Margarita Engle’s Cuba for Young Readers [in The Booklist Reader]
President Obama’s historic December 17, 2014 order to “normalize relations” between the United States and Cuba began the restoration of diplomacy after more than half a century of hostile restrictions. His 72-hour visit to Havana in March 2016 – the first made by a sitting president since Coolidge in 1928 – opened and encouraged travel in both directions.
The thaw, unfortunately, was short-lived, with the latest constraints announced Wednesday, November 8, adding to the current administration’s rollback policies that began last May. Despite political whim (I was there in early October when the U.S. State Department began U.S. Embassy recall and Cuban Embassy expulsion!), we and our children should learn more about the island nation to prepare for when relations resume.
Luckily, there’s Margarita Engle. More than any other Anglophone author, Engle embodies Cuban-American literature for young readers. Currently the Poetry Foundation’s Young People’s Poet Laureate, Engle’s award-winning and (thankfully) growing oeuvre includes almost a dozen titles that provide an ideal introduction to Cuban history and culture.
I’m compelled here to confess my (obsessive) curiosity about what U.S. Americans are learning about Cuba, and what contemporary Cubans learn about Cuba. Two recent trips through various major cities provided ample opportunities to ask numerous locals – including two English professors, a leading Cuban economist, a homeland-returning Cuban American, multiple city guides – about some of the figures and histories I’ve learned from Engle’s books. The responses ranged from dismissive head shakes to note-taking. Vindication of my reading efforts finally came on our last day in Santiago de Cuba when our guide, a history professor descended from multiple generations of historians, knew every name and story; I came home with additional literary assignments to pursue.
To follow is a chronological overview of two Cuban centuries through Engle’s lens.
The Slave Poet of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano, illustrated by Sean Qualls
More pet than person to his first mistress, then later beaten and imprisoned by another, Manzano survived enslavement with intelligence and creativity. His poetry became his enduring legacy.
The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette’s Journey to Cuba
Three young women – Swedish visitor to Cuba and real-life suffragist Fredrika Bremer; her enslaved translator Cecilia, who longs for her Congolese homeland; and privileged local daughter Elena, whose family owns slaves – tell an inspiring story of the struggles for women’s empowerment in Cuba.
The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Great Abolitionist
Engle fictionalizes the early life of poet-abolitionist Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, who ignored her mother’s insistence that books are harmful and discovered defiance in the verses of rebel José María de Heredia.
The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom
Amidst the death and destruction of Cuba’s independence movement against Spain, Rosa la Bayamesa spent decades healing and saving lives. Engle’s personal history is inextricably linked here: her great-grandparents were among the refugees of the Cuba’s 1896 “reconcentration camps.”
Lion Island: Cuba’s Warrior of Words, illustrated by Sean Qualls
Three unlikely friends – African/Chinese/Cuban Antonio Chuffat and two Chinese siblings who fled San Francisco’s anti-Asian riots – work together toward liberty and peace in Cuba’s fight for independence from Spain.
Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music, illustrated by Rafael López
Millo Castro Zaldarriaga – of Chinese, African, and Cuban heritage – “broke Cuba’s traditional taboo against female drummers.” By the age of ten, in 1932, she performed with her sisters in Cuba’s first all-girl dance band, and at 15, she performed for President Franklin Roosevelt in New York, “where she was enthusiastically cheered by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.”
Daniel arrives in Havana in 1939 from Germany, the last of his Jewish family. His friendship with local girl Paloma and fellow refugee David nurtures and saves him and others. Cuba, despite its tragic history of turning away the St. Louis in May 1939, which condemned hundreds of Jewish passengers to death, accepted 65,000 Jewish refugees from 1938 to 1939, more than any other Latin American nation.
“I never thought I would be brave enough to write about my life as a Cuban American child growing up in the United States during the hostilities of the Cold War,” Engle writes. But courage produced this resonating journey of living in two cultures, traveling on two wings between her mother’s Cuba and her father’s Los Angeles.
All the Way to Havana, illustrated by Mike Curato
A young boy and his parents take the family’s old but beloved classic American car from their village “all the way to Havana” to meet a new cousin. Engle’s helpful author’s note provides a glimpse of the “complex historical situation” which keeps the island populated with pre-1959 American classics that continue to “taka taka” and “zoom zoom” throughout the country.
Edver, a Cuban American living in Miami, and sister Luza, whose home is a remote Cuban village, have been long-separated by their divorced parents, but are reunited one summer in Cuba, where they must learn to be a family again – and save their family’s “forest world.”
Of course, in addition to Engle’s titles, other Cuban-American writers have many more stories to share. Be advised, however, as Engle warns in her recent essay “Cuba for Beginners,” that while “[m]any non-‘own voice’ authors do thorough research,” other “American authors who are jumping on the Cuba bandwagon” are publishing “books. . . [that] are either wildly inaccurate, offensive, or both.” Warning heeded! Here are some additional, authentic reads.
90 Miles to Havana, by Enrique Flores-Galbis
Flores-Galbis turns his own experiences as part of “Operation Pedro Pan,” when 14,000 Cuban children were sent out of Cuba in 1961 to escape Castro’s regime, into a riveting middle-grade novel about three brothers alone in the U.S.
Cuba 15, by Nancy Osa
Violet learns the intricacies of her Cuban heritage after agreeing, under duress, to her grandmother’s plans for her quinceañera.
The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora, by Pablo Cartaya
Thirteen-year-old Arturo channels the verses of José Martí – with some embellished twists – to help him live and love through a challenging summer with his extended Cuban family in Miami.
Island Treasures: Growing Up in Cuba, by Alma Flor Ada, with illustrations by Edel Rodriguez and Antolino Martorell
In this compendium, which includes the previously published novels, Where the Flame Trees Bloom and Under the Royal Palms, and the new collection, Days at La Quinta Simoni, award-winning Ada alchemizes childhood memories of growing up in the sprawling family villa, La Quinta Simoni, in the ancient city of Camagüey among extended relatives and friends.
Leaving Glorytown: One Boy’s Struggle Under Castro, by Eduardo F. Calcines
Calcines remembers – with joy, bitterness, humor, and regret – growing up under Castro’s regime in Glorytown, a neighborhood in Cienfuegos. His greatest wish is for an exit visa out of Cuba.
Martí’s Song for Freedom | Martí y sus versos por la libertad, by Emma Otheguy, illustrated by Beatriz Vidal
Otheguy’s picture-book debut is a timely, bilingual introduction to Cuba’s most beloved patriot and freedom fighter.
My Havana: Memories of a Cuban Boyhood, by Rosemary Wells with Secundino Fernandez, illustrated by Peter Ferguson
Wells spent four years tracking down architect Fernandez after hearing him on the radio recalling his Havana childhood. Their effort together is a gorgeous tribute to a magical city of decades past.
The Red Umbrella, by Christina Diaz Gonzalez
Lucia’s happy, comfortable life changes almost overnight when even family and best friends can no longer be trusted under Castro’s regime. As part of the Pedro Pan program, Lucia and her brother are sent to start new lives without their parents in rural Nebraska.
Author photo credit: Cybele Knowles