We are so excited to talk to Margarita Engle today for our Multicultural Children’s Book Author spotlight series!
Question 1: What is your favorite letter of the alphabet and why?
That’s such a fascinating question! It makes me feel four years old. I will admit that I love M because it looks like mountains. On the other hand, even though S is not my favorite letter, I somehow end up with many book titles that begin with S images, such as Surrender Tree, Summer Birds, Silver People…
Question 2: What do you want readers to know about Silver People?
Silver People is not just an informative historical tale. It is also my personal love letter to tropical rain forests. I have always craved travel adventures, and the best ones have been in wild places. As a botanist, I feel a close kinship with trees.
Question 3: I loved how you used different voices for Silver People that did not include humans. What made you decide to give voice to the Howler monkeys, the Glass frogs, a Blue Morpho butterfly, snakes, trees and more? Was it hard to choose which non-humans to feature?
Thank you! Rain forests are powerful. When you stand under the trees, the forest seems invincible, but in reality it’s fragile and vulnerable, dependent on our mercy. Once it’s destroyed, the soil changes, the climate changes, and no matter how much replanting you do, it’s never really possible to revive that vast diversity of species. Construction of the Panama Canal was the first truly devastating modern engineering project. I hoped to show young readers a bit of rain forest biology through the voices of animals and plants. It’s my nod of approval toward STEAM education, the teaching of science along with the arts, rather than trying to separate our interconnected world into artificially tidy, specialized units. I chose the voices that I heard when I was in Panama, researching the book.
Question 4: I had never heard of the Apartheid-like system of Silver versus Gold in Panama’s Canal Zone, but I was vaguely aware of the United States’ role in engineering a military coup to separate Panama from Columbia. What are the lessons from history that you hope readers will take away?
This question is so incredibly relevant right now! Not only is the Panama Canal being widened as we speak, but secret plans for an even larger, Chinese-financed canal in Nicaragua have recently been revealed, with the groundbreaking scheduled for December 22. It’s happening so fast that there have been no international environmental impact reports, no reports on displaced people, or the transfer of invasive species from one ocean to another. So one lesson a reader might take away is a glimpse of greed. Every time an American clicks a phone to buy something with overnight delivery, it’s important to realize that before the item can be delivered, it travels slowly, thousands of miles across the Pacific from Asia, passing through the Panama Canal. Caribbean Islanders and southern Europeans who did the digging were victims of one wealthy nation’s greed. They were never honored for their sacrifice. Silver People is intended as a belated gesture of appreciation. I would also be very happy if young readers find hope in the paired human-forest love stories.
Question 5: What’s next? What projects/books/events do you have in the works that you would like to share?
2015 is such a thrilling year for me. I have four books:
Enchanted Air, Two Cultures, Two Wings (August, Atheneum) is a verse memoir about my childhood summers in Cuba during the Cold War. This book feels like my life’s work, especially now, just a few days after the joyous news about a thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations.
Orangutanka is a picture book about an orangutan family in a wildlife refuge in Borneo, illustrated by Renee Kurilla (March, Holt).
Drum Dream Girl is a picture book about the ten-year-old Chinese-African-Cuban girl who broke Cuba’s taboo against female drummers in the 1930s, illustrated by Rafael López (April, Harcourt).
The Sky Painter is a picture book about Louis Fuertes, the great New York Puerto Rican bird artist who pioneered the painting of living birds in flight, illustrated by Aliona Bereghici (April 2015, Two Lions).
As far as events, I’ll be speaking at the California School Library Assoc. in San Francisco in February, the Outlawed banned books conference in Fresno in April, and ALA in San Francisco in June. There will also be book launch events at Copperfields in Napa/Petaluma in May, and hopefully Miami in the fall. It’s not always possible, but in general, I try to go where I’m invited, rather than soliciting events. That leaves plenty of time for writing!
Margarita Engle is the Cuban-American author of many young adult verse novels about the island, including The Surrender Tree, which received the first Newbery Honor ever awarded to a Latino, and The Lightning Dreamer, recipient of the 2014 PEN USA Award. Other honors include multiple Pura Belpré and Américas Awards, as well as Jane Addams, International Reading Association, Claudia Lewis, International Latino, and MANA Las Primeras Awards. Books for younger children include Mountain Dog, Summer Birds, Orangutanka, and Drum Dream Girl.
Margarita grew up in Los Angeles, but developed a deep attachment to her mother’s homeland during summers with her extended family in Cuba. Enchanted Air, Two Cultures, Two Wings (Atheneum, 2015) is a verse memoir about those Cold War era childhood visits.
Margarita was trained as a botanist and agronomist before becoming a full-time poet and novelist. She lives in central California, where she enjoys hiding in the wilderness to help train her husband’s search and rescue dogs.
More books by Margarita Engle:
To learn more about Margarita Engle, please visit her website.
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