THE LIGHTNING DREAMER — Margarita Engle
age range: young adult
genre: historical fiction
“This is the context for a splendid novel that celebrates one brave woman who rejected a constrained existence with enduring words that continue to sing of freedom.”
“An inspiring fictionalized verse biography of one of Cuba’s most influential writers. . . . Fiery and engaging, a powerful portrait of the liberating power of art.”
“In these poems, their longings for freedom, their fears, their loves, and their heartaches are elegantly crafted through images that make the island of Cuba and its people vividly real and connect them to the hearts of contemporary readers.”
“A quick and powerful read worthy of addition to any collection. The verses speak of tolerance and acceptance beyond the context of this story.”
—School Library Journal
MOUNTAIN DOG — Margarita Engle
age range: middle grade
genre: contemporary adventure
setting: Sierra Nevada
Please tell us about your new middle grade/YA books.
I have two new books that could be used in primary and secondary classrooms. THE LIGHTNING DREAMER, Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist, is a biographical verse novel about Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, who was not only one of Cuba’s greatest poets, but also an outspoken abolitionist and feminist. THE LIGHTNING DREAMER is more suited to grades 5 and up.
MOUNTAIN DOG is adventurous fiction that could be introduced as early as third grade. It is the story of a Cuban-American boy from an urban, dog-fighting background, whose life is changed by a wilderness search and rescue dog. Alternating between the voices of the boy and dog, it is written in free verse, but is also a chapter book.
What inspired you to write these stories?
I am fascinated by important historical figures who have been forgotten. Are they deliberately neglected by textbook authors in the U.S., because they are perceived as ‘foreign,’ and therefore less important? While she was still very young, Avellaneda wrote an interracial romance novel that was published eleven years before UNCLE TOM’S CABIN, and was far more influential in Latin America and Europe. Unlike her male counterparts, she paired anti-slavery sentiments with a literary campaign against arranged marriage, which she regarded as the marketing of teenage girls. Yet in modern times, she is only well-known in Cuba and Spain. She deserves to be studied in the U.S.
My inspiration for a story about wilderness search and rescue dogs is quite different. It comes from my daily life in modern California. My husband is a volunteer who trains our dogs to search for lost hikers. My unusual role in this amazing process is to serve as a “volunteer victim.” In other words, I hide out in the woods, so the dogs can practice finding a lost person.
Could you share with readers how you conducted your research?
Since THE LIGHTNING DREAMER is based on the life of a writer, I used her letters, autobiographical notes, novels, poetry, plays, and essays as my sources. I spent months reading her own words, before starting to write mine.
MOUNTAIN DOG is fiction, but it relies on personal experience, so there was no research beyond reading first person accounts of treks on the Pacific Crest Trail. Every search for a lost person described in the story was inspired by a real search in the local Sierra Nevada Mountains. Other aspects of the story—such as visiting an inmate in a women’s prison—were also based on personal experience.
What are some special challenges associated with writing verse novels?
For me, the process is one of exploration. When the subject is historical, as with THE LIGHTNING DREAMER, it feels like time travel. For a contemporary story like MOUNTAIN DOG, I need peace and quiet. Much of it was written while hiding in the forest, waiting to be found by real search and rescue dogs.
No matter what I’m writing, I need a quiet place to work. For me, solitude and peace of mind are two of the most essential “tools of the trade.” I write first drafts on paper, with a pen. I’ve never found an electronic gadget that can substitute for the way words flow when I write at my own pace, as if time does not exist. Deadlines are my arch-enemy. I don’t write well when a calendar date looms.
What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?
THE LIGHTNING DREAMER would fit any study of abolition, women’s rights, or the power of written words as a weapon against injustice.
MOUNTAIN DOG can be read for entertainment, but it can also be used to teach subjects as varied as hiking safety and kindness to animals.
Both books can be used as reader’s theater, or can be read out loud by teachers. I’ve received wonderful notes from middle school students who enjoy hearing verse novels read out loud!
bookmarks + book plate + Skype visit
TEACHERS: As the school year starts, I know you’re out there spending your own money on supplies, so if any of you plan to use my new YA verse novel, THE LIGHTNING DREAMER, Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist, during Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15 – Oct. 15), I’ll buy old-fashioned snail mail postage stamps, to send you a FREE SIGNED BOOK PLATE and classroom sets of signed BOOK MARKS.
If any of you plan to use Mountain Dog during National Adopt a Dog Month (October), I will offer a free (and probably chaotic) Skype-With-a-Dog School Visit. For those whose classrooms lack Skype capability, I’ll send a recorded visit. I’ll also buy old-fashioned snail mail postage stamps to send you a FREE SIGNED BOOK PLATE and one classroom set of signed BOOK MARKS.
Please give me your name, school mailing address, and class size by clicking on contact at www.margaritaengle.com.
Margarita Engle is a poet and novelist whose work has been published in many countries. Her books include THE SURRENDER TREE, a Newbery Honor book and winner of the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, the Pura Belpré Award, the Américas Award, and the Claudia Lewis Poetry Award; THE POET SLAVE OF CUBA, winner of the Pura Belpré Award and the Américas Award; and HURRICANE DANCERS, winner of the Pura Belpré Award.