Month: April 2013

Meet the Biographer: Margarita Engle

Award-winning author Margarita Engle has written historical novels for young adults as well as picture-book biographies for younger readers. This week, she caught up with Kidsbiographer about The Lightning MargaritaDreamer, her latest book, a biographical novel-in-verse about the early years of Cuban poet Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda.

Kidsbiographer: How did you learn about Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda, and what inspired you to write The Lightning Dreamer?

Margarita Engle: Her poetry is very famous in Cuba and Spain, but I actually didn’t know much about her youth until I started researching the inspiration for her interracial romance novel, Sab, which was published eleven years before Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and was far more influential in Europe.  I didn’t realize that Avellaneda was not only an abolitionist, but also an outspoken feminist, who used her poetry, prose, and plays to campaign against the tradition of arranged marriage, which she regarded as the marketing of teenage girls, and referred to as a form of slavery.

Kidsbiographer: Although Avellaneda was a real person, The Lightning Dreamer is a work of historical fiction, a novel-in-verse. How did you extrapolate from your research to create the character of Tula, Avellaneda as a young girl?

Margarita Engle: Fortunately, Avellaneda wrote autobiographical letters that reveal a great deal about her childhood and teenage years.  I didn’t have to invent the most amazing aspects of her story, such as the way she had to burn her early work, to prevent her disapproving mother from discovering them.  Her letters also describe the charitable theater for orphans that became her only literary outlet, and the letters are quite specific about her temperament.  She admitted that she was emotionally volatile and suffered from wild mood swings.

Kidsbiographer: How did Avellaneda’s poetry influence your verse in this book?

Margarita Engle: Her poetry was her voice, in a society where women were silenced.  Verse and prose were the only avenue of protest – not only for Avellaneda, but for male abolitionists as well.  They could not speak out against slavery unless they veiled their protests with metaphors because Cuba had no free North.  The entire island was slave territory, with strict censorship, and harsh penalties.  Writing was an act of courage.

Kidsbiographer: One of my favorite aspects of The Lightning Dreamer is the way you craft a unique voice for each character, all of whom speak in first-person free verse. Which voice was the most challenging to evoke and why?

Margarita Engle: Thank you!  The multiple voice verse novel is a form that fascinates me.  In this case, I actually had a great deal of trouble with her brother Manuel.  I struggled to acknowledge his courage in helping her smuggle her banned verses because I didn’t have a first person account from his own voice.  I had to imagine his childhood.  He never abandoned her, but from her letters I gleaned the possibility that he might have initially been embarrassed by her “unladylike” and dangerous habit of stating her opinions openly.  So I needed to portray him as someone who longed to balance traditional male views with sincere concern and support for his rebellious sister.

Kidsbiographer:  What do you hope young adults will take away from this biographical novel?

Margarita Engle: I would feel grateful if they end the book with questions.  I would like them to be left wondering:


  • Should we still speak out against  slavery? In a classroom, they might learn that the world still has an estimated   twenty million slaves.

  • Should all marriage be voluntary?  They might also learn that in many countries, most marriages are still  arranged, and underage girls are often purchased with money or other   financial benefits paid to their parents.  This question of voluntary marriage could even be extended to other modern issues. Avellaneda believed in the Golden Rule.  What would she think of same -sex marriage? Would she conclude that no one has the right to tell someone else whom to marry?

  • Can we change the world with words?  Avellaneda certainly did!  Can modern young people expect to be heard, if they express their opinions in writing?  Avellaneda  expressed her anger through poems and stories.  Are carefully crafted words still a safe “home” for helpless rage?

 Kidsbiographer:  Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects for young readers?

Margarita Engle: My next novel in verse is SILVER PEOPLE, Voices From the Panama Canal , which is due to be published by Harcourt in March, 2014.  It is about the Caribbean islanders who were recruited by the U.S. to do the hard work of digging (by hand, with shovels!) while subjected to U.S.-imposed apartheid.  Because it is set in the rain forest, this story includes the voices of animals and trees, just as The Lightning Dreamer includes choruses of orphans and nuns.  Experimenting with voices is one of the great pleasures of the novel in verse form!

