Keeping It Relevant

I’ve been busy lately, but there have been some pretty major events in the news that were difficult to miss. A couple of them relate directly to middle grade/young adult literature.

Raul Castro, Barack Obama

President Obama became the first US president on 90 years to visit Cuba. US-Cuba Relations have been intense since 1898 but in 1961, they ceased completely. Things began to thaw around 2012 to the point that just this week, President Obama and several American business leaders are visiting the island nation.

As a young person, I loved learning history and still do. Yet, there is something about fictionalized history that really speaks to me. Perhaps it does so by giving me someone, a character who lived through the event with whom I can relate. Or, perhaps it’s simply that fiction can better play upon my emotions and intellect thus creating a strong response. Knowing how I feel about historical fiction that is well written and well researched leads me to recommend children and young adult fiction about Cuba, particularly works by Cuban American authors.

I have to recommend Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music; Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings: A Memoir; Summer Birds: The Wild Book; Silver MargaritaPeople: Voices from the Panama Canal; The Surrender Tree/El Arbol de La Rendicion: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom/Poemas de La Luche de Cuba Pr Su Libertad and Tiny Rabbit’s Big Wish all by Margarita Engle. Engle is a Cuban American writer who detailed the Cuban Missile Crisis from her own childhood perspective in Enchanted Air. She recently spoke of her hopes for improved US/Cuban relations on NPR.

Not too long ago, Latin@s in Kidlit hosted Cuba Week where they highlighted the work of eight Cuban American children’s writers. They wrote about immigration experiences, cubanism, identity and biculturalism. Read more from Guinevere Thomas, Meg Medina, Laura Lacámara, Christina Diaz González, Alma Flor Ada, Enrique Flores Galbis, Nancy Osa and Margarita Engle. The post also curates a list of children’s and young adult books by these and many more Cuban American authors.

Screen Shot 2016-03-22 at 4.38.54 PM

But then, sometimes even though the books parallel real life the author didn’t do the research and didn’t get it right and the mainstream media gets it no better.  What can we do with this?

There’s a story in the news these days about a foster family trying to keep the child they’ve been fostering for several years. The family is white and the child is Choctaw. Do what I just did. Do a search for “foster children Native American” and you’ll see articles about the incident to which I’m referring float straight to the top. Whether you have any background on this story or not, simply read the headlines and note the bias. She’s ‘part Native’. She was ‘seized from the family’ ‘for being 1/64 Native’ .

I thought foster care was a temporary situation until arrangements could be made to place the child with their family. Sorry, I have a bias, too.

Have you ever seen a story about a child being removed from a foster home making national headlines? Pay attention to the bias.

I think the best place to start building a background is here with NPR. I like this three part series because it immediately mentions the removal of Native American children from their home and shipping them off to boarding schools to make them lose every ounce of their culture, their tribal identity and their heritage. That’s what I thought of when I heard about this young Choctaw girl that this white family wanted to keep in their home. If I’m making this sound racial, that’s because I believe it is. Perhaps I should state ‘That’s what I thought about when I heard about Lexi, a 6 year old Choctaw girl that the Page family wanted to keep in their home.”

And then, NPR gets to the heart of this case: The 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act.

How does this relate to YA? In a very odd way, indeed it does. Emily Henry’s recent YA novel, The Love That Split the World is described as follows on Amazon.

Natalie’s last summer in her small Kentucky hometown is off to a magical start…until she starts seeing the “wrong things.” They’re just momentary glimpses at first—her front door is red instead of its usual green, there’s a pre-school where the garden store should be. But then her whole town disappears for hours, fading away into rolling hills and grazing buffalo, and Nat knows something isn’t right.

 That’s when she gets a visit from the kind but mysterious apparition she calls “Grandmother,” who tells her: “You have three months to save him.” The next night, under the stadium lights of the high school football field, she meets a beautiful boy named Beau, and it’s as if time just stops and nothing exists. Nothing, except Natalie and Beau.

Natalie is actually Native American and adopted by a white family (Did you read about the Indian Child Welfare Act above?) and she’s taken from them. I really appreciate how Debbie Reese walked point by point through this book on Twitter.

