A Song of Frutas by Margarita Engle

Cover image for A Song of Frutas.

A Song of Frutas by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Sara Palacios (9781534444898)

A little girl tells of visiting her Abuelo in Cuba. When she is there, she helps him sell fruit from his small cart on the street. Together they sing the names of the fruits they have for sale, walking in beat to the song and shaking their hands like maracas. Their voices reach up the tall buildings around them and some people purchase fruit using a basket they lower down on a rope. There are other vendors on the street shouting or singing about their wares too, and that’s when Abuelo has to sing even louder to be heard. It’s most special to visit Abuelo at the new year when everyone wants to purchase 12 grapes per person to have good luck when they eat them at midnight. If only visiting Cuba was simpler and they could go more often!

Engle is an award-winning author of books for all ages of children. This picture book uses a mix of English and Spanish called Spanglish that is used both in the United States and Cuba. The songs that the girl and her grandfather sing together are done in rhyme while the rest of the picture book displays Engle’s skills with verse in a different way. Her paragraphs of free verse still play with rhythm and form, inviting readers to experience Cuba and their lively street vendors.

Palacios’ illustrations are bright and merry. They show the dynamic urban Cuban street scene that is full of colorful buildings and equally colorful people. The illustrations share that same inherent happiness as the words.

Bright and energetic, this picture book offers a glimpse of Cuba. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Atheneum Books for Young Readers.

Your Heart, My Sky by Margarita Engle

Cover image for Your Heart, My Sky.

Your Heart, My Sky by Margarita Engle (9781534464964)

Liana and Amado are trying to survive Cuba’s el período especial en tiempos de paz—the special period in times of peace, in the 1990s. The time period when the Cuban government’s strict rules after the collapse of the Soviet Union threw the population into famine. Liana avoids the summer labor she has been assigned to, even though she opens her family to retribution. She spends her days instead with a dog she met, a special singing dog who helps bring her together with Amado. Amado is the brother of a prisoner, which already puts his family under additional scrutiny. He wants to follow in his brother’s pacifist footsteps as the mandatory military service looms in his future. As Liana and Amado come together, they must find a way to help one another survive starvation while seeing if they can have any future together at all.

Engle is the master of the verse novel, weaving her incredible poetry into tales of Cuba. This time, her focus on a period of starvation in Cuba is particularly exceptional. She creates a beautiful romance between two people (and a special dog) in the midst of such political upheaval and danger. The romance is captivating but it is the state of Cuba itself that creates the energy and horror in the story. From people dying of starvation to political imprisonment to casting yourself on the water to try to reach America. There are no easy decisions here, all ways lead to death or prison.

As always, Engle’s books are captivating. Her writing is marvelous, building the romance from tentative first meetings to real love and connection in an organic and honest way. The characters themselves are beautifully drawn. Similar in their situation, they find themselves reacting in very different ways that drive them apart. Their plans for the future seem disparate but could just be the way they can survive and be together after all.

Tense and horrifying, this poetic look at starvation in Cuba is riveting. Appropriate for ages 13-17.

Reviewed from copy provided by Atheneum Books for Young Readers.

4 Picture Books Celebrating Hispanic Heritage

All the Way to Havana by Margarita Engle

All the Way to Havana by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Mike Curato (9781627796422)

A boy and his family are heading to a birthday party for a newborn baby. But first they have to get their old car to run. The car, like many in Cuba, is very old and has been repaired again and again. Papa opens the hood and the boy helps hand him tools to get the engine chattering again. The road is bumpy and the car is crowded with neighbors who also needed a ride that day. As they get to Havana, the countryside transitions into an urban world, filled with other old cars, bicycles and people walking. After the party, the family heads back in the car in the darkness.

Engle’s skill with writing fills the page with the richness of Cuba and its cars. She spends time looking at the engine and letting the child help. There is a feeling of joy upon entering Havana and a wonder about it as well. The illustrations also feel that way, the text and illustrations slowing together as Havana comes into sight and is entered. A great pick for car fans and diversity. Appropriate for ages 4-6. (Reviewed from library copy.)

La Princesa and the Pea by Susan Middleton Elya

La Princesa and the Pea by Susan Middleton Elya, illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal (9780399251566)

A Peruvian twist on the classic fairy tale of The Princess and the Pea, this picture book incorporates Spanish words into the story. El principe wanted a wife but his mother was very selective. When a maiden riding past caught the prince’s eye, his mother devised a sneaky test of a pea and a pile of mattresses. But this twist on the tale has one additional surprise for readers familiar with the tale: a prince with a mind of his own! The text of this book is simple and filled with touches of Spanish that keep the book firmly grounded in Peru. The illustrations do the same with traditional outfits and bright colors that blaze against the subtle backgrounds. A great pick to share with children who will love the twist at the end. Appropriate for ages 4-6. (ARC provided by G. P. Putnam’s Sons.)

