I did study botany and agronomy as an adult, I did also branch out into technical writing and eventually some fiction and creative writing. It was not poetry. But I always come back to poetry. And I think that as we age, we do have a tendency to come back to the things we loved when we were children.
Writing free verse
You know, I can't say that I actually chose to focus on free verse when I started writing for young people. I had written prose novels for adults. And then I was trying to write about Juan Francisco Manzano, "the poet slave of Cuba," just an amazing man who wrote poetry while he was still a slave.
And I struggled for many years trying to write about him in prose. And it just wasn't working. And I think one day, he reached down out of heaven and hit me on the head and said, "You know, I was a poet." So as soon as I started trying to write about him in verse, everything just fell together. It just worked. I was influenced by Karen Hess's novels and verse and especially Witness which had multiple voices. I feel like that kind of gave me the idea that it was possible to tell a story like this in that form.
One of the many things that I love about a free verse novel is that for me as a writer, it forces me, that form forces me to choose what I want to say. When you have, you know, 500 pages of prose available and you're going to write a very detailed say non-fiction account of these same events, with footnotes and references and so forth, you can put every detail in there.
But that's not my goal. My goal is to offer an uncrowded page that will not be intimidating, where a young person could pick up a full length book, that's not a baby book, that has mature topics. And yet, when they open it, I hope that it looks welcoming. And that they realize that if they read this book, it's only going to take them a couple of hours.
I hope that someone who doesn't ordinarily want read, might be willing to give it a try. Because I do care about reluctant readers, as well as young people who love books. To me, even though those are on such opposite ends of the spectrum, I feel like with the novel in verse form, I'm writing to both, to both the kids who maybe hate to read and to the ones who love to read. And maybe even want to write their own book. So, for me, it's a form that offers me the chance to try to distill a very complex historical situation, down to its emotional essence.
Writing poetry outdoors
One of the things that I love about poetry is I can write it outdoors. It's much more difficult to tackle a detailed prose project outdoors. Because you need all of these references and everything there. But by the time I'm actually writing a novel in verse, I've already done the research. And I've read the research materials over and over so many times that a lot of it's already in my head.
So I'm actually free to go outdoors with nothing but a paper and a pen and start writing. And one of the ways that I get the free time and solitude for doing this is I volunteer as a "victim" for wilderness search and rescue dog training programs. My husband trains two dogs to find lost hikers in the Sierra Nevada mountains near where we live in California.
And they need to practice finding a lost person. And I have to say that I am quite good at imitating a lost person. I hide out in the forest, in the wilderness. And I just wait for the dogs to find me. And while I'm waiting, I have the chance to read or write, or just have this really peaceful hours of solitude that fit so well into writing poetry.
My next picture book for younger children, actually for very young children, is poems about wilderness search and rescue dogs. And I wrote that from the dog's point of view as he's searching for a child. And I'm hoping that it will be a very reassuring book that parents or teachers could use to instruct children on what they would do if they were lost in the woods, but also to help them understand that a dog will be coming to find them, not to be scared of the dog.
Poetry for teens
If a young person wants to try writing poetry, I would advise them to turn off all the mechanical gadgets, all the electronic gadgets, to set aside the cell phone and the computer and all of that. And just be alone out doors for a few minutes in any peaceful place, the park or the backyard or a hammock or wherever. And to not try, to not try. Just sit back and wait and poems will flow.
I think that any suffering, any struggles, probably belongs in a poem. I think that young people, for instance, and teenagers in particular, have so much emotion and are experiencing so many difficult decisions. And sometimes they wonder where can I put all of these feelings that I have? Who can I talk to? And when there really isn't anybody you can talk to who will understand, that's time to hold a paper and pencil and in the old-fashioned way just write it. You don't need the computer or anything. You can go outdoors and be alone and just put all those emotions on paper.
A lot of teachers have told me that they use my novels and verse for a kind of reader's theater where different young people can take on the roles of the different characters and take turns reading poems. And that really makes me feel good. Because the novel ... I like forms that blend things and that are not restricted to a particular category. I like mixing history and fiction, imagination and fact, poetry and prose. I like mixing all these things tighter and not feeling like I'm restricted to anyone.
And so, then that if poetry is read out loud, that also brings it into contact with theaters where you're actually assigning characters, assigning roles. And I think that for teachers, they could use novels and verse in so many creative ways.
You can actually read only part of a novel and verse and some of the poems will stand alone, if you don't have time to study the whole book. So I would hope that teachers would feel free to be creative and kind of claim the territory of the novel in verse as their own and experiment with using it in different ways. I also hope that it could be used for family literacy where people of different ages can read the same book and talk about it, discuss it, together. Since there are mature topics in the novels and verse.
