Thursday, March 5, 2015

Spotlight on Margarita Engle + DMC Challenge


MARGARITA ENGLE

Margarita Engle is the Cuban-American author of many young adult verse novels about the island, including THE SURRENDER TREE, which received the first Newbery Honor ever awarded to a Latino, and THE LIGHTNING DREAMER, recipient of the 2014 PEN USA Award.  Other honors include multiple Pura Belpré and Américas Awards, as well as Jane Addams, International Reading Association, Claudia Lewis, International Latino, and MANA Las Primeras Awards.


Margarita grew up in Los Angeles, but developed a deep attachment to her mother’s homeland during summers with her extended family in Cuba.  ENCHANTED AIR, Two Cultures, Two Wings (Atheneum, August, 2015) is a verse memoir about those Cold War era childhood visits.  Her time in Cuba also gave rise to a lifelong passion for tropical nature, and led to her study of botany and agronomy before becoming a full-time poet and novelist.   She now lives in central California, where she enjoys hiding in the wilderness to help train her husband’s search and rescue dogs.

While Margarita may be best known for her novels in verse, her delightful books for younger readers include MOUNTAIN DOG, SUMMER BIRDS, ORANGUTANKA, DRUM DREAM GIRL, and THE SKY PAINTER. Of these, the last three are forthcoming– all within the next few weeks!  It looks to be a banner year in MargaritaEngleland!



ORANGUTANKA: A Story in Poems
Henry Holt and Co. (March 24, 2015)
ISBN: 978-0805098396
Find at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble,
or via IndieBound.org
Today I'm honored to offer a preview of ORANGUTANKA: A Story In Poems – the first of Margarita's 2015 books, to be released later this month.

Written in a contemporary style of the Japanese tanka form, this simple yet satisfying story of an orangutan family comes alive with vivid language and playful illustrations by Renée Kurilla. Children will enjoy seeing how similar these lovable apes are to humans. Teachers and parents will appreciate the opportunity to introduce "Orangutan Facts" described at the back of the book, not the least of which is their critically endangered status.  The back matter also includes recommended resources to learn more about orangutans.

It seems that no matter what age group Margarita is writing for, there are common themes amongst her books:

1. A love of nature
2. Some aspect of freedom
3. Giving voice to the underrepresented – the "forgotten" ones whose stories need to be told. 

While ORANGUTANKA may not be based on a historical figure like many of her other books, Margarita is no less passionate about her topic or her cause. Besides her sensory-rich language (which I am prone to drool over), this is one of the things that I like best about her books: she is driven to shine a light on others – human or otherwise.

Now it's time for me to shine the spotlight on her.  We'll get started with some favorites:

Adventurous Margarita (age 8), on the outskirts of Havana.
(Can you tell she was a fan of the Black Stallion books?)
Favorite childhood memory:

All my favorite childhood memories are related to travel.  During summers in Cuba, I had the chance to be a completely different person than my school year self, because in Cuba I was on farms and in small towns, exploring tropical nature, while in Los Angeles I was on city streets, wishing for wilderness.

Favorite subject in school:

My favorite subject in school was English, but I didn’t care about grammar.  I only loved literature.  In high school, when we were given lists of books to choose from, I rejected the lists because they were limited to European and American books.  I asked for special permission to read novels from other parts of the world.  Today, this might open a discussion of the need for diverse books, but in the 1960s, it made teachers think of me as rebellious.

Favorite teacher:

My favorite teacher was Mrs. Sespe, who took our high school human physiology class to tide pools and let us collect sea shells.  I loved field trips and nature just as much as I loved books.  I feel grateful that as an adult, I’ve been able to combine biology, history, fiction, and poetry.  I think over-specialization is one of the downfalls of modern society.  That’s why I’m so excited to see the term STEM education transformed into STEAM education, with the arts included as a valid teaching component of science.

Favorite place for a vacation:

Costa Rica is my favorite place for a vacation, because there is so much protected rain forest that I’ve seen more wildlife there than anywhere else, including the Amazon.  However, visiting an orangutan refuge in Borneo was one of the most exciting adventures of all my travels!

Favorite country you like to visit:

With no roads leading to islands, I have to say that all flights---and all flights of the imagination---lead to Cuba.  Returning feels like a pilgrimage rather than an ordinary journey.  For 31 years, from 1960 to 1991, I was unable to visit the land of my mother’s birth.  Since the fall of the Soviet Union, I have been back many times.  It’s always extremely emotional.

"My mother's hometown, Trinidad (on the south-central coast of Cuba)."