Sing Don_t Cry by Angela Dominguez

Sing Don’t Cry by Angela Dominguez (9781627798396)

Two children are visited once a year by their grandfather from Mexico. He brings his guitar and shares songs with them every night. He encourages his grandchildren to sing even if they feel sad. When he was a child and had to find a new country to live in, music helped him. The power of music to change your mood and to draw new people and opportunities to you is explained very simply here. Preschoolers will understand the draw of music and will enjoy the direct message of using music as a way to change. Inspired by the author’s own grandfather, this picture book is a celebration of music and grandparents. Appropriate for ages 3-5. (Reviewed from library copy.)

Yo Soy, Muslim by Mark Gonzales

Yo Soy, Muslim: A Father’s Letter to His Daughter by Mark Gonzales, illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini (9781481489362)

Crafted as a letter from a father to his daughter, this picture book sings with love. The poetic language of the text soars celebrating their identity as Muslims and Indigenous people who speak both Spanish and Arabic. The book focuses on positivity but also addresses the fact that some people will be unkind, not smile or ask pointed questions. The book then returns to celebrating identity and diversity, strengthening the message of pride. The illustrations are filled with deep colors, natural scenes and a playfulness that heightens the book. An underlying folklore quality to them ties the images to heritage. A great diverse picture book for all libraries. Appropriate for ages 3-6. (Reviewed from library copy.)

Forest World by Margarita Engle

Forest World by Margarita Engle

Forest World by Margarita Engle (9781481490573, Amazon)

Released August 29, 2017.

Edver isn’t pleased to be headed to Cuba to meet his father for the first time since he was a baby. Now that the laws have changed, families can once again be reunited with people who escaped to the United States from Cuba. Edver has to leave behind the Internet and his favorite video game and cope with power outages and a lack of transportation and other technology. When he gets to Cuba, Edver discovers that he has an older sister that he’d never known about. Luza had stayed with her father in Cuba, wondering why her mother left her behind. Both of their parents work to protect endangered species. Their father protects one special forest in Cuba while their mother travels the world to find newly rediscovered species. As Luza and Edver start to become siblings, they find that a poacher has come to Cuba, drawn by an email they sent to try to get their mother to come. Now it is up to them to protect the forest they both love.

Engle is a master of the verse novel, writing of difficult subjects and using the poetic format to dig deeper than prose would allow. She tells the story in alternating poems in the voices of Edver and Luza as they discover the poverty of Cuba, the wealth of America, and the fact that there are different types of wealth in life like parental attention, grandparents and a sense of home.

Engle explores the world of Lazarus animals and protecting endangered species in this novel. The subject works in a lovely parallel to Cuban Americans being reunited with their families. There is a sense of delicacy and care, a feeling of finding the right habitat suddenly, and a sense of exploration and discovery heightened with surprises.

Another adept verse novel from a true master, this is a book that explores home, habitat and family. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC received from Atheneum.

Marti’s Song for Freedom by Emma Otheguy

Marti's Song for Freedom by Emma Otheguy

Marti’s Song for Freedom by Emma Otheguy, illustrated by Beatriz Vidal (9780892393756, Amazon)

This picture book in both Spanish and English verse tells the story of José Martí. Martí spent his entire life working to end slavery in Cuba after witnessing the brutality first hand. At the time, Spain ruled Cuba and a war of independence started in 1868. Martí wrote against the Spanish government and was jailed and put to hard labor. At 17-years-old he was sent away from Cuba. He continued to fight for Cuba’s independence and settled in New York. He would travel into the Catskill Mountains to see the nature that he missed from Cuba. Martí eventually returned to Cuba and helped fight in the battles against the Spanish, dying on the battlefield before freedom was realized. His words live on: it was his words and songs that helped drive the Cubans to fight for freedom and to continue fighting.

The verse contains excerpts from Martí’s works, allowing readers to read his words directly. The verse from the author and from Martí  work beautifully together, flowing into one river of words that tell the story of Cuban freedom. The afterword and author’s notes add information to the verse, giving more dates and information on the war for freedom in Cuba and on Martí’s life. This picture book biography takes a complex subject and makes it accessible for young readers, demonstrating how a young-person’s passion can ignite a nation.

The illustrations move from Cuba to New York to the Catskills, capturing scenes of daily life, lush greenery, and battles. There is a sense of energy to all of the illustrations, that matches that of the verse as it speaks to the drive that Martí had to speak out for Cuba’s independence.