The Pura Belpré Awards
The Pura Belpré Awards for The Post-Slave Of Cuba and The Surrender Tree were such an amazing experience for me. I just ... they were some of the highlights of my life to receive those. That librarians had read those books and understood them the way I intended them meant so much to me.
I think that for a writer, being understood is the most important result of what you do. It's your goal. It's really your goal is communicating. So it was important to me that people, for instance, were able to read the "The Post-Slave Of Cuba" and see that I wasn't just trying to glorify the violence of slavery. That I was trying to write about him with empathy. And yet, not avoid the fact that there was violence. Not try to sugar coat that and pretend that it didn't exist.
And then in The Surrender Tree, I wrote about thirty years of war, without intending for it to be just understood as a book about war, but as a book about peace. By showing what thirty years of war were like, showing the need for peace. So it really meant a lot to me that those books were read and understood the way I had intended them.
Part II: Books and Excerpts
Part II is divided into the following sections:
- The Poet Slave of Cuba
- Cuban sugar
- The Surrender Tree
- Healing plants
- The first concentration camps
- Tropical Secrets
- The Firefly Letters
- Firefly lanterns
- Summer Birds
- Hurricane Dancers
- Excerpt: The Surrender Tree
- Excerpt: Tropical Secrets
- Excerpt: The Poet Slave of Cuba
- Excerpt: The Firefly Letters
The Poet Slave of Cuba
I learned about Juan Francisco Manzano accidentally while reading a book about the architecture of Cuba. And there was a brief excerpt of one of his poems, along with some photographs of buildings. And I thought, "Who is this? It says he wrote while he was still a slave."
I thought, "How amazing. Why haven't I heard of him before? Why don't I know about him? Why don't other people know about him?" And so, from there, I just really started searching for information about him. His autobiographical notes about his childhood in particular had not yet been reprinted at that time. So they were very obscure and hard to find. But I did manage to get them. Now they've been reprinted in a modern version by a university press.
He wrote notes about his life that were used by British abolishionists to try to promote freedom for slaves in Cuba and into the slave trade in Caribbean. And those biographical notes are really what inspired me. What he wrote about his own life is what inspired me. What amazed me in reading Juan Francisco Manzano's autobiographical notes and the poems about his own life, what really intrigued me and moved me, was that he was able to put his emotions into this beautiful vehicle of poetry, this beautiful vessel, that contained these unimaginable emotions, such an overwhelming suffering and so much cruelty that he experienced. And yet, he was able to turn it into something beautiful.
When you visit Cuba, even today, and certainly when I was a child and absolutely in earlier centuries, sugar was what life was about in Cuba. Sugar was the only crop, the only commercial crop, on a large scale for centuries. And it's one of the most brutally demanding crops for harvest. The physical labor must feel like slavery to those who have to do it, harvest by hand. Even now that there's not officially slavery. It's just an extremely, excruciating crop to harvest by hand.
The leaves are as sharp as knives. When you're in a sugarcane field, it towers over you. It's hot. They chop with a machete. It's a demanding crop. And yet, it sounds so sweet. When you say the word sugar, you think of good things. I think in a lot of my writing, and maybe it's a characteristic of poetry itself, is that it is natural to just kind of accept that there is a blend of sweet and bitter in life.
The Surrender Tree
My first young adult novel and verse was the The Poet Slave of Cuba. Then while researching 19th century Cuba for that book, I became intrigued by Rosa Rosa la Bayamesa, who was born a slave, but was set free in 1868 when Cuban planters declared independence from Spain. It was as if you combined the American Revolution and the Civil War in the same era. Because those things were simultaneous in Cuba. The struggle for freedom from slavery and independence from Spain happened at the same time.
And I was fascinated by her because she was set free. She was very young. And instead of going off to enjoy her freedom, she chose to be a nurse in the wilderness, hiding in caves and hiding in jungles. And she chose to heal the wounds and illnesses of soldiers from both sides in those wars. It turned out to be thirty years of war, ending with what we what we know in the U.S. as the Spanish American War. But which in Cuba would be called the Third War for Independence from Spain.
And in Spain would be called the disaster. Because it really ... these wars dragged on and were really the first guerilla wars with people hiding in the jungle and fighting against modern armies in that way. But I was just so inspired by her courage and her compassion in the choices that she made. And she's another excellent example of what I was talking about, that the people I'm interested in writing about are the ones who make hopeful choices in situations that seem hopeless.
