Clovis author Margarita Engle delivers message of hope through children’s books

Writer Margarita Engle, of Clovis, holds one of her books, “Silver People,” in front of a bookshelf filled with other books she has written.
Writer Margarita Engle, of Clovis, holds one of her books, “Silver People,” in front of a bookshelf filled with other books she has written. sflores@fresnobee.com

Margarita Engle wants readers to get one thing out of reading her books – hope.

So the Clovis author, who has received national honors for her writing, crafts her books to be interactive. Readers should become so pulled into her poetry and prose that it inspires them to come up with their own ideas and to add to the stories.

She opens a copy of her latest book, “Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal” (HMH Books for Young Readers, $17.99), and points to an open space on the page at the end of one of the poems.

“This is not an intimidating page for a young reader, whereas a dense nonfiction prose history book might be,” she says. “This space is where they can add their own ideas.”

Engle, 64, shared her desire to get readers engaged and thinking about reading when she traveled to Washington, D.C., earlier this month to receive the Américas Award at the Library of Congress for “Silver People.” The award is given for children’s and young adult literature by the Consortium of Latin American Studies Programs. She was also honored in New York with a Jane Addams Children’s Book Award for the book, and in 2009 received the Newbery Honor, a prestigious award from the Association for Library Service to Children, for “The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom.” She was the first person of Latin heritage to earn the honor.

To Engle, reading isn’t a passive activity.

Her passion for books started when she was a little girl growing up in Los Angeles. She was such an avid reader that by the age of 10, she was sneaking past librarians to read books outside the children’s section of the local library. Her favorite book was Walter Farley’s “The Black Stallion.” It affected her so deeply that she said she has never read it again in fear that it wouldn’t have the same power that it had when she read it that lone time.

Now it’s Engle’s books that line the shelves of local libraries and bookstores. A Book Barn, the Clovis bookstore where Engle talked recently about her writing career, features many of her books on a display.

She points to her parents as being a major influence on her as a writer, although they were both artists. Her father traveled from his home in Los Angeles to Cuba after seeing a picture in National Geographic magazine of her mother’s hometown. They met the first day. Because he spoke no Spanish and she no English, they communicated through drawings. A year later they were married.

Although she was born and raised in Los Angeles, Engle has made several trips to Cuba over the years, which have served as inspiration for such books “The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom,” “Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba” and “The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette’s Journey in Cuba.”

A common theme in Engle’s books is bringing history to life. This is often accomplished through a series of poems that are linked together to tell a full story.

When I started writing for kids, I decided to write linked poems to tell long stories. They are complex situations distilled down through the simple free verse form.

Margarita Engle

For “Silver People,” Engle spent years researching the building of the Panama Canal. She had the book in the works before the centennial of the canal in 2014, but she became more engaged when she realized that the few mentions of the anniversary focused on the engineering aspects and not the real force behind the construction. Engle wanted to give voices to a few of the 250,000 workers from the Caribbean islands who were brought in to dig the canal under what she calls “apartheid treatment.” The main voice in the book is a Cuban.

Getting to the point where she could tell such stories took some time. Engle loved the tropical nature in Cuba, which inspired her to study botany and agronomy. It was creative writing class, taught by Tomás Rivera,she took while attending UC Riverside that sparked her interesting in writing.

“Tomás taught me to write from the heart and not worry about whether I would ever get published. To write because I had something to say and for the love of writing,” Engle says. “I have pretty much stuck to that all these decades.”

She became a professor of agronomy at Cal Poly Pomona and directed a water conservation project in San Diego County. For years, she wrote for literary journals and periodicals. It wasn’t until 1993 that she got her first book, the adult novel “Singing to Cuba,” published.

In 2006 she published her first book for children, “The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano.” Since then, she’s written 16 books aimed at young readers.

“I suddenly switched to writing children’s books,” Engle says. “The older I got, the more I wanted to be communicating with the future, which is children. The one thing I do very differently for young people is I only choose stories that have hopeful endings. Even when I’m writing about very difficult historical situations, I wouldn’t have written it if there was not a real-life hopeful ending.”

No matter how much another story might fascinate me, I feel like we owe it to young people – especially teenagers – to share my optimism.

Margarita Engle

That’s her definition of hope.

Rick Bentley: 559-441-6355, @RickBentley1