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Margarita Engle’s novels in verse examine themes of trust, courage, and sacrifice, all through the lens of Cuban history.
In the interview “Talking with Margarita Engle,” the author says, “Poetry loves open spaces,” and she believes poetry can be written by anyone who is “willing to let go of the constant chatter of daily life.” Readers as well as writers like the quiet corners and wide margins of poetry. While the history we encounter in textbooks may feel crowded with the names of people and places, verse offers an intimate way to explore another period. The space between now and then or us and them grows smaller.
Margarita Engle is drawn to the combination of storytelling and poetry, which, as she says, “seems so natural and ancient, a form that has been rediscovered, not reinvented.” Her novels for older children and teens, The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom; Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba; The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano; and Firefly Letters: A Suffragette’s Journey to Cuba, give readers a look at a small island nation geographically close to the United States but one whose heroes and history most Americans know little about. The Poet Slave of Cuba shows how the written word gives Juan a way to contemplate a fuller life, even as he’s punished for observing and telling the truth. The Surrender Tree, whose many awards include a 2009 Newbery Honor Book citation and the Pura Belpré Author Award, was inspired by the life of Rosa La Bayamesa, a healer during Cuba’s nineteenth-century wars for independence from Spain. Tropical Secrets features younger, fictional protagonists and fits well with other literature about attempts to escape Nazi persecution. It tells the story of Daniel as he leaves Germany and starts a new life on an island where he knows no one.
Below are some research topics for Tropical Secrets and The Surrender Tree, followed by ideas for talking and writing about Engle’s currently available books, all of which use verse to explore themes of trust, secrets, sacrifice, fear, and courage. Recurring imagery includes plants, animals (birds, horses, fireflies, dogs), caves, cages, cellars, and towers. Students may research the settings individually or in groups, then present findings to the class. Or they may prefer to meet the characters directly, finding connections through accounts of exile, escape, and the costs and limits of freedom in our own country’s history. Teachers without access to a classroom set of books may let students take turns reading the poems. Spoken poetry, like drama, gives everyone a chance to meet good language off the page and be reminded that no one grows too old for the pleasures of reading aloud.
Research Topics for The Surrender Tree
This history in verse reveals some of the horror and extreme hardships of slavery and rebellion, but it’s also about plants and trees used as sources for healing, food, light (palm leaf torches), and structures (palm-bark houses). Students might investigate other ways that leaves, bark, roots, berries, and flowers have been and are currently used for medicine, food, and homes.
Students may research other healers, perhaps other women who worked in nineteenth-century war zones, including Florence Nightingale, Dorothea Dix, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, or Clara Barton (who briefly appears here). Writing about one of these women, perhaps putting facts on one page and a poem on another, will deepen students’ understanding of the challenges women around the world faced during this time period.
Students could also compare Rosa to Harriet Tubman; both were self-sacrificing women devoted to freedom who were at home under the sky, where they sometimes hid in woods and caves. Or students could compare some of Engle’s poems about Rosa with Marilyn Nelson’s poems in Carver: A Life in Poems (2001), about George Washington Carver, who was also committed to understanding the many uses of plants.
Research Topics for Tropical Secrets
While the people and events in this book are fictional, the time period is close to that of the voyage of the St. Louis, which sailed from Germany to Cuba in 1939. To learn more about this historical event and the immense difficulties faced by Jews fleeing persecution, visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Web site, which includes lesson plans, a bibliography, videos, and family accounts.
Students may list other places where refugees found shelter. What can they learn about particular cities or towns that offered safe havens?
Look for pictures or examples of some of the instruments mentioned in Tropical Secrets, such as maracas, bongo drums, conga drums, bamboo flutes, and a turtle-shell rattle filled with beach sand. Can students find recordings of what Daniel’s family may have listened to in 1930s Germany, or the type of music Daniel heard in Cuba? Which music do they prefer?
Sometimes we come to love a place through its food. Lucky students may be able to taste some of the fare mentioned in the book, such as coconut “with its scent of beach,” sugarcane juice, guavas, crab fritters, or yellow rice with black beans.
Writing or Discussion Ideas
Before reading The Surrender Tree, Tropical Secrets, or The Poet Slave of Cuba, discuss with students how they think poems will be different from other historical accounts. After reading one or more of the books, ask how their expectations of poetry were met or challenged.
What do the titles of the books make readers think they will be about? After finishing a book, how has their understanding of its title changed? For example, students might discuss what they imagine the “surrender tree” to be, and compare that tree to others in the book. Some might draw their vision of the tree.
