Tag Archives: Margarita Engle

Happy Independence Day, Cuba!

Cuba declared its independence from Spain on May 20, 1902. The Caribbean country has had a turbulent history – making it a rich topic for its writers.

nicolasguillenNicolás Guillén (1902-1989), once the national poet of Cuba, is known for his poems about social justice that he wrote in the 1920s and 1930s. The country’s winners of the  Miguel de Cervantes Prize, given to Spanish-language writers, are playwright Alejo Carpentier, poet Dulce María Loynaz and novelist Guillermo Cabrera Infante.

OscarHijuelosOscar Hijuelos, who was born in New York City to Cuban parents, became the first Latino to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction with his 1989 book The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Loveabout two Cuban brothers who pursue their musical dreams in New York City. Hijuelos also wrote the novels Our House in the Last World and Mr. Ives’ Christmas and the memoir Thoughts Without Cigarettes.

CristinaGarcia Two writers who were born in Havana and immigrated to the United States have used Cuba as a setting for their novels. Cristina García, left, showed one family’s life in Dreaming in Cuban and describes the effects of dictator Fidel Castro’s regime in the just released  King of Cuba. The Castro government plays a key role in the characters’ lives of Elizabeth Huergo’s The Death of Fidel Pérez.

Margarita_Engle.2California-raised children’s writer Margarita Engle draws on Cuba’s history for her free verse books, including The Lightning Dreamer, Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist, about Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda; The Surrender Tree, about a nurse who helps those while war rages in Cuba in 1896; and The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano

Carlos EireCarlos Eire was airlifted from Havana during Operation Pedro Pan, a CIA operation in which thousands of Cuban children were taken to the United States in the early 1960s – an experience he wrote about in Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy. His follow-up book was Learning to Die in Miami: Confessions of a Refugee Boy.

Other writers with Cuban roots include Meg Medina, Caridad Piñeiro and Alisa Valdes.



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Meet children’s author Margarita Engle, author of “The Lightning Dreamer”

Margarita_Engle.2Margarita Engle has tapped into her Cuban-American heritage to create award-winning children’s books about the history of the island.

Her latest book, The Lightning Dreamer, Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist, is out March 19. The story depicts the life of poet and abolitionist Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda in free verse.

In 2009, Engle was the first Latino/a to win the Newbery Honor Award for The Surrender Tree, about a nurse who helps those while war rages in Cuba in 1896. That book also won the Pura Belpré Prize, which honors children’s books that depict the Latino experience.

She also won the Pura Belpré Prize in 2008 for The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano

She also has won three Américas Awards (for the 2012 Hurricane Dancers, The Surrender Tree and The Poet Slave of Cuba) and the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award (for The Surrender Tree).

Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian was selected as a Kirkus Best Children’s Book.

Her other novels include The Firefly Letters, Tropical Secrets and The Wild Book.

The California-based Engle also has written two books – When You Wander and Mountain Dog – inspired by her work with search and rescue dogs.

LightningDreamerQ: Tell me about your book, The Lightning Dreamer.  What inspired you to write about Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda?

A: My interest in Avellaneda is two-fold. First, as one of Latin America’s earliest and boldest abolitionist writers, she was far ahead of her time. Her interracial romance novel, Sab, was published eleven years before Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Not only did Sab make an impassioned appeal for emancipation, it surpassed that narrow goal by showing the need for complete equality, with interracial marriage portrayed as a normal aspect of Cuba’s culturally mixed society. In addition, Avellaneda was one of the most celebrated feminist writers of the nineteenth century. Her poetry, prose, and plays were devoted to a lifelong struggle against the archaic custom of arranged marriage, which she regarded as the marketing of teenage girls. In fact, Sab is thought to be inspired by real people Avellaneda met at the age of 15, when she was sent away to a country estate “to rest,” after rejecting an arranged marriage that would have been profitable for her family.

TulaLike so many other early abolitionists and feminists, Avellaneda (right) has been forgotten by history. She is no longer well known outside of her native country of Cuba, and Spain, where she lived much of her adult life. I wanted to help bring her back from obscurity. In particular, I felt excited about depicting her life in accessible free verse, hoping that young readers might be inspired by her independent way of thinking. She believed in the Golden Rule. She used stories and poetry as a way to make an emotional plea for complete equality, and completely voluntary marriage. She was brave enough to do this a time when most writers restricted interracial love stories to lurid tales of wealthy men with forbidden mistresses.

Personally, for me, the most impressive aspect of Avellaneda’s life is the way she overcame obstacles while she was still very young. Her mother regarded reading and writing as inappropriate for girls, so she had to write in secret, then burn her stories and poems.

Q: Many of your children’s books are about Cuban history. Why did you choose that particular subject to write about?  How do you research the subjects?

