Monday, November 05, 2012

Process Talk: Margarita Engle on The Wild Book

[Uma] Welcome, Margarita Engle. I have so much to ask you about The Wild Book, I hardly know where to start! So how about we start before even opening the book, with the glorious jacket image by Yuyi Morales? I spent a long time looking at it before I started reading, and then a long time again when I was done. For me it picks up and visually distills so many elements of your book. In light of the fact that the book is all about creating images from words on the page, will you tell me how you, personally, "read" this beautiful image?

Fefa, much later in life
[Margarita] I was so thrilled when I saw the cover illustration! My editor, Reka Simonsen, always knows how to choose the perfect illustrator for each project.  In the case of The Wild Book, she chose Yuyi Morales, who is from Veracruz, a part of Mexico that is culturally and geographically quite similar to Cuba. Yuyi instinctively understood which colors would be rich enough to show tropical farm life, yet gentle enough to make a young girl's hopes glow.  Yuyi also knew how to show a diary that looks like it is growing from vines, lucky crickets woven from leaves, and a bad caimán that would make any river shore scary for children.  Best of all, Yuyi seized the idea of dyslexia as "word blindness," and transformed it into something incredibly beautiful, simply by fluttering a transparent bird over the girl's eye.  The girl, of course, is my grandmother when she was young.  For this part of the image, Yuyi had nothing to work with but an extremely old, blurry photo of a teenager looking startled.  Yuyi took that frightened expression, and changed it into the mere suggestion of a triumphant smile!

[Uma] The simplicity of your words is deceptive.
"Think of this little book
as a garden,
Mamá suggests.
She says it so calmly
that I promise I will try."

Talk to me about the work that goes into making your words flow so naturally and simply.
Margarita Engle at an antique book fair in Havana

[Margarita] It was a great challenge to write about my grandma's dyslexia in her voice, because reading always came easy to me.  Struggling to read was something I had to imagine. On the other hand, I usually have to do a great deal of historical research, but in this case, I simply wrote down the stories my grandma had told me about her childhood.  They were stories I had heard many times, recounted in more and more detail as she aged.  By the time she was well past 100, she remembered her early years so vividly that the stories felt like something I had experienced, rather than something I had merely heard. As far as the flow of words, I think the key is spending a lot of time outdoors.  I love nature.  I love walking.  There is a rhythm that grows from nature walks.  It is also extremely important to set the first draft down on paper, with a pen.  That flow of ink cannot be simulated on a computer screen.

[Uma] Eerie towers in old sugar plantations, tales of the reconcentracion camp in Fefa's parents' days, kidnappings, a rogue caiman, guns--there's so much here that forms backdrop and context to the story of a girl trying to decode written language. How much of this book is family history and how much is fictionalized?

[Margarita] All the scary parts of the story are factual.  My grandmother could laugh about the kidnapper when she was old, but the caimán hunting incident remained traumatic and painful.  I did change certain things, and I also imagined many details.  The events I changed were either to tighten up the timing, for storytelling purposes, or to soften terrifying images for young readers.  

[Uma] Can you talk a little about the bird images that play such a powerful role in this story?

[Margarita] Birds fly into all my stories, perhaps because they are always tales of freedom, in one way or another.  The notion of "bird people," comes from Canary Island ancestry on my great-grandfather's side of the family.  The Canary Islands were named for dogs (canem in Latin), not canaries, but the islanders have a traditional language that consists entirely of whistling, and they brought that language to Cuba.  As far as the parrot in The Wild Book, it was a real wild parrot that lived on the roof, and listened to voices.  My grandmother really did teach the parrot to call people 'ugly,' and she laughed every time she spoke of getting in trouble when the parrot insulted distinguished visitors.  She must have had a mischievous streak when she was a child!

[Uma] What was the most joyful part of writing this book?

[Margarita] It was such a joy to imagine my grandmother's childhood voice.  I am so grateful to her for telling me about her difficulties, as well as her triumphs. I hope children will either read The Wild Book themselves, or hear it read out loud to them by parents or teachers.  I think my grandma would love knowing that children might feel encouraged by her perseverance.

Here is a snippet from the starred review in Kirkus:

The author gives readers a portrait of a tumultuous period in Cuban history and skillfully integrates island flora, fauna and mythology into Fefa’s first-person tale.

Congratulations, Margarita!

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