So, what do we do with this? I think YA literature can be used in a variety of ways in the classroom. Using the sources I’ve cited above, an ELA or Social Studies teacher can construct a lesson around the 1978 law and build case studies from both the real life event and the book using Debbie’s Storify or the news articles to look at bias, power structures, the use of privilege, identity and Native American history. You’ll probably end up with several students who want to read the book. In any other situation, I wouldn’t recommend purchasing this one but buy creating this lesson that is rich in both critical literacy and metaliteracy, I’d say add this one to the collection and let students use the tools you just taught them. Teach your students how to be smart, engaged and informed citizens.

Connecting fiction to real life is one of the best ways to teach students how to read the world.









Writers on Writing: Memoirs/Margarita Engle

Today’s post begins a short series from amazing and talent writings that will move us deeper into the realm of fiction and nonfiction books.

We begin with the Margarita Engle and memoirs. Memoirs differ from biographies in that Margaritathey focus on a particular event or episode in one’s life, such as Margarita’s Enchanted Air. Two Cultures. Two Wings, a memoir about growing up in Cuba and American during the cold war. As Margarita points out, memoirs are important tools in helping us understand one another.

Memoirs are relatively new to children’s literature. What makes them an important addition to what’s written for young adults?

Two of my favorite older books for young people are Alma Flor Ada’s Under the Royal Palms, and Where the Flame Trees Bloom, so I don’t think of memoirs as new. Verse memoirs aren’t really new either, but there haven’t been many in recent years. When I wrote Enchanted Air, I didn’t know that Jacqueline Woodson and Marilyn Nelson were doing the same thing at the same time! I assumed Enchanted Air would languish alone on library shelves, but it turns out to be in fantastic company. In fact, if Sonia Manzano’s Becoming Maria: Love and Chaos in the South Bronx hadn’t come out at the same time as Enchanted Air, I would have missed my chance for a glowing New York Times Review of both books! The timing is amazing. Perhaps there is a whole generation of multicultural authors reaching an age when we feel that if we don’t tell our own life stories, someone younger might romanticize eras that weren’t simple.

I think memoirs can help young readers see that their families aren’t the only weird ones. Life is surrealistic, or in my case magic realistic, a term that sounds much better in its Spanish original: lo real maravilloso, marvelous reality. Life is a blend of wonderful and terrible experiences, some personal, others historical. The historical ones affect the personal ones. Won’t it be amazing if teachers use all these recent memoirs to show students that they can write about their lives too? By reading each other’s stories, we can begin to understand each other, and that leads to empathy, the first step toward peacemaking.

What do you think makes a particular biography or memoir a story worth telling?

All life stories are meaningful and important, but honesty is the one thing that makes a memoir worth telling. Without honest emotions, a memoir is not factual. Memoirists can’t keep secrets or hide weaknesses.

Enchanted Air is such a personal story. What made you decide it was time to tell it?

I had started to believe that U.S.-Cuba relations would never be renewed in my lifetime, so I wanted to leave my story to the next generation of decision-makers, as a plea for peace and reconciliation. Incredibly, during the same week when advanced review copies arrived on my doorstep, President Obama made his December 17, 2014 announcement! I rushed to revise the author’s note at the end, changing it from a plea to a song of gratitude.

For whom do you write?

Any child, any teen. I think there is a misconception that Latino authors write only for Latino readers, but that’s simply not true. I hope all young people are encouraged to read books written by people from a wide variety of backgrounds, about a vast range of subjects.

What can we expect from you in 2016?

Thank you for asking! I have two verse novels:

Lion Island, Cuba’s Warrior of Words (Atheneum, August). This is a young adult biographical novel about Antonio Chuffat, a Chinese-African-Cuban messenger boy who became a translator, and documented the freedom struggle of indentured Chinese laborers in Cuba. Chuffat’s story is interwoven with the arrival of five thousand Chinese-Californians who fled to Cuba, escaping anti-Asian violence in Los Angeles and San Francisco during the late 1860s-early 1870s. Lion Island is the final volume in my loosely linked series of verse novels about forced labor in 19th century Cuba, beginning with The Poet Slave of Cuba, The Surrender Tree, The Firefly Letters, and The Lightning Dreamer.