A: My mother is Cuban and my father is American. I was born and raised in Los Angeles, but during long childhood visits to the island, I developed a deep bond with the extended family, and with tropical nature, as well as an interest in Cuba’s complex history. I loved listening to stories my grandmother and great-grandmother told about their own childhoods. Listening made me wonder, and wondering makes me want to write. The research process is slow and painstaking. I read everything I can find about a subject, both in English and Spanish. I utilize bibliographies, working my way farther and farther back in time, hoping to discover diaries or other first person accounts. Since many of those primary sources are not yet digitized, I rely on interlibrary loan as a way of obtaining antique volumes. Once the research is complete, I begin selecting those aspects that seem most important to me. Since most of my books are novels in free verse, I have to omit many facts and figures. All the names and dates of history won’t fit into a poem. My goal is to offer young readers a friendly, welcoming page filled with thoughts and feelings that have some universal resonance, in any time, and every place.

Q: What made you want to become a writer? Were there any Latino writers who influenced you?

A: As a child, I was such an avid reader that writing just seemed natural.  While I was very young, I wrote poetry, and even when I drew a picture, there were always a few mysterious words scribbled in crayon, like the start of a story.

When I was little, my mother recited José Martí’s Versos Sencillos, and later, on my own, I discovered that I loved reading poets as diverse as Rubén Darío, Antonio Machado and Jorge Luis Borges. I found it strange that so few women were represented in Latino literature. Emily Dickinson had to fill the gap where Latina poets were missing from library shelves in the U.S.  Eventually, I discovered Gabriela Mistral, and Dulce María Loynáz.

As a graduate student at U.C. Riverside, I had the privilege of taking a creative writing seminar from Tomás Rivera. He was a great Mexican-American poet and novelist, the first Latino Chancellor of a U.C. campus, and a wonderful educator. He taught me to write from the heart, without worrying about publication. So that’s what I do. I choose subjects that inspire me, instead of ones that are popular. He also taught me that writing takes practice, so that’s what I continue to do. I write at my own speed, as if time does not exist.


Filed under 2013 Books, Author Q&A, Children's Books

In the news: March roars with new books by Cepeda, Espinoza, Brown, Engle and Medina

March is coming in like a lion, with lots of new releases:

TheyCallMeAHeroAlready out: Daniel Hernandez Jr. is known as the intern who helped save former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’s life when she was shot at a public event in 2011. His book, They Call Me A Hero: A Memoir of My Youth, focuses on his growing up gay and Hispanic. He talked about the book on CNN and to Publishers Weekly.

TitoPuenteMamboKingMarch 5: Tito Puente Mambo King/Tito Puente, Rey del Mambo, written by Monica Brown and illustrated by Rafael López, introduces the musician to children. They talked about the book here. In Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina, journalist Raquel Cepeda investigates her Dominican family’s ancestry.

Diego LeonMarch 19: In Alex Espinoza’s The Five Acts of Diego León: A Novel, a Mexican peasant goes to Hollywood to pursue a career in the movies. The life of poet Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, who fought against slavery in Cuba as a teenager, is depicted in the children’s book The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist by Margarita Engle.

YaquiDelgadoMarch 26: In Meg Medina’s young adult novel, Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, a teenager finds out she is being bullied by someone she doesn’t even know.

HotelJuarezMarch 31: Arte Publico is publishing several books:  Hotel Juarez: Stories, Room and Loops by Daniel Chacon, Desperado: A Mile High Noir by Manuel Ramos and Our Lost Border: Essays on Life Amid the Narco-Violence edited by Sergio Troncoso and Sarah Cortez.


Guadalupe Garcia McCall was nominated for the Nebula Award’s Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy – given by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America –for her novel Summer of the Mariposas.

Rigoberto González received the Barnes and Noble Writers for Writers Award for his work toward his peers.

Book Festivals:

• The Tucson Festival of Books takes place March 9-10 and will feature Diana Gabaldon, Guadalupe García McCall, Reyna Grande, Daniel Hernandez, Juan Felipe Herrera, Lizz Huerta, Ruben Martinez, Matt Mendez, Santino J. Rivera, Gloria Velasquez and Luis Alberto Urrea.

Other news:

The movie version of Bless Me Ultima is out in theaters. Author Rudolfo Anaya talked to NBC Latino about seeing his book hit the silver screen. Here’s a great review from noted film critic Roger Ebert.

Benjamin Alire Sáenz, who recently won three awards from the American Library Association Youth Media Awards for his 2012 book Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, talked to the School Library Journal.

• A memoir from singer Jenni Rivera, who died in a plane crash last year, is expected to be released in July, according to the Associated Press.

• The Omaha World-Herald profiled Joy Castro, author of Hell or High Water.

• Here’s an interesting New York Times article about Cuban-American playwright María Irene Fornés, the Obie-award winning author of 42 plays, who has Alzheimer’s disease and whose friends are campaigning to move her to New York City so they can visit her.

• The remains of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda will be exhumed to determine if he died of cancer or was poisoned by followers of dictator Augusto Pinochet, according to the BBC.

• NPR had a great story on the Oscar-nominated film, No, which covers the advertising campaign to vote out Pinochet. The movie, starring Gabriel Garcia Bernal, is based on a play by Antonio Skarmeta, author of Il Postino.

• Can’t get enough of Richard Blanco, the Cuban-American poet who read his poem, “One Today,” at President Obama’s inauguration? Here’s a story from NPR.

