All About Adolescent Literacy

All about adolescent literacy. Resources for parents and educators of kids in grades 4-12.
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A video interview with

Margarita Engle

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Margarita Engle is an award-winning author and poet whose novels written in free verse have brought to life fascinating and often forgotten characters from history, such as Juan Francisco Marzano, Rosa la Bayamesa, and Maria Merian. In this interview Margarita discusses her childhood memories of Cuba and the ways in which her quest for her own heritage led to the discovery of these unforgettable heroes and heroines.


Margarita Engle is an award-winning author of books for children, young adults, and adults. The daughter of an American father and Cuban mother, Engle spent her childhood summers in Cuba, where she developed a deep bond with her extended family and a lifelong passion for tropical nature, which led her to study agronomy and botany, along with creative writing. Engle and her family were visting Cuba in 1960 when diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba broke down, and faced a number of obstacles in returning to the U.S. From that point on, communication with her extended family was restricted and she describes the experience of suddenly losing contact with her beloved extended family and grandmother as something out of "science fiction."

Engle began to read about Cuban history, which led her to discover a number of the forgetten characters and events featured in her award-winning novels written in verse for young adults. These include The Surrender Tree, recipient of the first Newbery Honor awarded to a Latino, as well as the Pura Belpré Medal, Américas Award, and Jane Addams Award and The Poet Slave of Cuba, which received the Pura Belpré Medal, Américas Award, and an International Reading Association Award. Tropical Secrets received the Sydney Taylor Award and Paterson Prize. The Firefly Letters is a Pura Belpré Honor Book and a finalist for the Jane Addams Award and California Book Award. Engle's most recent book for young adults is Hurricane Dancers: The First Caribbean Pirate Shipwreck.

Engle's books for children include Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian, the story of a young, perceptive 17th-century artist and scientist well ahead of her time who recorded her observations about the life cycles of butterflies and insects despite the threat of being accused of witchcraft for doing so.

When discussing her writing, Engle observes, "Writing a historical novel in verse feels like time travel, a dreamlike blend of imagination and reality. It is an exploration. It is also a chance to communicate with the future, through young readers. I love to write about young people who made hopeful choices in situations that seemed hopeless. My own hope is that tales of courage and compassion will ring true for youthful readers as they make their own difficult decisions in modern times."

Engle lives in central California, where she enjoys helping her husband with his volunteer work for wilderness search and rescue dog training programs.

Selected Books

from Margarita Engle

The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano

Age Level: 9-12

Written in verse, this is a Pura Belpré Award-winning portrait of Juan Francisco Manzano, the poet who was born a slave in Cuba in 1797. Margarita Engle explores Manzano's poetic interpretations of his world and what freedom really means in a slave society.

Buy The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano

The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's Struggle for Freedom

Age Level: 14-16

Winner of the Pura Belpré Award and a Newbery Honor Book, The Surrender Tree tells the haunting story of Rosa, a freed Cuban slave at the time of Cuba's third War of Independence from Spain. Rather than enjoy her freedom, she hides in the forest in order to tend the wounded with wild plants. Written in verse, Rosa's vivid description of the healing plants and tragedies of war will mesmerize readers long after they turn the final page. Bilingual edition available.

Buy The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's Struggle for Freedom

Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba

Age Level: 12-14

Product Description: Daniel has escaped Nazi Germany with nothing but a desperate dream that he might one day find his parents again. But that golden land called New York has turned away his ship full of refugees, and Daniel finds himself in Cuba. As the tropical island begins to work its magic on him, the young refugee befriends a local girl with some painful secrets of her own. Yet even in Cuba, the Nazi darkness is never far away.

Buy Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba

Hurricane Dancers

Age Level: 12-14

"Young Quebrado's name means 'the broken one,' a child 'of two shattered worlds.' The son of a Taíno Indian mother and a Spanish father, he is taken in 1510 from his village on the island that is present-day Cuba and enslaved on a pirate's ship, where a brutal conquistador, responsible for thousands of deaths throughout the Americas, is held captive for ransom. When a hurricane destroys the boat, Quebrado is pulled from the water by a fisherman, Naridó, whose village welcomes him, but escape from the past proves nearly impossible." — Gillian Engberg, Booklist

Buy Hurricane Dancers

The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette's Journey to Cuba

Age Level: 12-14

Meet Fredrika Bremer, a Swedish suffragette who traveled the world and visited Cuba in 1851. Where other visitors might have been most interested in basking in the luxury of plantation owners, Fredrika sets out to learn about the slaves, free blacks, and poor whites, documenting her experiences in letters and diaries. Margarita Engle has transformed those writings into an intriguing novel written in verse with special attention paid to Cecilia, Fredika's bright young translator, as well as the overlapping struggles to end slavery and expand women's rights. Pura Belpré Honor Award.

Buy The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette's Journey to Cuba

The Wild Book

Age Level: 9-12

Product Description: Fefa struggles with words. She has word blindness, or dyslexia, and the doctor says she will never read or write. Every time she tries, the letters jumble and spill off the page, leaping and hopping away like bullfrogs. But her mother has an idea. She gives Fefa a blank book filled with clean white pages. "Think of it as a garden," she says. Soon Fefa starts to sprinkle words across the pages of her wild book. She lets her words sprout like seedlings, shaky at first, then growing stronger and surer with each new day. And when her family is threatened, it is what Fefa has learned from her wild book that saves them.

Buy The Wild Book

The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba's Greatest Abolitionist

Age Level: 12-14

Opposing slavery in Cuba in the nineteenth century was dangerous. The most daring abolitionists were poets who veiled their work in metaphor. Of these, the boldest was Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, nicknamed Tula. In passionate, accessible free verse, Engle evokes the voice of this book-loving feminist and abolitionist who bravely resisted an arranged marriage at the age of fourteen and was ultimately courageous enough to fight against injustice. Historical notes, excerpts, and source notes round out this exceptional tribute.

Buy The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba's Greatest Abolitionist

Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings: A Memoir

Age Level: Teen

In this poetic memoir that’s nothing short of enchanting, Margarita Engle, the first Latina woman to receive a Newbery Honor, tells of growing up as a child of two cultures during the Cold War.

Buy Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings: A Memoir