Latina writer of books for kids of all ages.

MANGO_jacket_for_Meg copyToday is the book birthday for Mango, Abuela and Me – my second picture book, so sweetly illustrated by the talented Angela Dominguez.  So far, so good. It has earned very nice reviews and mentions, including stars in Booklist and PW. Plus, I got word last week that it has gone into its first reprinting, so I’m thrilled, to say the least.

This time around, I’m delaying the launch a couple of weeks until Sunday, September 13, 2015, 1 PM – 3 PM. That’s when my pal, Gigi Amateau (Two for Joy) and I will do a joint book event at bbgb in Carytown to celebrate our new books and, even more important, National Grandparents Day.

According to USA Today, more than 4.9 million kids in America are being raised by their grandparents, a number that basically doubled since 2000. That wasn’t exactly the case for Gigi and me, but our grandmothers helped raise us just the same, and we love them for it. Our own grandmothers are gone, but Grammy, Abuela Bena and Abuela Fefa continue to make impact on us as women, mothers, and authors.

Bena on her wedding day in 1925

Bena on her wedding day in 1925

Benita Metauten was my mother’s mother. She had an eighth grade education and rolled cigars for a living in her family’s small enterprise. She would eventually marry a bicycle salesman, have four children, and find herself in the US. When she arrived from Cuba in 1968 –her nerves in tatters – I wasn’t sure I’d like her. The worried look on her face and the nervous hives that covered her feet frightened me. She became my babysitter after school, though, and our relationship grew. I began to enjoy her strange obsession with Lucha Libre wrestling on  TV, as well as the countless stories of her life in Cuba, stories most people wouldn’t tell a five-year-old:  grisly hurricane deaths, infidelity scandals in her old town, a man who tied up his daughter when she misbehaved, the day my uncle was sent to prison for trying to leave Cuba illegally.  She had no filter, but maybe that’s why I loved her. And more, it was Bena who knew how to cook a proper lechón in our family, and Bena who showed me how to look carefully for rocks in the dry beans and how to use a wine bottle instead of a rolling pin on empanada dough.

Unfortunately, it was also Bena whose anxieties about life in this new country eventually kept my aunts and mother from taking risks on new jobs and better opportunities. If Bena wanted anything in this life at all, it was security and safety, and she would get them at anyone’s expense. She was gentle but she ruled others through her worry and doubt – never a good combination. Over time, her anxieties worsened, so that by the time she was 98 and bedridden, we were all swallowed up in her care. No one could stray far from her bedside without her panicking.

Bena with cotorraStill, in better times, I enjoyed her. It was this grandmother for whom I bought a small parrot one day  at Woolworths. I loved animals, of course, but it was also a little offering to help her feel better about missing Cuba and the beautiful pet parrot she had left behind. That act would be the tiny seed that grew into the manuscript for Mango, Abuela and Me.

Not that the book is all Bena. I had another grandmother, too, whom I fondly recall as the General. Shades of her are in Mango, Abuela and Me, as well. Josefa Medina, known as Fefa, was my father’s mother, and she was another sort of abuela altogether. Sometimes we have grandmothers that we don’t know as well or even ones that make us feel uncomfortable. For a long time, that was Fefa for me.

 

Fefa and me in Queens. She made me that stylish maxi dress

Fefa and me in Queens. She made me that stylish maxi dress

Fefa was clear-eyed, tough, and unsentimental. But she was undoubtably one of the smartest and most moral women I ever knew. It was fascinating to watch her move through the world. She had only a sixth grade education, but what she lacked in formal schooling, she more than made up for in practical sense, dignity, perseverance, and a sense of duty. Her own life had started out with poverty and family troubles. (She and her siblings were dispersed among far-flung relatives when her father realized he couldn’t feed them. She was married at 14 and a mother of two by age 16, a fact that still pains me when I think about it.) But these hard experiences made her determined to build a stable family. She raised my father, who became a doctor, and my aunt, who went on to become a pharmacist.

