Thursday, October 12, 2017

Margarita Engle on Poetry that Crosses Borders

Margarita Engle is the national Young People’s Poet Laureate, and the first Latino to receive that honor. She is the Cuban-American author of many verse novels, including The Surrender Tree, The Lightning Dreamer, her verse memoir, Enchanted Air, and more recently Forest World. Her newest picture books are All the Way to Havana, and Miguel's Brave Knight: Young Cervantes and His Dream of Don Quixote, a fictionalized first-person biography in verse of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. Her upcoming book, The Flying Girl, How Aida de Acosta Learned to Soar will be published this coming spring. You can learn more about Margarita and her writing at her website and follow her on twitter here. And tomorrow, drop by Sally's Bookshelf to read a review on her recently released picture book, All the Way to Havana.

I am so pleased that Margarita could join us today to share her thoughts on poetry and diversity. Thank you, Margarita!
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"Poetry that Crosses Borders"
by Margarita Engle

Diverse books from the richly varied cultures of the United States are important, but they're not enough. Americans are notoriously ignorant about geography. When I speak to classrooms, I’m often shocked by how little the younger teachers know about Cuba. That’s because they didn’t learn about this close neighbor of the U.S. when they were in school.

A high school history teacher in California actually asked me if Cuba is a U.S. protectorate like Puerto Rico.  As a result of this widespread geographic confusion, children are more likely to ask, “What is Cuba?” than, “Where is Cuba?”

After Hurricane Irma, television reporters kept referring to the first U.S. landfall as Key West, when actually it was in Puerto Rico, followed by the U.S. Virgin Islands, and then Key West. Americans have a tendency to forget about any portion of U.S. territory that is not part of the primarily English-speaking mainland. I think it’s time for a new era of education in geography.  One of the most powerful ways to teach about our own country as well as other nations is through literature.

When it comes to international books, there is no substitute for “own voices,” or at least books written by someone who has grown to know a country from within, rather than as a casual tourist. Kwame Alexander’s Solo is a wonderful book partly because he has spent so much time working with volunteer projects in Ghana. Notable ‘own voice’ works of border-crossing poetry include verse novels such as Inside Out and Back Again, by Thanhha Lai, and A Time to Dance, by Padma Venkatraman, as well as picture books such as A Different Pond, by Bao Phi, and Somos Como las Nubes/We Are Like the Clouds, by Jorge Tetl Argueta. 

 My own fascination with books about many nations began in childhood. The first book I bought with my own money was Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe.  It was 1961, and I was ten years old. I didn’t relate to the whites-only “classics,” and there simply weren’t any multicultural children’s stories available in the U.S., so I quite naturally drifted toward international books written for adults, including travel diaries, atlases, and books in translation. I did not return to youth literature until I started reading to my own children in the early 1980s. Even then, there wasn’t much in the way of variety.

Today, statistics on diverse books are still pathetic and discouraging, but I love the We Need Diverse Books movement, and lists such as the International Literacy Association’s Notable Books for a Global Society,which honors works that cross borders. I would love to see more poetry on these lists, and I would love to see more books in translation become available in libraries, classrooms, and bookstores. As Americans of diverse ancestry, how can we continue to isolate ourselves when it comes to reading? People of all ages need to open our minds to the whole world, not just our own neighborhoods. In addition to serving as windows, mirrors, and doorways, books can also be bridges, connecting us across oceans and borders.


  1. Margarita's book speak to all children and writers! I was lucky enough to meet her the the Virginia Hamilton Conference a few years ago. More books on my to be read shelf, now too. TY, Sue and Margarita.

  2. Great post! I haven't read any by Margarita but will keep my eyes open for them!

    1. Tina, I am blessed to know this lady personally and to call her a friend. My favorite 2 books of hers are The Firefly Letters and Tropical Secrets. Check out her website.

  3. Appreciations.

    I wish more children grew up with paper maps to trace their fingers along on the walls, globs to spin (at school or at home or in the library) and families who bring them around the world through books. My favorite teachers have to bring their own maps & globs to school. Often, large, colorful pull down maps of the world are no longer standard-issue.
    Our dear young friend who was born & raised with his elders in Bulgaria & became a U.S. citizen after age 13 points out how young people outside the U.S. often know more about our states, than our own young people do. If we don't know much about our own country, then imagine how much we have to learn about the rest of all the beautiful children of the world.
    THE SURRENDER TREE is a novel I read & then re-read immediately. I look forward to catching up with her new titles.
    Appreciations to Margarita Engle for sharing all these world titles. I love both A TIME TO DANCE & CLIMBING THE STAIRS from Padma Venkataraman. I'm fortunate to have met both Margarita & Padma, generous authors who lift other writers up & bring the wide world to us.
    I am so grateful Group Blog is graced by this post.

  4. Margarita Engle, Rereading your piece, it strikes me as an article that should run more widely. I don't know who to suggest to send it to at The Huffington Post or the Washington Post, but those two forums come to mind. I am so sorry for your experience in the classroom & I hope the instructor was grateful to be educated by you. (please disregard my globe that came out as glob.) Thank you!

  5. This lady is an amazing writer with such a heart!She is incredibly humble considering the work she has done.
    Trine Grillo

  6. Looking forward to selecting Margarita's books from the library shelf.