Interview with Newbery Honor Author Margarita Engle

91HGteCT56L._SL1500_Get to know Margarita…

Margarita Engle is the Cuban-American author of many young adult verse novels, including The Surrender Tree, which received the first Newbery Honor ever awarded to any Latino. Her books have also received multiple Pura Belpré Medals and Honors, as well as three Américas Awards, and the Jane Addams Peace Award, among others. 

Margarita’s most recent verse novel is Silver People, Voices From the Panama Canal, and her newest picture book is Tiny Rabbit’s Big Wish, both published by Harcourt. Helping her husband with his volunteer work for wilderness K-9 search and rescue programs inspired her recent middle grade book, Mountain Dog, and the picture book, When You Wander, both published by Holt. For more info, visit her website.

Quirky Questions

What aspect of the “good old days” do you wish would make a comeback today? 

Horses and buggies. Also, eye contact during conversations, instead of trying to talk to people who are peering into “smart” phones. 

When do you know someone is exceptionally smart? 

When they are smart enough to think independently, instead of parroting old ideas taught by others. 

What unhealthy habit will you never give up? 

Ice cream! Frozen yogurt is an acceptable compromise, but I won’t completely give up sweets. 

What one thing is unfortunately true? 

Most Americans don’t read enough poetry to give their lives a true sense of peace of mind. 

If every activity in life were an Olympic sport, what would you win the gold in? 

Reading. 

What do you never leave home without? 

Paper and a pen. 

If you could pass along a piece of wisdom to future generations, what would it be? 

Treasure nature. No matter how inventive people are, we can’t create a substitute for lost wilderness. 

Surrende Tree NotableWriting Questions

Do you do anything special to get your creative juices flowing?

Daydreaming, walking, praying, reading poetry.

What are your words of wisdom for someone starting out in the field of writing?

Relax! Let the first draft flow. Save the difficult changes for later.

How would you define creativity?

Imaginative honesty.

Why were you drawn to a career in writing versus a job that would offer more stability and security?

I was a teniored Associate Professor of Agronomy when I took a life-changing graduate creative writing seminar from the great Tomás Rivera. I had already experienced stability and security. I decided to give rejection and insecurity a try, in exchange for the euphoria of daydreaming on paper. 

What obstacles have you had to deal with in your career?

The difficulty of finding publishers for biographical picture books about people who are not considered “famous enough.” This is my pet peeve, because minorities have been left out of history. How will great Latinos ever be famous, if we can’t write about their forgotten accomplishments? 

How did you pick your writing genre?

Trial and error. For ten years, I struggled to write The Poet Slave of Cuba in prose, but Juan Francisco Manzano was a poet, so telling his life story didn’t work, until I experimented with the verse novel form. 

What life experiences have inspired your work?

Childhood travels to visit my extended family in Cuba, and the subsequent loss of travel rights after the Missile Crisis. 

How do you know when a book is finished?

When I reach the true end, there is a sense of hope.

What traits do you think that creative people have compared to people who are not creative?

The persistence of a childhood sense of wonder that is never lost, because the love of exploration keeps it alive. 

Do you ever feel that you have to censor your creativity because you don’t want to offend anyone?

In general, I avoid the extremes of post-Revolutionary Cuban historical topics, because I don’t want to be a persona non grata in either Miami or Cuba. My childhood memoir, Enchanted Air (Atheneum, 2015) is an exception. I risk angering relatives on both sides of the Florida Straits.

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