wild book

The Wild Book by Margarita Engle

Told in poems, this is the story of Engle’s maternal grandmother and her struggle with dyslexia.  Known as Fefa, her grandmother was diagnosed with “word blindness” and told she would never read or write.  Luckily, Fefa’s mother has an idea.  She gives her daughter a blank book to fill with words, as if she is scattering wildflower seeds on the ground.  At first Fefa’s words are hesitant and stilted, like seedlings.  But steadily her writing and reading improve as she learns to take her time and gains confidence.  And that reading is what saves her and her siblings from being kidnapped in the chaos following Cuba’s fight for independence.

Engle writes a gripping series of poems that range from celebrating the written word to the difficulties of dyslexia to the triumph of overcoming.  Over the entire book the threat of violence and kidnappings hangs low and dark.  It is clear that this is not a modern story from the very beginning and Engle cleverly reveals the extent of the chaos the family is living in the midst of through Fefa herself and her own growing knowledge.

As always, Engle’s verse is exceptional.  Often her individual poems could be read one their own.  Yet it is as one complete story that they really show their beauty.  There are many exceptional stanzas to share, but one of my favorites comes early in the novel:

Frog Fear

 

My little brothers love

to frighten me

by hiding lizards,

bugs, and spiders

in my bloomers.

 

Today it’s a frog,

but they tell me it’s a snake,

so I scream and tremble

until I can clearly see

that the little creature

jumps around

like jittery letters

on a blinding

page.

 

The skin of a frog

feels just as slippery

and tricky as a wild

inky word.

Engle traces the love of words and poetry Fefa’s own mother, who shares poems with her family.  It’s a beautiful celebration of that history and those words.

This novel in verse is a powerful look at Cuba’s history and also at dyslexia and overcoming challenges.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from library copy.