I also have several biographical picture book projects for younger children about important Latinos who have been forgotten by history and deserve to be better known.  Bringing independent thinkers back from obscurity is one of my favorite goals.



Meet the Illustrator: Stacy Innerst

formal head Stacy Innerst’s illustrations have appeared in major newspapers and magazines as well as children’s books about Levi Strauss and Abraham Lincoln. Most recently, he illustrated The Beatles Were Funny (And They Were Fab), a picture-book biography of the British band. This week, he chatted with Kidsbiographer about his own love for the Beatles and children’s natural affinity for the surreal.

Kidsbiographer: What sort of research did you do to illustrate The Beatles Were Funny?

Stacy Innerst: Well, I listened to a lot of their music for inspiration, but I would have been doing that anyway! I have a friend who is a Beatles maniac, so I had many conversations with him and borrowed books from his extensive Beatles library. I watched hours of videos online, and, of course, tapped into my own memories and love of their music. It was really the most fun I’ve had researching anything.

Kidsbiographer: One of my favorite illustrations in The Beatles Were Funny appears on the first page – your city-dreamscape of Liverpool. This painting contains some signposts of Englishness – the double-decker bus, the red telephone booth – while the cranes and smokestacks in the back suggest the city’s grittiness. A yellow blimp – or maybe a submarine – hovers above the buildings and a sign reads “Strawberry Fields,” hinting at the Fab Four’s later career. Can you describe how you composed this extraordinary picture?

Stacy Innerst: Thank you. I’m fond of that painting, too. First, I found photos of the roundabout at Penny Lane and the childhood homes of each of the Beatles. They included all kinds of autobiographical touchstones in their song,  so I picked a few, such as Penny Lane and Strawberry Field, to give a sense of the nostalgia that they had for their childhood. I included the barber shop (Tony’s) that they mention in the song “Penny Lane” and the Cavern Club where they played their first shows in Liverpool. I really wanted to capture the musical energy of the place and their humble beginnings in an industrial port city. The yellow submarine was added to give a clue of what was to come later in their lives. I’ve never been to Liverpool, but I lived in the UK port city of Aberdeen, Scotland years ago, so I used some of those memories in rendering the scene. The double decker bus, the phone booth, the rows of shops and houses were all things I’d seen every day while living in Aberdeen. I painted musical notes floating throughout the industrial skyline to give a sense of the inspiration that they found in their city.liverpoolfinal

Kidsbiographer: The book’s second-to-last spread shows the four musicians, in the latter half of the band’s career, walking in a line. It’s impossible to look at this illustration and not think of the Abbey Road album cover. How did other iconic Beatles’ photos and cover art influence your work on this picture-book biography?

Stacy Innerst: Abbey Road was one of the first records I ever bought for myself, and I played it until it was ragged. And I spent many, many hours studying the photograph on the cover while it was spinning. That image was so burned into my psyche that I couldn’t possibly conceive of a better way to tell the story of the Beatles retreat to record their last album at Abbey Road studios. I did change the composition a bit so it would be suitable for a picture book – no cigarette in Paul’s hand, for instance. So much of their musical lives were documented in photographs that it was hard to illustrate the book without touching on some iconic photos.

Kidsbiographer: In a gentle, age-appropriate way, some of your work in The Beatles Were Funny suggests the band’s later, psychedelic phase. I’m especially fond of the spread in which disembodied mouths scream after the band, who retreat in a car. The jellybeans fans pelted at the band surround the mouths and strike the vehicle. What was the most challenging aspect of employing such surreal imagery in a book for young children?