All three books find hope in green growing things. Juan in The Poet Slave of Cuba first “writes” by digging his fingernails into fragrant geranium leaves; Rosa in The Surrender Tree stops fevers and provides balms with green vines and leaves; and Daniel in Tropical Secrets seeks safety in a place where he can learn to swim in “the warm turquoise sea”; find green frogs, parrots, palms, “a pale green moth / the size of my hand,” and houses painted lime green; and become friends with the green-eyed girl, Paloma. Discuss what else gives each protagonist hope and what gets in the way of hope. Can students come up with other ways to find inspiration in hard times?
Multiple points of views are used in all these books. What do we learn by hearing not one but many voices? Students might discuss how different points of view come into play in other books that use verse to show underexplored moments in history, such as Witness by Karen Hesse (2001) or Ringside, 1925: Views from the Scopes Trial by Jen Bryant (2008). Why do students think newspapers and some textbooks are written with a single viewpoint? How do readers decide whether or not to trust an author or collaborators?
Find examples of historical moments told through textbooks, newspapers, Web sites, poems, stories, songs, or the afterwords of picture books. What are the strengths and weaknesses of each form? After selecting a short factual historical account, they may choose a character within it, or invent one, and write a poem or story from this person’s point of view.
“Both research and writing are explorations, filled with surprises,” Engle says in the interview “Talking with Margarita Engle.” “Research is like browsing through travel brochures, deciding which bits are accurate, and which are just glossy advertisements. Writing is not only an actual journey, but it can be time travel! It’s exhausting, fulfilling, and mysterious.” Engle has noted how writing connects her to both the past of her childhood and times before she was born. She likes bibliographies that lead to antique diaries, which may smell of yellowing pages and worn leather. Can students find old books or small treasures in their homes or libraries? Can they write an ode inspired by what they find, or a persona poem, giving voice to an ancient, or just older-than-they-are, object?
Engle’s books are based on history that isn’t well known. Why do students think the stories were forgotten? Can they think of any public event happening now that they expect may be lost to memory in, say, a hundred years? Can they write the story so that it has a chance of being remembered? The stories of her great-grandparents—both what she knew and what she was left to imagine—inspired Engle to write The Surrender Tree. Do students know the name of a place where any of their ancestors lived before coming to the United States? Can they list what they know about that place, through family stories and/or research, then draw from that to write a poem? Or could they write an interview poem, in which they ask their ancestor questions? (When revising, they may choose to take out the questions.)
A recurrent theme is how what people are called matters. The Poet Slave of Cuba examines what it means to be called a slave while claiming a vocation as a poet. In The Surrender Tree, we learn about Rosa, who’s called a witch by some and a healer by others. Why does Daniel in Tropical Secrets say, “I promise myself that I will never / let anyone change the rhythm / of my name”? Students might cite examples from their lives of how what someone is called may affect his or her behavior. Or students can borrow a structure from the beginning of the first poem in The Surrender Tree to create their own poems. They may take the first line, “Some people call me . . . ,” then the second line, which begins, “but I’m . . .” Filling in their own new words can lead to an autobiographical or persona poem.
Engle’s poetry is brightened by wild parrots, blowing branches, warm breezes, and other images from nature, so it’s not surprising to learn that she often walks among her family’s flowers, fruit trees, and vegetable garden, or in a neighbor’s pecan grove or in the mountains. Her favorite place to begin writing is outdoors, often with the company of a dog. Have students ever written by a rock or under a tree? Did they find that their writing changed when a sky instead of a ceiling was over their heads? Even those who stick to their desks will find through Engle’s work some hard news from the past, but also an island where flowers such as cup-of-gold vine, orange trumpet, ghost orchid, and roses are as apt to blossom overhead as underfoot. A land where birds spread fabulously colored wings, warm waves whisper and drum, and openhearted people sing.
Firefly Letters: A Suffragette’s Journey to Cuba. March 2010. 160p. Holt, $16.99 (9780805090826). 813. Gr. 6–12.
The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano. Illus. by Sean Qualls. 2006. 184p. Holt, $16.95 (9780805077063). 811. Also available in an audio edition from Listening Library. Gr. 7–10.
The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom. 2008. 176p. Holt, $16.95 (9780805087644); Square Fish, paper, $7.99 (9780312608712). 811. Paperback available March 2010. Also available in an audio edition from Listening Library. Gr. 7–10.
Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba. 2009. 208p. Holt, $16.99 (9780805089363). Also available in an audio edition from Listening Library. Gr. 7–11.
Jeannine Atkins teaches children’s literature at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst. She is the author of Borrowed Names: Poems about Laura Ingalls Wilder, Madam C. J. Walker, Marie Curie, and Their Daughters (Holt, 2010).
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