Morning Star Horse (HBE Publishers, autumn) is an illustrated middle grade historical fantasy inspired by a true situation so strange that I chose to write it in the real maravilloso style that I mentioned earlier. In other words, it’s a magical horse story. Anyone who has read Enchanted Air knows that I was a horse crazy child, so for me, this book is my 9-year-old self’s dream come true. The setting is the Raja Yoga Academy in San Diego, where Spanish-American War orphans from Cuba were imported and taught art, music, theater, gardening, weaving, and yoga. HBE is an innovative new small press that is willing to experiment, so Morning Star Horse/El Caballo Lucero will be available in the all-English or bilingual format, another dream come true!

Margarita, thank you for this interview! In writing Enchanted Wings you gave me new insights on an important event that I lived through and you’ve had me examining my own childhood during that era. Yes, indeed memoirs begin conversations!

About Courage #3: Margarita Engle

Margarita Engle is the Cuban-American winner of the first Newbery Honor ever awarded to a Latino. Her award winning young adult novels in verse include The Surrender Tree, The Poet Slave of Cuba, Tropical Secrets, and The Firefly Letters.

Engle’s most recent books are The Lightning Dreamer and When You Wander. Her new middle grade chapter book, LightningMountain Dog, was published in August 2013 and is a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2013. Margarita’s upcoming book, Silver People, Voices From the Panama Canal, will be released in 2014. It has been selected as one of Junior Library Guild selection for their Spring 2014 catalog.

She lives in central California, where she enjoys helping her husband with his volunteer work for wilderness search and rescue dog training programs.

My prompt for Margarita: I think you’re a courageous writer. You write in a non-traditional format with characters and settings that aren’t typically trending in children’s and YA books. Where do you get the courage to write what you write? How much courage do you need to go to your editor with a story about a little black girl in Cuba, a search and rescue dog or a book written in poem form? Do you think readers find courage in your writing?


Writing is a wild exploration.  Wilderness explorers need courage.  Courage to follow fascinating topics Margaritawherever they lead.  Courage to face difficult emotions.  Courage to experiment with non-traditional forms.

Courage.  What a complex word!  As a writer, I am terrified of being misunderstood.  I’m afraid of not meeting expectations, especially my own.  I’m reluctant to experience sadness, while writing about history’s madness.  I’m intimidated by the possibility of being judged negatively by critics who often marginalize Latino themes, verse novels, and poetry in general.  In other words, I’m afraid of failure, but failure is a complex word too.  If I succeed in communicating with readers, then I haven’t failed.

Too often, success is measured by external standards.  In order to keep my goals attainable, I need my own personal standards.  I need peace of mind, the freedom to write without self-censorship, and the generosity to be content with any level of “success,” as long as I know that I’ve done my best. 

So I choose to write about themes that are important to me, in forms that I love.  One way or another, each of my books turns out to be about freedom and hope.  This is not something I deliberately set out to accomplish.  It occurs naturally, while I research, scribble, erase, re-write, revise, wonder, explore…

I have never completely rejected a topic because it was obscure, unpopular, or difficult to research.  In the verse novel form, I feel free to fill in missing details by imagining how it felt to live in a particular time and place.  I have never avoided a story only because it was emotionally painful, but I do reject historical topics that turn out to have no hopeful ending at all.  No matter how fascinating, if the real-life ending is completely depressing, that particular historical event is not a tale I want to offer to young people, who already face so much discouragement and confusion in their daily lives. 