What drives you to write for children and what do you enjoy most about being a children’s author?

I love writing for children and young adults because I feel free to explore.  Adult literature seems much more set in its ways.  Verse give me the freedom to seek the emotional center of a story.  Picture books allow me to plant the seed of a story, and then watch the illustrator turn those few words into a complete world.  It’s like watching a garden---or an orangutan forest---grow!  The suspense, while waiting to see what the illustrator will do, is thrilling in a strangely surrealistic, slow motion way that lasts at least two years.  Renée Kurilla’s art for ORANGUTANKA is magnificent!  It was definitely worth the wait.


Can you tell us a little about your writing routine? 

I’m a morning person.  I love to write as early as possible, while I still feel close to the world of dreams.  I write first drafts with a pen and paper, often outdoors, or soon after going for a walk.  Sometimes I write in the Sierra Nevada forest, while hiding behind a boulder or under a tree, so that my husband’s wilderness search and rescue dogs can practice finding a lost person. Later drafts require a computer.  That’s when the pleasure of daydreaming suddenly turns into real work.


What inspired you to write ORANGUTANKA?

The grandma and granddaughter orangutans that inspired ORANGUTANKA.
They came down to the ground to people-watch.
When I spoke at the Asian Festival of Children’s Content in Singapore, my husband and I took a side trip to Borneo.  We visited a reserve where orangutans were returned to the wild.  Some had been caged as pets, but most were rescued from rain forests that had been clear cut and burned to plant oil palms.  The intelligence of orangutans inspired me, and so did their movements, which were like a dance in the treetops.  When a young one and her grandma climbed down to the forest floor, the juvenile was in constant motion, performing acrobatics, but never letting go of her grandma.  She always kept one of hands or feet on grandma’s shoulder.  The effect was a beautiful combination of courage and love, similar to the process of adventurous exploration we see in young children, who want to learn about the world, and at the same time, need to be protected.


What was the experience like writing your story as a series of connected tanka? Did you ever feel constrained by the form?

I have always loved haiku, but in recent years I’ve turned more often to tanka, because it is such a flexible form.  Similes and metaphors are allowed, and the two extra lines give room for more storytelling.  The linked tanka for ORANGUTANKA started to enter my mind even before we had left the wildlife reserve in Borneo.  They danced right into my imagination, flowing freely.  It was a natural process, not limiting at all.


Would you share a favorite spread from ORANGUTANKA?

I absolutely adore all the illustrations, but I am especially fond of the spread that shows orangutans climbing down toward feeding platforms.  During my visit to the wildlife refuge, I loved seeing the excitement, and the dance-like movement of trees as they swayed beneath the weight of amazingly acrobatic orangutans!

ORANGUTANKA: A STORY IN POEMS, text © Margarita Engle, illustration © Renée Kurilla  (click to enlarge)


In the “Orangutan Facts” section at the back of your book, you tell us how intelligent orangutans are and that they share at least 97 percent of our human DNA. What do you admire most about orangutan behavior?

There are so many things to admire about orangutans:  intelligence, gentleness, curiosity!  For me, the most striking aspect of their personalities was their ability to love.  The affection between grandma and granddaughter was so clearly visible.  It was not in any way inferior to the love between a human grandparent and grandchild.

ORANGUTANKA: A STORY IN POEMS, text © Margarita Engle, illustration © Renée Kurilla  (click to enlarge)


Can you give us a hint about what’s coming up next for you? 

What’s next for me is variety!  I have two biographical picture books coming out this spring, both written in free verse:  DRUM DREAM GIRL, How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music (Harcourt), and THE SKY PAINTER, Louis Fuertes, Bird Artist (Two Lions).  In August, my childhood memoir will be published by Atheneum: ENCHANTED AIR, Two Cultures, Two Wings.  As far as writing projects, I’m working on historical verse novels, and more biographical picture books about great Latino naturalists.




If you had all the world’s children in one room, what would you tell them?

Love nature.  Turn off your gadgets and go for a walk.  Look at birds and bugs.  Listen to the wind and water.  Take care of the wilderness.  Once it’s gone, there’s no way to get it back.


Finally, please tell us what you have chosen as this month’s ditty challenge.

My ditty challenge is:  Write a tanka poem.  Think of it as a travel diary, even if you are only moving around in your own garden.  You are free to choose any subject.  Your poem is only five lines.  The traditional tanka syllable count is 5-7-5-7-7, but since Japanese syllables are shorter, in English the poem could be awkwardly long. You don’t have to count syllables, but stick to the basic line pattern of short, long, short, long, long.  Keep the total number of syllables for each poem under 30, or even better, keep it under 26.  Less is more.  Shorter is more powerful.  Don’t try to be detailed.  Seek the resonance that enters a poem only when it is touched by the stillness of nature.

