Words Take Wing: Honoring Diversity in Children's Literature

Margarita Engle

Peter J. Shields Library — Lobby Display Case
Winter Quarter 2013

In honor of the Ninth Annual UC Davis Children's Literature Lecture, the UC Davis General Library presents an exhibit of selected works of noted botanist, poet, novelist, and journalist Margarita Engle. Ms. Engle will give two lectures at UC Davis on February 12, 2013. The morning lecture will be held at Freeborn Hall at 10:30 a.m. and the evening lecture will held at the Student Community Center at 7:00 p.m. A book sale will be held after each lecture. Ms. Engle will sign books after the evening lecture. This event is presented by the UC Davis School of Education, Sutter Children's Center, Sacramento. For more information, please go to Words Take Wing 2013

Margarita Engle

The author of adult novels as well as books for young readers, Cuban American writer Margarita Engle fell in love with reading and writing as a young child. When Engle was a child, her mother instilled her with a love for Cuba, telling the young Engle many stories of her homeland. Despite Engle's love of stories and poetry, she decided to go to school to study agronomy and botany, a form of rebellion as well as a way to connect with the wilderness she had been missing while growing up in Los Angeles. She became a professor of agronomy and married Curtis Engle, an agricultural entomologist. While raising her two children, she revisited her love of writing, submitting her haiku and having it published, as well as writing editorial columns for news organizations. After a trip to Cuba in 1991, thirty years after she had last visited as a child, Engle was inspired to write two adult novels about Cuba: Singing to Cuba and Skywriting: A Novel of Cuba.

While traveling in Cuba, Engle learned the story of Juan Francisco Manzano, a Cuban slave who became a well-known poet. She struggled for years to write a historical novel about Manzano, but the words never came. Eventually, she changed directions and wrote a biography of Manzano, titled The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano, in the form of poetry.

Like The Poet Slave of Cuba, The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's Struggle for Freedom is a story told in poetry that focuses on the life of a Cuban slave. Rosa la Bayamesa was born into slavery, but after she was freed by her owner she became a rebel, fighting for Cuban independence from Spain. She worked as a nurse, healing the wounded on both sides of the conflict.

In Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba, Engle tells the story of thirteen-year-olds Daniel, an orphaned Jew who has come to Cuba from Europe, and Paloma, who defies her bureaucrat father to assist Daniel and his fellow refugees.

Departing from the author's usual Cuban setting, Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian focuses on a seventeenth-century German girl. Maria Sibylla Merian, born in 1647 in Frankfurt, challenged the scientific beliefs of her day by observing nature closely and reporting her findings. She disputed the notion, dating back to the ancient Greeks, that butterflies (known as "summer birds") were Satan's creatures and sprang spontaneously from the mud. Maria collected specimens and watched as caterpillars made cocoons and metamorphosed into adult butterflies. The girl made detailed watercolor paintings of what she observed, keeping her work secret to avoid accusations of witchcraft. Engle tells the story through Maria's own voice.

Engle's verse novel The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette's Journey to Cuba is based on the life of Swedish feminist Fredrika Bremer, who visited Cuba in 1851 to learn about the lives of slaves and free blacks as well as poor whites. The author juxtaposes the musings of Bremer with those of the young slave Celia, also a historic person, and with an invented character, Elena, the teenage daughter of Celia's owner.

A violent storm suddenly frees the abused young mixed-race slave of a pirate in the verse novel Hurricane Dancers: The First Caribbean Pirate Shipwreck. Quebrado is on board the ship of his master, Bernardino de Talavera, when it is wrecked in a huge hurricane. Cast into the sea, the boy makes it safely to shore in Cuba, where he is pulled from the water by the fisherman Narido and befriended by Narido's village of indigenous Ciboney Indians. But Talavera and the governor of Venezuela, whom the pirate had taken hostage, also survive the storm and arrive separately in Cuba. Quebrado warns the Ciboney of the Spaniards' treachery and helps the chieftain's daughter, Caucubu, escape an arranged marriage to be with her true love, Narido.

In The Wild Book Engle employs free verse to tell the story of eleven-year-old Josefa, known as Fefa, and her struggles to learn to read. Set in a rural area of Cuba in 1912, when dyslexia was not well understood, the book is structured as Fefa's diary, in which the girl expresses her frustrations and records events that concern herself and her family. She describes the threats of cattle rustlers and kidnappers, her brother's accidental shooting, and an ugly poem that a local farmer writes for her. Aware of how deeply her daughter wants to learn to read, Fefa's mother gives the girl a "wild" book. Its blank pages give Fefa a place to practice forming and reading the letters and words that have always given the girl such trouble. Describing Fefa's marks on the page as "wildflower seeds," the mother encourages her daughter to relax and simply allow the diary to develop into a kind of garden. Practicing what her mother advises, Fefa eventually triumphs over her disability.