Emotions are one of the scariest aspects of writing.  I just completed a childhood memoir about summers with my extended family in Cuba, and the loss of travel rights after the Missile Crisis.  It was the most painful writing experience of my life.  I postponed it, and when I finally decided to plow ahead, I wrote ferociously, eager to tell the truth of my personal Cold War experience, even though it is different than most Cuban-American stories.  I am not a refugee or an exile.  I was born in the U.S.  Only my mother is Cuban, but those childhood summers were precious to me, and losing them was devastating.  I wrote while crying,  and if I’m invited to speak about the book (scheduled for publication by Harcourt in March, 2015), I expect to speak while crying.  More than fifty-one years have passed, but I still cannot pronounce the words ‘Missile Crisis’ without bursting into tears.  Nevertheless, my true story contains the seeds of hope, because somehow, on paper, I feel free to seek hopeful pathways, and follow them, exploring…

In The Courage to Write, Ralph Keyes recounts E.B. White’s belief that a writer’s key problem is to establish communication with himself.  “Everyone else is tuned in,” White clarified.  “In other words, if a writer succeeds in communicating with a reader, I think it is simply because he has been trying (with some success) to get in touch with himself.”  So it’s not simply a matter of courage, but one of sincerity.  When we write honestly, fear loses its power, words gain depth, and success becomes a personal journey, rather than a judgment imposed by others. 

There are no shortcuts in an explorer’s primeval world.  There is no technological substitute for the slow, gradual process of seeking and finding.  When I am asked to advise new writers, I tell them to turn off their electronic gadgets, go outdoors, walk, daydream, listen to birdsong, relax in a hammock, scribble with a pen and paper, practice, practice, practice, explore…

Margarita, thank you so much!

Firefly Letters   Poet Slave Surrender Tree mountain - New Ribbon Tropical Secretrabbit Summer Birds WildBook Lightning WhenYouWander2 shoesilver

Some Summer: Cuba Post

I’m starting a rather informal summer series. (By definition, shouldn’t all summer series be informal?) I’m finding people who are spending part of their summer exploring a new culture, learning a new technology or experiencing something new and unusual and I’m asking them to write about it and then share it here. I have a few posts lined up and am always looking for more!The series is starting here today with a wonderful piece from my dear friend, Susan Adams who recently had the opportunity to visit Cuba. She was excited to go and I was so excited for her! I know her well enough to know she would fully experience Cuba and all it has to offer and that she would come home with keen observations. I know she has stories too! I can’t wait to meet up with her in Indy and here her stories!!

 The following are her reflections.

I was recently privileged to travel to Cuba with a small group of faculty members from Butler University where I am a faculty member in the College of Education. I have long been fascinated by Cuba and have thought often of what I heard from 2 undergraduate professors, the first of which was a Cuban attorney turned foreign language professor and the second of which had been a young college student studying in Cuba as Fidel Castro rose to power in the 1950’s. The Cuban attorney was bitter, frustrated and angry about how his life in the U.S. had turned out; frankly he did a lot of ranting and raving about history and politics, most of which went over our heads, but seemed to soothe him because he generally would cease his rant with a cool smile. The other professor intrigued me even more because her eyes lit up and she smiled a dreamy smile as she described the charisma and intelligence of Fidel Castro, almost forgetting herself as she mentally relived the excitement of being in Cuba at such a momentous time in history.

What I learned from my professors clashed in contrast with my mother’s recollection of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the stark terror my mother remembers experiencing whenever my father went to sea as a young Navy soldier. My father was frequently on the ships patrolling the Caribbean; the uncertainty of his exact location and the daily news reports made her fearful she would be left a young widow with a baby. When I told my mother I was going to Cuba, she attempted to mask the flood of these old emotions (failing completely, of course) and tried to pretend she did not think I was crazy for wanting to go. I have a nasty habit of traveling to parts of the world that scare my mom (Mexico, Honduras, and most recently, Bangkok) but she tries valiantly to be happy for me in spite of her fears.

How to describe what I saw and experienced was constantly on my mind as we traveled to Havana, Santa Clara and Varadero, spending hours and hours aboard an old 1970’s Thomas school bus imported from Canada. It is easy to describe the lush, green, tropical beauty of the island. Yes, of course, it was very hot there (one day the temperature reached in excess of 97 degrees Fahrenheit with 100% humidity)so being sweaty even when you are doing nothing at all is normal. Eating beautiful and sometimes unfamiliar fruits and vegetables (malanga, a tuber sort of like the potato, was a favorite discovery) was a great adventure-mango for breakfast almost every day makes me SO happy! Visiting Che Guevara’s mausoleum was deeply touching and strangely inspiring. Swimming in the ocean at Varadero was amazing and beautiful on the white sand beach under the blazing sun and at night under a full moon, waving our hands to see flashes of phosphorescent microscopic creatures.  These are the easy things to describe.