Wow.  Let me read that last sentence again...


"Seek the resonance that enters a poem 
only when it is touched by the stillness of nature."

Definitely one to remember.


It's been such a pleasure to interview you, Margarita! 
You're an inspiration to so many – thank you for shining your light at Today's Little Ditty.

So tanka it is, folks.  With the freedom to choose any subject, I can't wait to see what you come up with!

Throughout the month, send your poems to TodaysLittleDitty (at) gmail (dot) com or use the contact form in the sidebar to the right. For children under 13 who would like to participate, please read my COPPA compliance statement located below the contact form.

BLOGGER FRIENDS:  Thank you for publishing your poems on your own blogs– I love that!  Please also remember to send me a copy of your poem or a direct link to your post. That way I know I have your permission to post your poem on Today's Little Ditty.

Some poems may be published on the blog as daily ditties, but all of them will appear in a wrap-up post on March 27th, 2015.

Looking for a little something extra to get those creative juices flowing?  It's your lucky day! Margarita has provided me with an autographed copy of ORANGUTANKA: A Story in Poems, which I will send to one lucky participant, selected randomly, at the end of the month.


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Many thanks to those of you who participated in last month's letter poem challenge, brought to us by David Elliott.  You're a talented bunch, that's for sure!

Random.org has determined that the winner of ON THE WING by David Elliott, with illustrations by Becca Stadtlander is:

KERI COLLINS LEWIS – Congratulations, Keri!



Let's give a warm welcome to first-time Poetry Friday roundup host, Robyn Campbell.


39 comments:

  1. A lift, this is!
    Will try the tanka challenge.
    I feel Margarita's spirit is very much like Nancy Willard + Eugenie Clark (shark scientist who passed away recently at about age 92.) I met Margarita once at an ALA conference & have loved her work ever since. Of her all shimmering books, I especially the one I know best THE FIREFLY LETTERS.

    Michelle you are special among all bloggers for introducing us to ORANGUTANKA (clever title) & for providing this boost of a Q/A. In it, I especially like how she gives credit to Mrs. Sespe, honoring her teacher. All around a visit to return to, here.

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    1. I loved the Firefly Letters as well, Jan! Thanks for your kind words today. :)

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  2. Hey Michelle. Love that warm welcome. Thank you. Love that title. ORANGUTANKA just has this awesome ring to it. I think this book is one of those books a writer wishes she had thought of first.

    That line. SO lovely. I read it over three times before I came to the part where you said, "Let me read that last sentence again." I will NEVER forget it. I think I'll keep it beside my computer as her quote to me. I love writing tankas, so this challenge is easy for me. Margarita, LOVE your name. It's a one-word poem.

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    1. Delighted this challenge suits you, Robyn! Looking forward to seeing a poem from you this month. :)

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  3. It's wonderful to see Margarita here, Michelle, & to hear more about the new books coming out. I love Margarita's books, know I will love these next ones, too. Being outside is a blessing for us, so I'm looking forward to seeing what your guests will share.

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    1. I hope you'll have an opportunity to join in too, Linda! I loved the haiku you posted on your blog today.

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  4. Amazing post, Michelle! I haven't yet read any of Margarita's verse novels, but Summer Birds is one of my very favorite biographical picture books! I cannot wait to read Orangutanka--the title alone is so clever and expressive and sounds so complementary to the subject matter. That spread is wonderful! Thanks for sharing this!!

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    1. It's a delightful book, Maria! And you've got another treat in store for yourself when you pick up one of her verse novels!

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  5. What a wonderful interview -- I love learning more about Margarita's life and work. We have several new books of hers to look forward to this year, too! Liked hearing the story behind Orangutanka (illustrations beautiful!).

    Thanks, Michelle, for featuring Margarita this month, and thanks, Margarita, for all your thoughtful answers.

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    1. Thanks, Jama. Yes, so many wonderful books of hers to enjoy this year! Orangutanka is just the appetizer. :)

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  6. Oops! I think my comment got deleted. : ) Great interview with Margarita. I love learning more about her and her writing routine. She is such an inspiration! I'm looking forward to Orangutanka! I've written tanka for over twenty years. It's one of my favorite forms.

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    1. Over 20 years? That's a lot of tanka! I hope you'll send one in for us all to enjoy this month, Linda. :)

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  7. ORANGUTANKA sounds amazing. Thanks for giving us a glimpse. And please...could we gather all the world's children in one room to hear Margarita's advice? I love that.
    Thanks for the interview, Margarita and Michelle.