Rosa la Bayamesa hid in jungles and in caves while serving as a wilderness nurse during those three wars for independence from Spain. And she used wild plants to heal because she didn't have anything else. She didn't have manufactured medicine. So she experimented and she made do with what she had. And she used all sorts of herbs and roots and berries and leaves.
And so, just that topic fits so well with my own background in botany. Actually, in the poet slave of Cuba, there was a bit of botany also. Because when Juan Francisco Manzano was teaching himself to read and write as a young child, he was forbidden to read and write. So he would do it in secret. And he would carve letters that he had seen other people write and try and do it himself. And he would cave them into a leaf with his fingernail.
And for me, that and also Rosa la Bayamesa's work, was so visual. And I felt like I could see those leaves. And I could smell the herbs. For me, it just really brought those stories to life, to imagine the tropical nature that was daily surrounding daily life for these people.
The first concentration camps
When I was researching The Surrender Tree and when I was writing about those wars for independence from Spain, I was actually tremendously shocked to learn that Cuba was the first place where there were formal concentration camps. And from that time on, once it was done in Cuba, it seemed like one country after another, one war after another, all over the world started to use this method of brutally herding hundreds of thousands of peasants into fenced, guarded enclosures, and leaving them there with no sanitation, food or medicine. Just basically herding them into concentration camps and leaving them to die.
They were called campamentos de concentratión. At that time, they were called re-concentration camps. And it was an idea that one of the Spanish generals had. And I think it's amazing that it's not better known. I think it's really shocking that it's not better known.
This history for me was also personal. Because I had heard all my life that my great grandmother, or my great grandparents, both of them, and their youngest child at the time, had to go to another place. They were on a farm. And they had to go to another place during the final war for independence from Spain. And I didn't know what had to go to another place meant until I started reading about those re-concentration camps.
Tropical Secrets is a book that I wrote because for me, it's a story about safe harbors and the kindness of strangers. And I hope that I would have written it, even if I didn't have any personal connection to the story. As it happens, I do. Because my father is an American, but of Ukranian Jewish ancestry. So even though he was not a World War II refugee, he was born and raised in Los Angeles. His parents were refugees from the Ukraine much earlier, fleeing pogroms.
When ships filled with Jewish refugees left Germany in the late 1930s, they would go to New York and to Canada and they were turned away. Most of them were turned away. If they would have gone back to Germany, those refugees would have gone to concentration camps.
So instead, they anchored in Havana Harbor. They turned south and anchored in Havana Harbor. And stayed there trying to negotiate visas and asylum for the refugees. And most of the ships did eventually receive permission for the refugees to disembark and receive asylum.
So, in essence, what happened is people who left Germany as refuges, thinking they were going to New York to be reunited with relatives who were already there or thinking that they needed to learn English and that they were going to be New Yorkers, actually ended up becoming Cubans. And they needed to learn Spanish. And they needed to learn how to adapt to the tropical climate and so forth.
And I learned that Cuban teenagers volunteered to teach Spanish to some of these refugees. And to me, that was a very inspiring act of kindness. So I really was touched by those, it's so hard to find, you know, positive things to say about the Holocaust. And I don't mean to minimize the act of suffering. But I did want to write about the aspect of hope rather than the aspect of suffering. I didn't want to set this book in a place where people were not surviving. I wanted to look at what had happened to those who did receive the kindness of strangers and did survive.
The Firefly Letters
When I was researching for both The Poet Slave of Cuba and The Surrender Tree, I was reading everything I could find about 19th century Cuba. I just wanted every detail of daily life. I wanted diaries where people not only tell you what they ate for breakfast, but they tell you what their emotions were during their daily lives.
And it's something that you don't find in history books written later. You have to actually go back to the first person accounts written at that time. Well, I kept coming across the references to the letters and diaries of Fredrika Bremer, a Swedish suffragette, a Swedish women's rights activist, who was also a travel writer. She had traveled and written about the daily lives of women in Scandinavia. And then she set sail for the Americas. And then went to Cuba in 1851. And she wrote letters back to European royalty. And diaries, extremely detailed diaries, about her experiences in Cuba.
She explored the countryside and wrote about slavery in a way that Cubans at the time were not doing. Partly because of censorship. It was illegal for Cubans to write about slavery. But she was an outsider. She was Swedish and had her freedom to write as an outsider. And she chose to use that freedom to tell about what she was singing. She kind of served as a witness. And I'm very grateful that her diaries were published in English at the time, as well as in Swedish. So that I was able to read them. Some were also published in Spanish. But if all of that writing had only been in Swedish, I never would have known anything about it. But by being able to find English and Spanish copies of her letters and diaries, I was really able to appreciate her friendship with a young, African born, slave girl who was assigned to be her translator while she was in Cuba.