Fefa disapproved of my parents’ marriage – sure that it would never work. She even stubbornly boycotted their wedding. But a few years later, she was utterly mortified by their divorce and was heartsick over what it might mean for my sister and me. She responded by insisting on staying involved in our lives. A seamstress in New York’s garment district, she would sew my annual wardrobe and deliver it every June for my birthday – a huge economic relief for my mother. Shorts, dresses, pants suits – each piece was laid out on my bed with pride so that it could be photographed and admired. It was even Fefa who bought me my first bikini at Ohrbachs in New York when I was thirteen. It was a day-glo orange and yellow number – certainly skimpy by her standards. I still remember how her eye twitched in disapproval when I stepped out of the dressing room. She had promised me a bathing suit, though, and Fefa was always good on her word.

My birthday wardrobe stash from Fefa

My birthday wardrobe stash from Fefa

Still, in daily interactions, there was nothing soft about my grandmother, and she scared me. She was an iron-fisted woman who demanded things her way. This was not an adult to whom you could confess your hate of tomatoes in your salad, for example. You ate them and shut up. And worse, she didn’t really appreciate my brand of girl. Fefa had antiquated and unshakable ideas about femininity, – a fact that was so suffocating as a kid. I was never allowed to play outside with my cousin Diego and his band of rough boys when I visited, for instance. I’d have to sit on the stoop miserably while they played tag all around me.

But maybe life wears down everyone’s rough edges eventually. This was certainly true for Fefa. Years into my adulthood – after I had become a mother and lived nearby with her great-grandchildren in Florida – Fefa and I finally seemed to soften toward each other. Maybe I had finally started to realize how the harsh events of her life had shaped her. Or maybe she took pity seeing me juggle three little kids and a career. I don’t know the exact catalyst, but there was definitely a change. And while I can’t say I was ever her favorite grandchild, I think in the end she saw that the wild child with knots in her hair and scabby knees had managed to turn out all right after all. When I hold this book, I wonder if maybe she’d even be proud to know that I thought of her and Bena on every page.

Holy communion with las abuelas_NEW

My holy communion day with Fefa and Bena

All of my books explore family in one way or another. Maybe that’s my life’s work, who knows? The dynamics of people who love each other deeply and sometimes hurt each other anyway is endlessly interesting to me. With Mango, Abuela and Me, I think even the youngest reader can relate to feeling tentative about a grandparent or feeling a divide, whether it’s language that is the obstacle or something else. But I hope families who come to this story also discover the strength to be found when we connect across the generations of our families. That’s what I found out, anyway. We learn our own story by learning the story of all those imperfect people who came before us. We take our place inside the long, unfolding tale of our own people.

 

Can’t make the official launch event? Signed copies of Mango, Abuela and Me are available starting today at Chop Suey Books at 2913 W Cary Street, RVA.  Call Ward and let him know you’d like to have one! 804 422 8066 or e-mail info@chopsueybooks.com

CLICK to see trailer:

 

11193381_392733620920999_5592796247599447170_nFor more than two decades, Margarita Engle has produced award-winning work for children of all ages. Among her many distinctions, she is a multiple recipient of the Pura Belpré medal, the Américas Award, and the Jane Addams Award. She is also the first Latina author to have earned a Newbery Honor Award for her 2008 novel-in-verse, The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom.

enchanted-air-9781481435222_hrMargarita has long been known for impeccable research and thoughtful books that shine new light on figures in history. But her new project goes inward. Her memoir-in-verse, Enchanted Air (Simon and Schuster,) arrives in book stores this week. Here at the dawn of the United States’s new relationships with Cuba, Margarita tells us about her book, her own relationship to Cuba, and what it means to write from the heart. 

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When we speak of reciting poems “by heart,” we mean “from memory.”

That is because memories live in the heart, in emotions, in a past that remains swirled together with the present and future. Memories are the one place where time is defeated by love.

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Margarita and her mother

Writing about one’s own childhood is a process of writing by heart. There are no guidelines, no patterns to follow, no research to depend on, no papery or digital maps of the mind. When I decided to write ENCHANTED AIR, Two Cultures, Two Wings, all I had was my own memories, and the emotions they still contain, long after adulthood has made an unusual childhood seem like someone else’s strange, impossible life.

I wrote this memoir in the form of free verse—and in present tense—in order to bring the memories back to the surface, an experience I have always dreaded, and never thought I would want to share in public, where I am guaranteed to cry when I read the poems out loud.