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    1. Oh, I know, Penny! It's hard to escape gadget addiction these days, and sad to think there are kids that don't know any other way of living.

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  8. Thanks for this terrific interview, and for sharing the story behind ORANGUTANKA and the charming spreads from the book. And another great challenge!

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    1. Isn't that photo of the young orangutan with her foot on Grandma wonderful? I think a field trip to Borneo might be in order!

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  9. I have been wanting to go to the Borneo orangutan reserve for years, ever since I saw a documentary on it. I'm so glad Margarita found inspiration there. Orangutanka looks and sounds gorgeous. But I'm really looking forward to the memoir.

    Wonderful interview and wonderful challenge -- thank you!

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    1. I'm looking forward to that memoir too, Renée! I have no doubt it's going to blow me away with its language, honesty, passion, and power.

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  10. Margarita is a treasure. So open to following wonder wherever it leads her, and as you note, to giving voice to those who can't speak for themselves (human animal or animal animal!) Of course, I've been eagerly awaiting Orangutanka and appreciate this sneak preview! Also, I loved learning a little more about the rich background that helped shape such an amazing writer.

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    1. "Following wonder wherever it leads"... exactly! Well said, Robyn. Margarita is a traveler in so many ways, isn't she?

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  11. Snow day, a home day.
    Facebook travels fail
    my bucket list dreamings
    of treks through mountain forests,
    Swims through blue green waters.

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    1. This is lovely, Linda! Would you please email me at TodaysLittleDitty@gmail.com? I'd like to know your last name so that I can give you proper credit when it's posted on TLD.

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  12. Great interview! I love her reverence for nature. A tanka is something I think I'll be able to write this month. I look forward to reading everyone's efforts.

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    1. I was hoping you might be able to show us how it's done, Diane. :) Haiga tanka gratefully accepted as well!

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  13. I love Margarita's work. And we share a name! Last year, she was very generous to send bookmarks to my students. I want to try this form. And I'll pass it on to my students. Hopefully they won't try to make a Psy-tanka!

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    1. LOL! Psy-tanka... I wouldn't put it past them!

      I'm not surprised about the bookmarks– Margarita's got a kind and generous heart, to be sure.

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  14. I've only had a chance to read a couple of Margarita's book, but I love them - and really want to read more. A very inspiring interview with a very inspiring person!

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    1. I haven't read everything she's written either, Matt. But I've read enough to know that it's doubtful I'd ever be disappointed!

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  15. Going to give this tanka a try too. Loved the interview. Engle is gracious to share the wealth of her experience thru book and story.

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  16. Wonderful interview, Michelle and Margarita. I have read a few of your books and these next ones sound wonderful too. I love the shine a light theme throughout your work.

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  17. Well, I never did write a poem for last month's challenge. February was that kind of month. Hopefully, since I'm ramping up my writing in preparation for April, I'll work a tanka into the mix!

    Thanks for a great interview! I love getting to know the poets!

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  18. Thank you for sharing this lovely interview, Michelle. I've only read Margarita's verse novels for older kids, so I'm looking forward to reading Orangutanka and her other picture books. My mind is already spinning with tanka topics!

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  19. Michelle, I feel like it has been forever since I communicated with you. Today's post is an amazing look at an author I never read before. The background information on Margarita is fascinating and her books look so appealing. Thank you for sharing this and the final quote that is a show stopper. While not familiar with the tanka format, I hope to play around with it. (Is there a winter whispering that you will pass on to me for the gallery?)

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  20. Oh, ORANGUTANKA looks fabulous! I've been Ditty Challenge challenged as of late, but this challenge looks so appealing to me! I love the tanka form and Margarita's words are inspirational. Thank you, Michelle!

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  21. I am such a fan of Margarita Engle. I think I really fell in love with verse novels through her books. What a treat to get to know her a bit more this way. I will be looking for my tanka topic.

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  22. Thanks to all of you for the lovely comments and even lovelier tanka poems you've been sending in! The poems are all gorgeous! I'm glad the winner will be randomly chosen, because I can't imagine having to choose just one any other way!

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  23. Reading the interview filled me with visual and sensory images! I'm looking forward to exploring more of Margarita's writing. Thank you both!

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  24. I've been enjoying all of the tankas. I only wish I had had time to participate.

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  25. Here I am, reading this great interview on March 27. I think I'll do the challenge on my own. Thanks, Margarita and Michelle.

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