Stacy Innerst: I tend to employ surrealism in many of my picture books, but this one particularly cried out for some reality-bending. The book really focused on the earlier, funny Beatles –  screaming girls, jellybeans, mop-tops. I always came back to the whole story of the Beatles when I was composing the illustrations, but you can’t really get into LSD and the Maharishi in a children’s picture book. I think their experience of being that popular and that young must have been very surreal, even without the influence of psychedelic drugs. In that spread, I was really trying to convey the sound of lots of screaming fans without making the people who were doing the screaming too specific. It’s kind of interesting, though, because when kids see surreal images they tend to laugh at the silliness while many adults focus on the weirdness. It’s just a theory, but I think children are more used to seeing things in surreal or imaginative ways in their day to day lives. I have childhood memories of things and events that, in retrospect, were very mundane, but they were simply awe-inspiring when I was 4 or 5.

Kidsbiographer: What do you hope children will take away from The Beatles Were Funny?

naming the band_finalStacy Innerst: The fact that they came from ordinary beginnings and became extraordinary not just because of their musical gifts, but also because they kept their sense of humor and remained who they were. I also hope that they will be exposed to some really good music as a result of being introduced to the Beatles. When I first started the project, I wondered whether young kids would even know who the Beatles were. I painted some of the pictures for the book while I was doing a residency at the Children’s Museum in Pittsburgh, so I had a chance to talk to scores of kids and get their feedback. Most had heard of the Beatles because of their parents or grandparents, so my fear that it would be over their heads was calmed. They really got it.

Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects?

Stacy Innerst
: My editor at Harcourt and my agent at Writers House are both adamant that I write and illustrate a book, so that’s my current fixation. I have a few stories in various stages of completion. One is about my personal experience growing up as a twin, and there is a LOT of material there, believe me. The other involves a malodorous main character and its desire to be loved – not so much from personal experience, I hope.




Dreaming of Freedom

lightning dreamer_hresThe Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist
By Margarita Engle
(Harcourt, 2013, Boston, $16.99)

In mid-nineteenth century Spain, Getrudis Gomez de Avellaneda, a Cuban expatriate, wrote poems, plays, and prose expressing her abolitionism. Cuban landowners profited at their slaves’ expense – and so much of Avellaneda’s work was banned in her native land. She also outspoken about her opposition to arranged marriages and the position of women – a sentiment that even most of her fellow abolitionists did not share.

In The Lightning Dreamer, Margarita Engle crafts a fictionalized telling of young Avellaneda’s awakening in free verse. The novel begins when Avellaneda, called Tula, is thirteen. A curious, imaginative girl, Tula is frustrated by her mother’s attempts to limit her access to books and paper. She reads and writes anyway, of course. She also develops a social conscience as she watches the island’s slaves at works – and hears of the atrocities landowners commit against them. During this time, she also becomes acutely aware of her position as a woman: the fact that young women, like slaves, are auctioned off in marriage to the highest bidder. This insight increases her empathy for the enslaved and makes her determined to eschew a loveless marriage and pursue her own identity as a writer and human. Eventually, after much travail and heartbreak, she succeeds.

Deceptively straightforward, Engle’s verse evokes the conflicts of a young girl learning to question the world around her. Different voices, including those of Tula, her family members, their free black cook, and the nuns who teach Tula, narrate the story in turn. Tula, in particular, often speaks in short lines, the better to give each word emphasis:

Mama commands me to hush,
and my stepfather grumbles,
so I try to be quiet,
but silence feels
like an endless
of smooth
shiny mirrors
that reflect
my ragged

The Lightning Dreamer contains many echoes and mirrors, both in language and narrative. The plight of women forced into arranged marriages mirrors that of slaves sold at auction. A former slave’s dash to freedom resembles a young girl’s refusal to marry without love; another’s unrequited love reminds Tula of her own heartbreak. Tula’s ability to see these parallels underlies her growing compassion for all people.

Often startling, The Lightning Dreamer is a moving introduction to Cuban history and Avellaneda’s life and work. This biographical novel-in-verse should also encourage readers to perceive relationships between sufferings and injustices, past and present.

Dorothy A. Dahm