A great picture book biography that adroitly pairs English and Spanish on the page. Appropriate for ages 7-9.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: Enchanted Air by Margarita Engle

Enchanted Air by Margarita Engle

Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings by Margarita Engle (InfoSoup)

Released August 4, 2015.

In this verse memoir, Engle tells the story of her childhood during the Cold War. With half of her family coming from Cuba and a grandmother who still lived there, Engle had a strong connection to Cuba. It was there that as a child she found herself, connected to the island culture and lifestyle, ran wild in nature, and discovered a quieter life. It contrasted with her life in Los Angeles, filled with bustle and crowded with people. Through both of these distinct worlds, she has a constant, her love of books and words. As the Bay of Pigs escalates, Engle fears for her island family and has to deal with the increased hatred of Cuba and Cubans in America. Cut off from family with the Cuban embargo, Engle can do little to help and again turns to her words to express herself.

Engle is one of the best verse novelists working today. While all of her previous books are splendid, this one is personal in a new way, one that offers up her heart. She shows her love of Cuba so vividly and so profoundly that her connection there runs through the entire novel. At the same time, she also shares the loneliness of a girl who likes books and words and who struggles to make friends at times. Add to that the political turmoil that has continued for decades and you have a book that could have been a tragedy but instead rises beyond that and straight into hope.

As always, Engle’s verse is exceptional. She captures emotions with a clarity in her verse that makes it immensely compelling to read. There are poems that show a pig being slaughtered on the farm in Cuba that makes it sound both brutal and delicious, the perfect mix of tempting and revolting. There are poems that capture the night sounds of Cuba and the longing for a horse of her own. They show the beauty of milking cows, the strength of a hard-working hand, the joy of connecting with a horse as you ride it. It all melts together into a picture of Cuba that is both personal and universal.

Give this to children who loved Brown Girl Dreaming for another verse memoir that is sure to inspire young readers to see the world in a more diverse and brilliant way. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Atheneum Books for Young Readers and Edelweiss.

Review: Drum Dream Girl by Margarita Engle

Drum Dream Girl by Margarita Engle

Drum Dream Girl by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Rafael Lopez

Inspired by a true story, this picture book is about a girl who refused to allow societal rules to stop her from her musical dreams. In Cuba, girls were not drummers, but one girl dreamed of pounding drums big and small and making amazing music. Everyone said that only boys could be drummers though, so she kept quiet about her dreams.Everywhere she went though she could hear drumbeats that were all her own. Finally the girl dared to start drumming on real drums and she joined her sister in an all-girl band. Her father did not approve of her drumming but eventually allowed her to play for a teacher to see if she could really drum. And she could!

Engle, known for her gorgeous poetic books for older readers, has created a marvelous picture book here. Reading like poetry, the book looks deeply at a girl who refused to give up her dream to play the drums, even as she hid the dream deep inside herself. It is a book that celebrates artistic gifts even as it works to dismantle gender stereotypes and show that girls have the same artistic skills as boys do. The build up in the book is done with real skill, allowing readers to thrill at her accomplishments as her hard works comes to fruition.

Lopez gives us a bright-colored glimpse of Cuba in this picture book. Filled with lush plants, starlight, water and birds, the illustrations shine on the page. Done in acrylic paint on wood board, they have a great texture to them as well as an organic quality that adds to their depth on the page. The result is a picture book that is vibrant and rich.

A dynamic picture book that celebrates music and breaks stereotypes, this book will inspire children to follow their own dreams. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: The Lightning Dreamer by Margarita Engle

lightning dreamer

The Lightning Dreamer by Margarita Engle

Margarita Engle, award-winning author of verse novels, continues her stories of Cuba.  In this book, she explores the life of Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda, also known as Tula, who becomes a revolutionary Cuban poet.  Raised to be married off to save the family financially, Tula even as a young girl relates more closely with slaves and the books she is reading than with girls of her own age and her own social standing.  As she reads more and more, sheltered by both her younger brother and the nuns at the convent, Tula starts to explore revolutionary ideas about freedom for slaves and for women.  In a country that is not free, Tula herself is not free either and is forced to confront an arranged marriage, the brutality of slavery, and find her own voice.

Engle writes verse novels with such a beauty that they are impossible to put down.  Seemingly light confections of verse, they are actually strong, often angry and always powerful.  Here, Engle captures the way that girls are asked to sacrifice themselves for their families, the importance of education for young women, and the loss of self.  She doesn’t shy away from issues of slavery either.  At it’s heart though, this novel is about the power of words to free people, whether that is Tula herself, her brother or a family slave and friend.

Highly recommended, this is another dazzling and compelling novel from a master poet.  Appropriate for ages 12-15.

Reviewed from digital galley received from NetGalley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Review: The Wild Book by Margarita Engle

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.