My reasons for writing a memoir are various, depending on what the reader brings to my pages:

Enchanted Air is a celebration of the role of travel in a child’s education.

Enchanted Air is a plea for peace and family reconciliation.

Enchanted Air is an act of empathy for stateless people.

Enchanted Air is a true story meant to speak directly to bicultural children, and to the adults who try to understand us.

Yes, I do mean ‘us,’ not ‘them,’ because with respect to this aspect of childhood, I still carry it around inside my heart, like a series of linked poems. Bicultural children can feel divided or doubled, claiming both the daily self and the invisible twins we turn into when we cross the border between our two parents’ homelands.

I am not a typical Cuban-American, and I don’t presume to speak for those who are. I am neither a refugee nor an exile. As the California-born daughter of an American father and Cuban mother, I was blessed with the chance to visit relatives on the island both before and after the revolution. Now, as Enchanted Air goes into print, I worry about how it will be perceived in Miami, but it is my own true story, my only true story, the first time I have tackled a post-revolutionary topic in any of my books for young readers. I hope they will accept it in the spirit in which it is offered, as a testament to that very word: HOPE.

Dr. Jamie Naidoo, Teresa Mlawer, Margarita Engle, Adriana Dominguez, Lila Quintero Weaver (front), Laura Lacámara, me, and Irania Patterson

Dr. Jamie Naidoo, Teresa Mlawer, Margarita Engle, Adriana Dominguez, Lila Quintero Weaver (front), Laura Lacámara, me, and Irania Patterson

Guiseppe Castellano

Guiseppe Castellano

A while back, I had the pleasure of being on the SCBWI faculty in Atlanta where I met Guiseppe Castellano, Art Director for Penguin Random House.

I’ve been making a habit of hanging out at illustrator sessions these days even though I have absolutely zero skill in the visual arts. (Why God, why?) I go for the same reason I like to see dance performances: to be amazed by the talents of other people and to broaden my own toolbox for storytelling. There’s a lot to be learned about narrative if you strip out words. You learn to see, I think, how to use negative space – what is NOT said – to your advantage.

Anyway, Guiseppe is offering some good advice on his blog about how to make the most of your SCBWI experience, and he includes thoughts from a range of spiffy speakers, like Arthur Levine, Pat Cummings, and others. I’m in there, too, speaking on how to make the most of both serving as faculty and as an attendee.

Check him out and follow him on Twitter @pinocastellano.

Happy reading!

 

IMG_0186I’m heading over to Pine Camp on July 2 for the opening reception of “Two Seas Merging,” which features the work of Cuban artist Salvador González Escalona. The reception is 6:30 to 8:30 p.m, and the show runs until the end of the month.

FullSizeRenderFrom the press release: “A self-taught mixed medium master artist, González Escalona, with the help of campers enrolled in the Great Summer Escape camp at Pine Camp, just completed painting a mural titled Two Seas Merging, which symbolizes the cultural diversity of the Afro-Cuban connection.”

If your Spanish is strong, here he is in Cuba discussing his mural work in Callejón de Hamel , where he used African religious imagery on a community mural project – remarkable since it was initiated during a particularly repressive time.

Spotlight Gallery hours are from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays. This exhibit is free and open to the public. For more information or to schedule a tour please call Shaunn Casselle at 646-6722. For more information about these projects, please call 646-3677.”

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Visited Patsy Cline's house in Winchester

Visited Patsy Cline’s house in Winchester

Just got back from the fabulous Shenandoah Children’s Literature Conference, and I am wrapping up loose ends for some of the participants.

As promised, here are the websites of Latino children’s lit that I mentioned in my talk.

I will get back to those of you who didn’t get the book talking kits that We Need Diverse Books provided. (They went like hot cakes with the librarians!)

And finally, just to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt why I love pastelitos de guayaba, here is a photo of these heavenly treats. My son is dating a young woman who has a Cuban dad.  (Hay que darle gracias al señor…) They sent this yummy box of treats today from New Jersey. Thank you Louis, Mary, and Lauren! IMG_2980

Caminar-hi-res

On Saturday, I had the chance to talk about one of my favorite reads of last year.

