Margarita Engle has been writing poetry since she was a child. She also spent her summers in Cuba, her mother’s homeland, which sparked a passion for all things Cuban. Put those together and you end up with passionate stories of Cuba written in free verse that pull you in and keep you moving along with the flow of the verse.
Margarita Engle’s books for young adults regularly receive awards, which will come as no surprise to those who have read her stories; her latest work, Lion Island: Cuba’s Warrior of Words, received a highly recommended rating from our reviewers. Lion Island “completes a cycle of loosely linked biographical verse novels about heroes of the struggle for freedom and social justice in 19th-century Cuba,” Engle explains. “That cycle began,” she goes on to tell us, “with The Poet Slave of Cuba, and continued with The Surrender Tree, The Firefly Letters, and The Lightning Dreamer.” Her books, then, also serve to fill a gap in children’s literature about Cuba.
These sometimes brutal and heartbreaking stories deal with an unstable period in Cuba’s history and Engle’s accounts do not sugarcoat this reality. The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano does not gloss over his treatment as a slave; The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom depicts a Cuba torn apart and ravaged by war; and Lion Island speaks to the injustice of slavery, indentured servitude, and racism. But these books also speak to the resilience of the human spirit and how one person can make a difference. In fact, when asked what she would like students to take away from her books, she responded with one simple word: “Hope.”
She writes these books, she says, out of “a passion for Cuba. Historical verse novels have helped to fulfill my need to learn about the past and desire to understand it,” but, as she points out, “I’ve branched out to picture books such as Drum Dream Girl, contemporary novels such as Mountain Dog, and a verse memoir, Enchanted Air.”
Mountain Dog and When You Wander: A Search-and-Rescue Dog Story both feature search-and-rescue dogs, books that are informed by her experiences working with her husband who trains search-and-rescue dogs (and here’s a picture of their search-and-rescue dog Chance wanting to play chase with a small orange since somebody forgot to bring a ball). Other titles featuring animals are the picture books Orangutanka: A Story in Poems and Tiny Rabbit’s Big Wish.
You can read more about Margarita Engle and her books at http://www.margaritaengle.com/, where you’ll also find suggestions for classroom activities using her books that meet Common Core Standards.