NPM 2017: 5 Questions for the Verse Novelist, Featuring Margarita Engle
It’s the last week of National Poetry Month. I’ve got four great author interviews lined up for us. They’re part of my NPM17 series on verse novelists.
The community of authors who write novels-in-verse for children and teens is a small, supportive one. One of the widely published verse novelists who gives tireless support to newer authors is Margarita Engle.
I’ve been a fan of Margarita’s historical verse novels for many years and we’ve done several interviews together. (We talked about SILVER PEOPLE at my old blog.) I was thrilled when Margarita wrote a blurb for my own debut verse novel.
Tell us about your verse novels publishing in 2017. What is it about the stories and characters that led you to write these books as poetry?
My newest verse novel is Morning Star Horse/El caballo Lucero (HBE Publishers), which will soon be followed by Forest World (Atheneum). Both are middle grade. The first is historical magical realism, while the second takes place in Cuba in 2015, a time of change. I wrote both in verse simply because poetry makes me happy. For years, I have struggled to pinpoint the source of my preference for verse novels, and in the end, I realized that it is not a complicated decision. I choose poetry for the sheer beauty and comfort of rhythmic language. Even when I write about a sad topic, I can feel happy if the vessel for my sorrow is verse.
Why do you think verse pairs so well with historical narratives?
I realized long ago that poetry allows me to distill complex historical situations down to their emotional essence. What did it feel like to live in a particular time and place? Most of my verse novels have been historical, and most have been about Cuba, but Morning Star Horse/El caballo Lucero actually follows a young refugee girl from the island to an unusual school in San Diego, California, where Spanish American War orphans became known as the Raja Yoga Cuban Kids. By using first person and present tense, I hope to offer young readers a sort of time travel experience, eliminating the distance found in academic history books.
Morning Star Horse is published by an innovative small press which has made it available in a choice of English, Spanish, or bilingual editions.
Forest World is an environmental-themed verse novel about the reunion of estranged siblings in rural Cuba, during the summer of 2015. The boy grew up in Miami, and doesn’t even know he has a sister. Once they get to know each other, they end up having adventures, in an effort to save endangered species.
Forest World will initially be published in English in August, 2017, and will become available in Spanish the following year.
Have you ever written one of your verse novels in prose, only decide to switch?
For ten years, I struggled to write a traditional adult prose version of my first children’s verse novel, The Poet Slave of Cuba. The clue that I needed to rethink the form came in the form of a knock on the head from my subject, Juan Francisco Manzano, who reached down from heaven to remind me that he was a poet, and needed his story told in poetry. The clue that I needed to write about him for children instead of adults was the simple fact that only the first half of his autobiographical notes survived the era’s censorship. In order to have his first person narrative as my primary source, I had to focus on his childhood and youth.
Many of your verse novels are written in more than one voice. How do you develop the vocabulary and the rhythm for each character? What methods did you use to differentiate the characters’ voices?
I often use many voices in young adult novels, but for middle grade ones I tend to limit the text to one or two voices.
Morning Star Horse/El caballo Lucero alternates between the free verse voice of a girl and the prose poem voice of a magical horse.
Forest World alternates between the free verse voices of two siblings. Because one grew up in the U.S. and the other in Cuba, their experiences are extremely different. The life style of the boy will be more familiar to American readers. His sister has grown up without WiFi, a cell phone, dependable transportation, electricity, or adequate food rations, but she knows a lot more about nature, wilderness, agriculture, and art.
Most of the middle grade and YA verse novels I have read are contemporary or historical. I’d love to see a fantasy or science fiction novel-in-verse for kids. Do you think the form is flexible enough to stretch into other genres of fiction?
Writing Morning Star Horse/El caballo Lucero was a wonderful experience that allowed me to return to my magical realistic Latin American roots. When I was writing for adults in the 1990s, magic realism was at the heart of every story. Of course, in Spanish it’s a much more beautiful term, lo real maravilloso, marvelous reality. Gabriel García Márquez described it as Caribbean reality, because strange things happen during the daily lives of people who live in places that seem to be lost in time, with a natural blend of modern life, traditions, superstitions, and legends.
In Forest World, only the Cuban sister understands magical realism, and uses it in her art. Her American brother has grown up with so many technological distractions that his view of the term magic would lean toward the dragons and trolls of video games, rather than the marvelous aspects of culture and nature.
Margarita Engle is the Cuban-American author of verse novels such as The Surrender Tree, a Newbery Honor winner, and The Lightning Dreamer, a PEN USA Award winner. Her verse memoir, Enchanted Air, received the Pura Belpré Award, Golden Kite Award, Walter Dean Myers Honor, and Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, among others. Margarita’s books have received multiple Pura Belpré, Américas, International Latino, and Jane Addams Awards and Honors, the Claudia Lewis Poetry Award, and an International Reading Association Award. Her picture book, Drum Dream Girl, received the Charlotte Zolotow Award.
Margarita’s 2017 verse novels are Forest World and Morning Star Horse/El caballo Lucero. Her 2017 picture books are Bravo!, All the Way to Havana, and Miguel’s Brave Knight. She lives in central California, where she enjoys helping her husband train his wilderness search and rescue dog. You can find her at www.margaritaengle.com
My series of National Poetry Month interviews with verse novelists continues tomorrow with Tamera Will Wissinger.
Here is the full list of posts:
You can find a list of National Poetry Month blog projects at Jama’s Alphabet Soup. And check out this great list of recommended MG verse novels from educator Cassie Thomas at the blog Teachers Who Read.