Posted by: jeannineatkins | January 14, 2008

Congratulations, Margarita Engle!

This morning it’s snowing like mad. Chickadees flutter near as I come around to knock snow off the feeder. I love how they let me feel like a Disney princess, even if they don’t quite land on my wrist. It’s sad around here after taking my daughter to the airport last night, back for spring semester. She could be slipping on flip flops for her first class while I brushed off my boots. I drank coffee and ate oatmeal while reading gossip from magazines E. left behind, then made notes for the classes I’ll soon start teaching, and waited to hear what books the ALA committees named as prize winners.

Like most of my reading and writing friends, my tables are covered with beloved books that deserved to win a big award, but didn’t, along with some that did — like The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano. Margarita Engle just won the Pura Belpré Author Award for this book.Yay! I put the book down last night after a second reading that caught me more in its spell than the first, as the best poetry often does, opening up its pleasures and insights.

I love the way the verse cuts the shape of a life, moving forward the sometimes wrenching, sometimes beautiful, story of a slave who fights for freedom, finds and creates hope. Some biographies bog down in detail. I know I’ve been put off from reading about a life after slogging through first chapters of great-grandfathers and great-great-aunts. Why do biographers do that? And even if you skip ahead, there’s sometimes too much extraneous this-and-that; just because a biographer found out something, must she put it in?

There’s no room for that in a verse biography, and here, not a word is wasted as Engle blends fact with her imagination. From her notes at the back, it seems she read Juan Francisco Manzano’s poems and accounts of his life as boy, man, slave, tailor, painter, pastry chef , and poet – whose work inspired people to fight for freedom. She mused until she felt haunted, and wrote these poems.

Like Marilyn Nelson’s wonderful biographical verse, Carver, or Stephanie Hemphill’s Your Own, Sylvia: A Verse Portrait of Sylvia Plath, which just won a Printz honor (another yay!), the poems are told from different points of view, and the speaker’s name gives the title of each poem. Juan’s goodness stands out against some of the rough, the occasionally sweet, nuanced voices of those who meet, use, betray, or admire him. The details are wonderful. His mother crushed eggshells to make powder for a slave-owner who aspired to look pale. A slave-owner showed off the boy, Juan, who memorized what he could barely understand, while keeping his true thoughts apart, trying to scratch them in leaves. Settings are vivid: the garden with its mangos, orchids, jasmine, and lime, and the cellar, with its chains. Sean Quails’s black and white illustrations are also moving in their starkness, fitting the mood and place.

Congratulations, Margarita Engle! Hurray for so elegantly blending biography and verse, hardship and hope.



  1. This just sounds lovely, Jeannine. Thanks for the review. I’m going to go put it on reserve right now.

  2. Good, I think you will like it. It’s both strong verse and a strong story.

  3. I met her at the Americas Awards ceremony this fall and she was really, really nice. I’m very happy for her.

  4. That is great to hear! Thanks!

  5. I’ve just spent 45 minutes reading your beautiful blog, Jeannine. I think it will inspire many book and thinking opportunities!
    I’ve added you as a friend, and in case you’re wondering who this “use_this_name” person is, it’s your cousin Carolyn!

  6. Oh, Carolyn! Thank you for reading and writing and your sweet comment! It’s good to hear from you!
    I have to say my daughter thought it was weird when I started blogging on LJ — Mom! — but now that she’s off at college, she likes to read it. It’s nice to have some real related-to-me people among my readers! Best wishes for 2008!

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