• PBS’ Need to Know presented a report on Arizona’s ban on ethnic studies.

Denise Chavez, author of Loving Pedro Infante, is using Kickstarter to raise money for an anthology on border literature and artwork.

• The Makers website profiled Sandra Cisneros.

• Fox News Latino reported on the rise of Latino comic book characters.

• Mexican-American artists Tony Preciado and Rhode Montijo have created a book, Super Grammar, to teach students grammar, according to NBC Latino.

Junot Díaz is scheduled to appear on The Colbert Report March 25.

Also this month:

• Three Nobel Prize winners – Gabriel Gárcia Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa and the late Octavio Paz – celebrate birthdays in March.

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Filed under 2013 Books, Awards, Events, Movies, News

In the News: New books, Librotraficantes, Rodriguez, Mora

Upcoming Releases:

Margarita Engle’s The Wild Book, for children ages 10 and younger, will be released Tuesday. The story focuses on a girl who struggles with reading.

Carolina de Robertis’ Perla, about an Argentine woman who discovers a painful secret about her parents’ past, will come out March 27.


The Librotraficante Caravan, led by Aztec Muse publisher Tony Diaz, made its way from Houston to Tucson – with stops in San Antonio, El Paso and Albuquerque – to distribute $20,000 worth of Latino-themed books that were banned by the Tucson school district. The journey received coverage from The New York Times, El Paso Times, San Antonio Express-News, Arizona Daily Star and The Texas Observer.

• Here’s a great New York Times article about how the state’s ban on ethnic studies has affected classroom studies, such as a visit by author Matt de La Peña.


Pat Mora won the Gelett Burgess Children’s Book Award for her book, Gracias/Thanks.

Author profiles:

Bless Me Ultima author Rudolfo Anaya talks about his banned books in the Albuquerque alternative newspaper, Alibi.

The Los Angeles Times features a great profile of Luis J. Rodriguez.


Luis Alberto Urrea provides the prompt for NPR’S Three-Minute Fiction contest. Deadline is March 25.

• The Hispanic Reader is taking the week off. When we come back, we’ll celebrate the birthdays of two Nobel Prize winners. Happy Spring Break!

Note: This post was updated to include The New York Times article.


Filed under 2012 Books, Awards, Children's Books, News

In the news: Awards, Arizona, Mexico and Mario Vargas Llosa


It’s book award season! Several organizations have announced winners and nominations for the best of 2011:

• The American Library Association announced today the winners of the Pura Belpé Awards, given to children’s and young adult books that honor Latino culture. The Author Award winner was Under the Mesquite by Guadalupe Garcia McCall. The Honor Books were Hurricane Dancers: The First Caribbean Pirate Shipwreck by Margarita Engle and Maximilian and the Mystery of the Guardian Angel: A Bilingual Lucha Libre Thriller by Xavier Garza.

The Illustrator Award Winner went to Diego Rivera: His World and Ours by Duncan Tonatiuh. The Honor Books were The Cazuela that the Farm Maiden Stirred, written by Samantha R. Vamos and illustrated by Rafael López, and Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match, written by Monica Brown and illustrated by Sara Palacios.

Luis J. Rodriguez was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award in the autobiography category for his memoir, It Calls You Back: An Odyssey Through Love, Addiction, Revolutions, and Healing. Aracelis Girmay, who is part Puerto Rican, received a nod in the poetry category for her book, Kingdom Animalia, which has already won the 2011 Isabella Gardner Poetry Award.

Justin Torres‘s We the Animals will be one of five books vying for the NAACP Image Award’s Outstanding Literature Work – Debut Author.

Diana Gabaldon’s short story “Lord John and the Plague of Zombies,” from the anthology Down These Strange Streets, earned her a Best Short Story nomination from the Edgar Awards by the Mystery Writers of America.

• Busboys and Poets bookstore, the progressive Washington D.C.-based bookstore, included several Latino-themed books in its Best of 2011 list: Pam Muñoz Ryan’s The Dreamer; Let’s Go See Papa!, by Lawrence Schimel, Alba Marina Rivera and Elisa Amado; the Spanish-language version of Howard Zinn’s classic A People’s History of the United States, La Otra Historia de los Estados Unidos; The Guatemala Reader by Greg Grandin, Deborah T. Levenson, Elizabeth Oglesby and News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media by Juan Gonzalez and Joseph Torres.


Aztec Muse magazine is starting a Libro Traficante Caravan to distribute books in Tucson, Arizona, after the school district put away many Latino books from classrooms to retain funding from the state, which has banned ethnic studies. For a great take on the topic, here’s Texas-based writer Beatriz Terrazasessay on the Mamiverse website.


Here’s an excellent NPR story about how Mexican artists, including poet Javier Sicilia, are using words and music to react to their country’s drug war.

Mario Vargas Llosa:

Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa, right, declined an offer to head the Cervantes Institute in Spain, which promotes Latin American culture, according to the Latin American Herald-Tribune.



Filed under Awards, Children's Books, News