Sunday, January 24, 2016

Spending Time in the Tropics with Margarita Engle's Books

My last post was all about cold. And then it got colder! What's a person to do but think warm thoughts and read award-winning books by Margarita Engle set in warmer climes? So for the past week, I've been dreaming about drumbeats, digging in Panama, and conquering dyslexia--all thanks to Engle's verse novels. Engle's ability to step into another's shoes makes her historical works for young people go straight for readers' hearts.

Like most of Engle's work, Drum Dream Girl is based on an historical person, Mila Castro Zaldarriaga, a Chinese-African-Cuban girl who dreamed of playing the drum--an activity reserved for boys & men only. Mila refuses to give up her dream, paving the way for girls and women to be drummers today. Engle uses research and imagination to tell Mila's story, which is beautifully and creatively illustrated by Rafael Lopez.  So beautifully, in fact, that this book won the Pura Belpre Illustrator Award for 2016. The book has won many other awards, too. Get a feel for the book here:

Both the setting and the girl's courage to follow her dream warmed me.

What did you learn in history about the Panama Canal? Probably something about the importance of building the canal to improve trade routes. Maybe a little about malaria. But what would it have been like to be the people who did the work? Engle's verse novel, Silver People, introduces us in alternating poems to Mateo, a young Cuban; Henry, a Jamaican; Anita, a local Panamanian, and others. They soon find out that the work recruiter's promises are false. They--and we-- learn that the world is divided into Gold People (whites, who are paid with gold) and Silver People (people of color who are paid with silver). The Silver People are further divided by the darkness of their skin, with the darkest skinned men doing the hardest, most dangerous work. To make matters worse, the Silver People see the Gold People living and working in comfort, while they struggle. Engle includes the environmental impact on the Panama Canal project by including poems from the forest--the howler monkeys, the sloths, the vipers, and the trees themselves. This book has earned many awards, including the Bank Street Center for Children's Literature 2015 Best Children's Book of the Year. While reading in sub-zero temps, I was sweating with Mateo in the jungle, and hoping he would make it out alive.

In The Wild Book, we read a fictionalized account of how Engle's grandmother overcame word-blindness, or as we know it today, dyslexia, by writing in a blank book her mother gave her. In a time of Cuban bandits following Cuba's independence from Spain, what Fefa learns helps save her family and their farm. Engle develops Fefa's character well, allowing her to go from an unsure girl to a confident young woman. Fefa and her mother both love poetry, but at first Fefa can only see them as "towers so tall/that I could never/hope/to climb/all the wispy/letters." Later, she flies "to the truth of words" and outs the villian. When things have settled down, she reflects that she has "grown/just a little bit/stronger/and wiser." A testimony to the power of reading and strength of character, The Wild Book has received honors including Kirkus Reviews New & Notable Books for Children, March 2012.

Enjoy these and other books by Margarita Engle and listen to her tell about her writing about Cuba:

Books can warm hearts even on the coldest days! What books warm you?

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Seasons Cycle

I have to tell you that January where I live can be brutal with cold, wind, snow, and ice. AND I. DO. NOT. LIKE. IT! Take today, for example--this morning, the temp is 2 degrees F, with a wind chill of -15 degrees. Take yesterday, for example, when this was the view out my kitchen window:

(the circle you see is a reflection of my camera lens, sorry)

That's why I am so grateful for Jane Yolen's new picture book, Sing a Season Song, beautifully illustrated by Lisel Jane Ashlock. Yolen's spare verse reminds me of the delights of each season--and that winter does have delights. The lush illustrations feature realistic animals in their natural habitats through the seasons. The book reminds me that winter will not last forever, but will dissolve into spring, followed by summer, and then fall--the cycle of our lives. 

Truly, the wise writer of Ecclesiastes was correct: "For everything there is a season." This harsh season of BRRRR will pass. Warm days and green grass will come again. Please hurry!

What is your favorite season & why? Do you have a favorite book about seasons?

Friday, January 1, 2016

Happy New Year and My Favorite Book of 2015

Happy New Year! May it bring you your heart's desire!

Unless you have avoided media completely for the last week or so, you have seen many, many "Best of" lists! This post is not one of those. I may not read a book in the year it was published, so instead, I chose my favorite book of 2015.

My criteria for a favorite book are stringent. The book must:
-be well-written as a whole (plot, characters, setting, theme)
-hold my interest intellectually and emotionally
-reveal some truth about life, preferably a positive, hopeful one
-stay with me for a long time after reading it.

The ending must be so satisfying that I reread the last lines to let them soak in, and then, taking in the whole, I clutch the book to my chest before setting it down. 

With that in mind, my favorite read for 2015 was (drumroll) 

 The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. This was published in 2008! What took me so long? Well, it's narrated by a dog. How precious would that be? And we know how dog stories tend to go, so I avoided it. I'm so glad I read it! My curiosity from a writer's perspective finally forced me to see how a novel narrated by a dog would work. And I was hooked from the first page, because it's obvious that that this dog story was going to go the way they usually do, and how can a deceased character narrate a book? I found Stein's solution completely satisfying. See my review for more, if you haven't read the book.

I got to hear Stein speak at our state library association conference this fall. His storytelling in person is every bit as engaging as his writing, full of humor and pathos with a big dash of reality. It was worth standing in the loooong line to meet him and get my books signed.

In case you didn't know, he has a couple of Enzo (the dog) picture books out. In the newest, Enzo and the Christmas Tree Hunt, Enzo saves the day for Denny and Zoe, and the same themes as Art of Racing emerge here. (I just found this book in the New Books bin at the library or I'd have featured it before Christmas, but kids will like the story any time of year.)

Here's an interview where Stein gives some background about The Art of Racing in the Rain:

Stein also has a new book out for adults, A Sudden Light, that I look forward to reading.

What book was your favorite read of 2015? Are your criteria similar to mine? Here's to a happy, healthy new year full of good reading!