The Swedish consulate found her a place to stay out in the countryside. She wanted to see how ordinary people lived. She didn't want to be with all the wealthy people and their palaces in the city. Which probably shocked them. Because they would have assumed that anybody would want to learn about their daily lives rather than those of the slaves and the poor people.
But her translator, Cecelia, really fascinated me. She was very young. I'm not sure if she was a teenager. She was just referred to as a very young woman. And she was pregnant. And she was sick. She had what sounded like tuberculosis. But she wandered around the countryside with Fredrika Bremer, translating because she had been taught English in order to serve as a translator in the sugar mills between, translating between African language and Spanish and English which was spoken by the American engineers in the sugar mills. And Fredrika Bremer spoke English, but not Spanish. So Cecelia's role was to help her with whatever she wanted to do. And what she wanted to do was interview slaves and free blacks as she wandered around the countryside.
I chose the title the Firefly Letters because Fredrika and Cecelia together would rescue fireflies from children who had captured them. And they would set them free again. Even though they knew they might have to rescue those same few fireflies a few minutes later if children recaptured them. In The Surrender Tree, fireflies play a role too. Because they were actually an image of light where as a girl is trying to escape from the re-concentration camp, she's using a cigar to imitate the light of a firefly.
And the children in Cuba do capture fireflies still. And I imagine they do any place where they exist, capture fireflies and use them as little lanterns. But I think that they're kind of a natural metaphor for light of other sorts, for kind of trying to illuminate our own lives.
Summer Birds is a picture book for much younger children. And it's about Maria Sibylla Merian. I always seem to fall in love with people who are far ahead of their time, and especially women who are far ahead of their time. Maria Sibylla Merian lived in the 1600s. She was born in Germany and later lived in the Netherlands. But as a young girl, as a child, she started observing butterflies and noticing that caterpillars turned into pupa and then into butterflies. She observed the lifecycle of butterflies.
And hard as it is to believe, at that time in Europe, adults still thought that insects came out of the air and frogs came out of the mud. They believed in spontaneous generation. And I want to specify European adults. Because Asians knew, since they had been raising silkworms, they knew that butterflies came from caterpillars. And that they went through a pupa stage in between.
Well, Maria Sibylla Merian was from a family of scientific illustrators, botanical illustrators, and printers. So she had the background in flower prints. And there would often be butterflies on pictures with flowers that were done in her family. She also had an uncle who brought silkworms from Asia. That trade was just starting at the time. And she got her start in observing caterpillars and butterflies in the home. If she had been known to be a student of butterfly life cycles, she could have been accused of witchcraft. Because small creatures were thought of as coming from evil, coming from the devil.
And that anybody who wanted to, you know, look down in the mud and see frogs or look up at the sky and see butterflies was spending too much time on small, strange things that people didn't understand. There's always a fear of anything that you don't understand. Since I have my own background in botany and I'm married to an entomologist, I've been fascinated with Maria Sibylla Merian for decades. And I was writing about her for other kinds of publications a long time ago. I wrote about her South American Explorer magazine probably twenty-five years ago.
And at that time, I tried to write a children's book about her. Because I thought she was so special. And I really had never written a children's book before. Then just a few years ago, I pulled it out of a drawer where it had been stored and tried to get it started again. And it turned into this amazing picture book. Julie Pash just did the most beautiful illustrations for it.
And I enjoyed the experience so much of writing something that had so few words of my own, just a very, very short story of my own, and watching how an illustrator could take those few words and make a whole world out of it. Kind of like I planted a seed and the illustrator grew it up into this beautiful book.
My newest book is Hurricane Dancers: The First Caribbean Pirate Shipwreck. And it's set in 1509. It's actually about a shipwrecked pirate, the first Caribbean pirate, and his hostage who was a Conquistador that he had captured. But it's primarily told from the voice of a young person on that ship when it shipwrecked. And he is of mixed ancestry, Cuban, Indian and Spanish. And this shipwreck, it's a true story. This shipwreck landed these people on the shore in an area where Cuban Indians had not yet had contact with outsiders.
So even though Columbus had reached parts of Cuba in the 1400s, it was really in the 1500s that this first contact occurred. And it was a very different kind of book to research because there's so little information available when you go back that far in time. And so much of what was written was written only from the Spanish point of view.
One thing that happened while I was researching this book is I became a subject of the Cuban DNA project and learned what I had suspected that I do have primarily Native American ancestry. My maternal DNA came back from the test as Native American. So this from other parts of Latin America, this might not sound, so she has some Indian blood? You know, that could be said of most of Latin America. But in Cubans, historians for 500 years have been saying that the Cuban Indians were completely extinct.