I read Caminar by Skila Brown in the fall, and I’m so glad I finally had the chance to talk about it on Weekend Reads.

I’m often asked who has permission to write Latino stories. My personal view: the person with the humility, depth, research skills, and writing chops to do it. In this case, that person was Skila Brown.

Here are some thoughts on violence, children’s literature, and the need to tell our histories.

http://www.npr.org/player/embed/415752511/416192516

 

It’s here! The Girls of Summer Reading list goes live on our blog today. (Click over and check out the titles and our reviews.) But what this really means is that we’re at the start of a big week for us, since our live events happen this week, too. Last minute plans, airport pickups, raffle items – agh!

Gigi and I are so proud of the collection this year – especially since it marks our fifth anniversary of celebrating strong girls and reading.

Where did five years go?

We launched the list as our daughters were making their way out of high school. Today, Judith is living her dream of running a barn in California, training horses with a sure and skilled hand. Sandra has just moved into her own apartment in Washington, DC and will take the helm of a second grade class in the fall. And Cristina has recently landed her first official office job with Midas Auto Parts – an employer whose embrace of community extends to helping individuals with disabilities make meaningful contributions.

judithandtiny

Judith and Tiny

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Sandra’s graduation day with friends. Next stop DC!

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The ultimate strong girl: Cristina

Gigi and I have changed, too. We continue to write and publish books about strong girls and to see our respective careers unfold in ways that we could never have imagined five years ago. Earning the Pura Belpré award for Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass has provided me an incredible platform that I hope I’ve used wisely. I’ve crisscrossed the country encouraging more books that represent all kinds of young people.

Gigi, Tim Tingle, Ellen Oh, Kwame Alexander and me at the Library of Congress

Gigi, Tim Tingle, Ellen Oh, Kwame Alexander and me at the Library of Congress

To Richmond’s great fortune, Gigi recently became the Chief Impact Officer for the United Way of Richmond and Petersburg, where she uses her skills and vision to manage $5.0 million in philanthropic grants and initiatives that help the people in our community learn more, earn more, and lead safe and healthy lives.

But most fun for us has been watching Girls of Summer grow. It’s not really ours any more. It belongs to the community – as it should. Our little project began as a personal expression of our passions for motherhood, books, girls, and our shared city. But five years later, it has been warmly embraced by the incredible staff at Richmond Public Library and bbgb books, where it is now an annual event covered by the likes of CNN and NPR. Other organizations – such as James River Writers, the Junior League, and Richmond Family Magazine – have found clever ways to add their spin to our original idea. Best of all, though, is that we get to see loyal teachers, librarians, parents, and girls come year after year for ice cream (thank you Dabney Morris!) and book lovin’.

I hope you’ll decide to escape this week’s heat wave (94 degree??? Bleh) and help us usher in the summer months. We’re having two celebrations in our area. You won’t be sorry if you come to both, especially since we’ve packed each one with amazing authors for a live Q & A and signing. Look who’s coming to party!

Patty Parks, librarian, Gigi and me at Girls of Summer 2012

Patty Parks, librarian, Gigi and me at our first Girls of Summer

Wednesday, June 17, 7 PM, at the Richmond Public Library, Main Branch, Franklin Avenue. We’ll be joined by two fantastic authors:  Debut novelist Aisha Saeed, a powerful and important new voice who helps lead the We Need Diverse Books campaign; and Sharon Draper, winner of multiple Coretta Scott King Awards and a New York Times bestseller. Sharon is this year’s winner of the American Library Association’s prestigious Margaret A. Edwards Award, which honors an author for significant and lasting contributions to young adult literature.

9780399171703_Written_in_the_Stars stella hi res

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday, June 20, 2015, 1 – 3 PM, Northside Library, Charlottesville, VA. The Junior League of Charlottesville has been hard at work for months to welcome the ever-fabulous Newbery-Honor winner, author/illustrator CeCe Bell, and veteran writer – and debut novelist – Marilyn Hilton to our first-ever Girls of Summer WEST party.  Join them, plus some of our favorite Girls of Summer authors from the Charlottesville area for all the fun.

FoundThings_cover ElDeafo_HC_front copy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

See you all there!

IMG_0849 copyUn abrazo –

Meg

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