What is more difficult is to characterize the beautiful, resourceful, inventive and generous people that we met. Each day we listened to an expert in some field (economics, social sciences, folklore, education, organic farming, etc.). As I listened, it was impossible to miss the immense pride and sense of accomplishment that permeated each lecture and discussion. I began to sense the significance of the collective Cuban commitment to revolution in all of its iterations, beginning with the overthrow of Bautista in 1959 and extending all the way to the present struggle to prosper under the U.S. embargo and blockade. How could a tiny little country do what so many other countries have failed to do in the onslaught of multinational corporations taking root in so many other parts of the world? Could it be that the embargo and the blockade have served to protect Cuba and to maintain its identity?

As I turned on the beach to view the few buildings scattered along the curves of the coast, I had a horrific vision of what would happen to this pristine place if multinational corporations got their hooks in it. Like mushrooms, Hiltons, McDonalds and Starbucks would

Susan’s photo of Old Havana

spring up and vacationing Americans would populate those white sand beaches seemingly overnight. What a nightmare that would be! I do understand the economic implications and struggles that are direct consequences of the embargo and blockade for Cubans, but I cringe as I imagine stately yet playful Old Havana converted into a Disneyesque caricature of itself as I recently heard a Venetian complain that Venice, Italy has been taken over by the tourist industry and has pushed out many of the residents. I thought of the huge changes I have witnessed as Wal-Mart, Taco Bell and KFC have moved into México where distinctive, unique towns and villages are transformed into ubiquitous, predictable and ordinary sprawling landscapes that look like any interchangeable Midwestern town. I have grieved over this destruction in México, which has helped me in turn understand the destruction and damage has been done all over Indiana (and the rest of the country, for that matter) over the course of my lifetime; I would hate to see this happen in Cuba.

So, what did I learn? For starters, I realized anew how we have been framed by our own government to see only the negative side of socialism and the way this gets lived out in Cuba. I did not expect to hear Cubans speak of Fidel (and that is ALWAYS what they call Castro) with open love, respect and genuine appreciation for what he has done for the country. I did not fully understand the immensity of the impact of the Soviets pulling out of Cuban in 1991 and how this has resulted in scarcity and economic hardships, but neither did I know that the Cubans choose to see this time as an opportunity to grow and mature as a nation that is confident in its leaders’ wisdom and its collective willingness to sacrifice for the sake of this growth and continued autonomy. Never before had I seen with my own eyes a countryside decimated by the sudden ceasing of sugar production, but neither had I seen a nation working together to dramatically recover and reverse courses in agriculture so quickly and with such unity of purpose. I did not realize the punitive nature of the blockade, which prohibits from docking at any U.S. port any ship which has docked in Cuba in the past 6 months. I was startled to see propaganda openly and blatantly displayed on billboards and in the state-run newspapers, causing me to reflect upon the more sophisticated, insipid, carefully phrased delivery of news through U.S. media sources and our own government officials.

What is the “truth” about Cuba and the U.S and who gets to decide? How do we as Americans feel about the U.S. as a world power infringing upon our neighbor Cuba’s sovereign right to self-determination? Cuba is certainly not perfect, but neither is the U.S. What we do not know about each other would fill many books. What we fear about Cuba might no longer even be true, but perhaps Cuba has good reason to be suspicious of us. I am humbled by the fact that Cubans who spoke to me on the streets, in restaurants, community arts centers, universities and the neighborhood where we stayed were able to separate me as an individual from the politics of my country. I was welcomed, greeted with gracious welcomes and interested curiosity about what I was doing there. Sadly, I think this is more than the average American would be willing and able to do if the situation were reversed. For now, I remain hopeful that the U.S. will continue to allow small numbers of citizens to visit and learn more from our neighbors in Cuba. As Mark Twain says in Innocents Abroad, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Thanks, Susan!