Engle once noted: "I write to express my hopes, passions, fears, and beliefs. I write to communicate, explore, and understand. Usually I am haunted by a theme, or by characters, a setting, or events. Until I have experimented with them, I do not understand them clearly. I go through a slow process of trial and error, false starts, wrong turns, and humbling misjudgments. For every one hundred publishable pages, I have discarded perhaps a thousand pages of 'error.' The process is emotionally exhausting, but I know I am always striving to be honest about the general themes of freedom and faith, and about specific tales of the search for freedoms, both personal and political. I have been deeply influenced by the suffering of my relatives in Cuba and by my love for the island, despite its desperation."

More About the Author (https://pdf/wordstakewing-engle.pdf)PDF


  • Margarita Engle's Official Website (http://www.margaritaengle.com/)
  • Margarita Engle | Authors | Macmillan (http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&frm=1&source=web&cd=3&cad=rja&ved=0CEsQFjAC&url=http%3A%2F%2Fus.macmillan.com%2Fauthor%2Fmargaritaengle&ei=7HQAUcuLJsenigK1poGwDA&usg=AFQjCNEIigCWXAPZ96nhB8bJ5bhry31RUw&sig2=CZRy1_f8jy4-t_mI-PSlAQ)
  • Poetry by Margarita Engle: Terrain.org (http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&frm=1&source=web&cd=5&cad=rja&ved=0CFwQFjAE&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.terrain.org%2Fpoetry%2F17%2Fengle.htm&ei=7HQAUcuLJsenigK1poGwDA&usg=AFQjCNFGTPHSIhYS95RFDhLjAyRXO-PefA&sig2=XJZlg5el3gKoe6WhY3vv_A)
  • Guanabee Interviews Margarita Engle, Newbery Honor-Winning Author Of The Surrender Tree (http://guanabee.com/2009/02/surrender-tree-margarita_engle/)
  • Margarita Engle's Historic Newbery Honor (http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&frm=1&source=web&cd=4&cad=rja&ved=0CFcQFjAD&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.schoollibraryjournal.com%2Farticle%2FCA6640331.html&ei=w2kAUc5dxJCIAor1gKgG&usg=AFQjCNFYPkqBAsHaUvepkZ8nDe5Mrt9eDA&sig2=N4_JzICfN19amqtqj7TGxQ)
  • Q & A with Margarita Engle (http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/authors/interviews/article/3845-q-a-with-margarita-engle.html)
  • Bookjoy!: Creativity Interview: Margarita Engle (http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&frm=1&source=web&cd=4&cad=rja&ved=0CEsQFjAD&url=http%3A%2F%2Fsharebookjoy.blogspot.com%2F2011%2F07%2Fcreativity-interview-margarita-engle.html&ei=gXsAUZerOOL9igKThICoBA&usg=AFQjCNHCeCgHxuYCZWyDc3RIs00wj105rw&sig2=t7gq00OtOgN3Q_q5LwTH9A)
  • Margarita Engle | ColorĂ­n Colorao (http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&frm=1&source=web&cd=17&cad=rja&ved=0CEcQFjAGOAo&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.colorincolorado.org%2Fread%2Fmeet%2Fengle%2F&ei=A30AUZGDIoKmigLkvoBI&usg=AFQjCNGhGALj0WMqAlZeIR_KlgQBHpjavg&sig2=yB9vX0p8BAqBJ5eBinNMQQ)
  • The Apple Valley Review - Fall 2006 - Margarita Engle (http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&frm=1&source=web&cd=25&cad=rja&ved=0CFIQFjAEOBQ&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.leahbrowning.net%2FApple%2FFall_2006%2FMargarita_Engle.html&ei=m30AUYHXI8jFigLk4oBw&usg=AFQjCNGBSXmtLLJLQjUTlc_FA-D16TXr6A&sig2=L4WjQa2teO2VgHrEU6aRZQ)

For additional information about this exhibit, please contact Humanities, Social Sciences and Government Information Services Librarian Roberto C. Delgadillo, (530) 752‑8266 or rdelgadillo@ucdavis.edu