Sign Up For Author Alerts
Enter your email to stay up to date on any tours & events in your area as well as new releases or exciting news related to Margarita Engle.
About the Author
Margarita Engle is a Cuban American poet, novelist, and journalist whose work has been published in many countries. She is the author of young adult nonfiction books and novels in verse including The Surrender Tree, a Newbery Honor Book, The Poet Slave of Cuba, Hurricane Dancers, The Firefly Letters, and Tropical Secrets. She lives in northern California.
A Conversation With the Author
Where did you grow up? I was born and raised in Los Angeles, California. My mother is from Trinidad, Cuba, and my father is an artist from Los Angeles. They met when he traveled to Cuba after seeing photos of her town in National Geographic. He did not speak Spanish, and she did not speak English, but they communicated by drawing pictures.
My own deep attachment to Cuba stems from childhood visits, and return visits as an adult.
What is your earliest memory of writing/drawing?
I loved to read, especially travel books, adventure stories and poetry. I began writing poetry when I was very young. I remember going for walks, and making up poems about what I was seeing. I did not save any of those poems, but I can still remember the satisfied feeling I received from composing them.
What inspired you to write/illustrate your first book?
I was already a writer of adult literary novels about modern Cuba, when I discovered that I was also fascinated by the island's long, troubled history. I began struggling to write in prose about Juan Francisco Manzano, who was known as el Poeta-Esclavo, the Poet-Slave of Cuba, because he wrote poetry while he was still a slave. Inspired by Karen Hesse's young adult multiple voice novel in verse, Witness, I switched to the verse novel format, and suddenly, the story worked.
Do you use your childhood as inspiration?
I am slowly working on a brief autobiography in verse about childhood visits to Cuba, the Missile Crisis, and resulting loss of contact with my extended family on the island. It is an extremely emotional subject for me, probably the most difficult poetic challenge I will ever face.
What books from your childhood have most influenced your work? What about adult titles?
I absolutely loved The Black Stallion. Until I was around six years old, I firmly believed that I could grow up to be a wild horse. When people asked me what I wanted to be, I would answer, "a horse." As I grew older, I realized that I would have to be a person. By the time I was in seventh grade, Island of the Blue Dolphins was my favorite book. I also sneaked into the adult section of the library, and checked out translations of novels from distant countries, such as Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe. I longed to travel, and understand the world.
What are your hobbies and interests besides reading and books?
I love hiking. We live near the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and my husband has two wilderness search and rescue dogs, for his volunteer work finding lost hikers. I enjoy hiding in the forest, so the dogs can practice finding someone by scent.
Who are a couple of your favorite author/illustrators? What is it about their work that inspires and interests you?
I enjoy books for young people that can be read on various levels, depending on one's age and experience. Katherine Paterson and Karen Hesse are two of my favorites, and I love Kate DiCamillo's books, especially A Tiger Rising, and The Tale of Desperaux. I also love combinations of harsh reality with magic realism, such as Strays, by Ron Koertge, and I love folklore and retold fairy tales, such as the ones by Donna Jo Napoli.
What one or two words of advice would you give for young authors/illustrators?
Read, read, read. Start every day with poetry, even if it isn't what you plan to write. Be adventurous. Explore. Be honest.
How does it feel to write an entire novel in poems?
It feels like travel, because there is a sense of discovery, and when I write a novel in verse about history, it feels like time travel.