As a child growing up in Los Angeles, I played with seeds and bugs instead of dolls. My sister and I formed a two-person club for the protection of animals. Our room was crowded with caterpillars, tadpoles, and other small creatures, but we loved to spend most of our time outdoors. I was a voracious reader, so whenever I climbed a tree, I took an adventure story with me. My favorites were The Black Stallion, Island of the Blue Dolphins, and nonfiction tales of tropical exploration.
For most of my childhood, a tropical island was the emotional center of my world. During summer visits to relatives in Cuba, I fell in love with the lush vegetation. Flowers. Seedpods. Tendrils. No curiosity was too small for contemplation. Fascinated by sensitive mimosa, I wondered why one type of plant could snap its leaves shut in self-defense, while others remained motionless.
In Cuba, I rode horses and observed tarantulas, while in Los Angeles, I read travel books and wrote poetry. In college, I studied botany, agriculture, and creative writing eventually becoming the first woman agronomy professor at one of California’s polytechnic universities. I married an entomologist, raised children, and traveled throughout Latin America, intrigued by tropical rain forests.
Now, as an author of books for young people, my love of nature is combined with a passion for stories told in free verse. Many of my books are about Cuba’s history, but there is always a backdrop of nature. In The Surrender Tree, a healer uses wild plants to cure the wounds and fevers of soldiers. In The Firefly Letters, a suffragist writes by the light of glowing insects. In Hurricane Dancers, indigenous Cubans tend fields of native pineapple, maize, and sweet potatoes.
My next verse novel is Silver People, Voices From the Panama Canal (Harcourt, March, 2014). On one level, it is the story of Caribbean islanders who were recruited to dig the canal, and then subjected to U.S.-imposed apartheid. At the same time, Silver People is also my personal love letter to tropical rain forests, with poems in the voices of trees and animals. Writing from the point of view of a troop of howler monkeys may be the most fun I have ever had on paper!
When I write about history, I find it impossible to separate my concern for human communities from my love of natural habitats. Once the natural world enters a child’s mind and heart, it brings the lifelong joy of curiosity, along with dedication to the cause of conservation.
Margarita Engle is the Cuban-American author of several verse novels about Latin America, including The Surrender Tree, a Newbery Honor book, Pura Belpré Medal winner, and Jane Addams Peace Prize Winner. She has also written several picture books and a middle grade novel about search and rescue dogs. Visit her at www.margaritaengle.com.