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.

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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!

review: Silver People

silvertitle: Silver People

author: Margarita Engle

date: HMH Children’s Books; March 2013

main character: Mateo

Strange as it seems, the ‘globalization’ of international trade did not begin with the Internet but was launched a century ago when a new waterway suddenly made the world seem small.” This line ends Silver People, the story of the workers who built the Panama Canal in which Margarita Engle combines the voices of workers from Cuba, Panama, Jamaica and the United States to tell the story of the conditions in which the Canal was built. From the very beginning of the story, readers are aware of the differing treatment people received that took into account details such as skin tone, country of origin and gender. Although perpetuated by the Whites in power, this racism is so institutionalized that not even they can alter this system. They’re also aware of the culture of the Panamanian people and the flora and fauna of the country.

The story begins in 1906 when young Mateo is recruited from his home in Cuba with the dream of high wages and a more satisfying life. In her trademark open verse style of writing, Engle deftly recreates the back-breaking hardships and the imposed racism that the work crews endured throughout the eight years it took to complete the project. She manages to capture the inhumanity of their treatment while at the same time realizing their character to the reader. And, she does this in a way that will neither overwhelm nor disturb young readers. Engle relates the story with gentle care and compassion by making this a story of Panama and not just the Canal. She literally brings the setting to life by giving voice to trees and monkeys. While the Canal was built to facilitate trade, the act of building it had a huge impact on the biodiversity of the region. Mateo meets Augusto and learns how to develop his artistic talents as they draw life forms found in the Panamanian rain forest.

Rich details trace the impact of non-indigenous footprints on the environment. I always enjoy Engle’s novels as they recreate less known people and places with well researched details. They’re layered in ways that each reader will truly have a unique experience with the book. While I focused on the harshness, others will wander through the jungle scenes with others will watch as relationships develop.

Engle’s other works include The Firefly Letters, Hurricane Dancers, The Wild Book and Mountain Dog.

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