And these DNA studies are telling us that women survived. The maternal DNA does show that women survived. And so, for me, knowing that genocide did not succeed, it was a deeply emotional experience to know that even when you think that a culture has been completely lost, there's still some spirit and some physical survival there too.
Excerpt: The Surrender Tree
This is an excerpt from The Surrender Tree in Rosa's voice, Rosa la Bayamesa, the wilderness nurse.
"In order to talk to my patients, I learn a few words in each of many languages, the words of African and native Cuban Indian tribes, and all the dialects of the provinces of Spain. I even invent my own secret codes. But the ones taught by birds are the best, especially when mixed with the music of conch shell trumpets, bamboo flutes, rabbles, drums and the Canary Islanders' language of Sytabul, a mystery of whistles. Animals and plants help me learn how to understand all these ways of knowing what people are trying to say. The ears of a horse show anger or fear. The eyes of oxen tell of weariness. Voices of birds chant orders around nests. Yellow acacia flowers whisper secrets of love. Green reeds play a wild windy music. Pink oleanders are a poisonous message that warns Quidarvos. Beware. Fragrant blue rosemary speaks of memory. White poppies mean sleep. White yarrow foretells war."
Excerpt: Tropical Secrets
This is Tropical Secrets, about holocaust refugees in Cuba. And this is the voice of Daniel, a German Jewish refugee arriving in Cuba. "Where will the ship go? What will happen to refugees who find no refuge? I cannot bring myself to imagine the fate of all those people, all the children, who traveled alone just as I did. Each time I try to picture my own future, I feel just as helpless as the children on the ship. Will those children ever find a home?"
Excerpt: The Poet Slave of Cuba
This is The Poet Slave of Cuba, a biography of Juan Francisco Manzano. And this is the voice of Juan as I imagine him when he was a child.
"These rhymes are mine, mine alone, never memorized or copied in any way. Rhymes about soaring and spirit, a spark imprisoned, bursting its bonds of clay, rhymes about feeling delight wrapped in love, alive and able to pray."
Excerpt: The Firefly Letters
This is The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette's Journey to Cuba, about Fredrika Brenner. And this is Fredrika's voice.
"Cuban fireflies are the most amazing little creatures I have ever seen. They flock to me at night, resting on my fingers. So that while I am sketching and writing letters, I need no other lantern, just the light from their movements. I skim my hand across the page while the brilliant cocuos help me decide what to write. There is so much to tell. How can I describe this shocking journey? I must speak of Cecelia's homesickness and her lung sickness and the way her baby is doomed to be born into slavery. I must describe Elena's loneliness and her longing for a sense of purpose. Somehow I must show my readers the bright flowers and glowing insects that make Cuba's night feel like morning."
Margarita Engle is an award-winning author of books for children, young adults, and adults. The daughter of an American father and Cuban mother, Engle spent her childhood summers in Cuba, where she developed a deep bond with her extended family and a lifelong passion for tropical nature, which led her to study agronomy and botany, along with creative writing. Engle and her family were visting Cuba in 1960 when diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba broke down, and faced a number of obstacles in returning to the U.S. From that point on, communication with her extended family was restricted and she describes the experience of suddenly losing contact with her beloved extended family and grandmother as something out of "science fiction."
Engle began to read about Cuban history, which led her to discover a number of the forgetten characters and events featured in her award-winning novels written in verse for young adults. These include The Surrender Tree, recipient of the first Newbery Honor awarded to a Latino, as well as the Pura Belpré Medal, Américas Award, and Jane Addams Award and The Poet Slave of Cuba, which received the Pura Belpré Medal, Américas Award, and an International Reading Association Award. Tropical Secrets received the Sydney Taylor Award and Paterson Prize. The Firefly Letters is a Pura Belpré Honor Book and a finalist for the Jane Addams Award and California Book Award. Engle's most recent book for young adults is Hurricane Dancers: The First Caribbean Pirate Shipwreck.
Engle's books for children include Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian, the story of a young, perceptive 17th-century artist and scientist well ahead of her time who recorded her observations about the life cycles of butterflies and insects despite the threat of being accused of witchcraft for doing so.
When discussing her writing, Engle observes, "Writing a historical novel in verse feels like time travel, a dreamlike blend of imagination and reality. It is an exploration. It is also a chance to communicate with the future, through young readers. I love to write about young people who made hopeful choices in situations that seemed hopeless. My own hope is that tales of courage and compassion will ring true for youthful readers as they make their own difficult decisions in modern times."
Engle lives in central California, where she enjoys helping her husband with his volunteer work for wilderness search and rescue dog training programs.