Engle, Margarita 1951–

views updated

Engle, Margarita 1951–


Born September 2, 1951, in Pasadena, CA; daughter of Martin (an artist) and Eloisa (a quilter) Mondrus; married Curtis E. Engle (a research biologist), 1978; children: Victor, Nicole. Ethnicity: "Cuban-American" Education: California State Polytechnic University, B.S., 1974; Iowa State University, M.S., 1977; doctoral study at University of California, Riverside, 1983. Politics: "Human rights advocate." Religion: Christian. Hobbies and other interests: Horsemanship, western equitation, trail riding.


Agent—Julie Castiglia, 1155 Camino Del Mar, Ste. 510, Del Mar, CA 92014.


Botanist, poet, novelist, and journalist. California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, associate professor of agronomy, 1978-82.


Pen USA West, Amnesty International, Freedom House of Human Rights, Freedom to Write Committee.

Awards, Honors

CINTAS fellow, Arts International, 1994-95; San Diego Book Award, 1996, for Skywriting; Willow Review Poetry Award, 2005; Americas Award, Consortium of Latin American Studies Programs, 2007, Pura Belpré Award, American Library Association, 2008, and International Reading Association Children's Book Award and Teachers' Choice award, all for The Poet Slave of Cuba.


Singing to Cuba (adult novel), Arte Público Press (Houston, TX), 1993.

Skywriting: A Novel of Cuba (adult novel), Bantam (New York, NY), 1995.

The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano (nonfiction for children), illustrated by Sean Qualls, Henry Holt (New York, NY), 2006.

The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's Struggle for Freedom (for young adults), Henry Holt (New York, NY), 2008.

Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba, Henry Holt (New York, NY), 2009.

Contributor to periodicals, including Atlanta Review, Bilingual Review, California Quarterly, Caribbean Writer, Hawai'i Pacific Review, and Nimrod.


The author of adult novels as well as books for young readers, Cuban-American writer Margarita Engle fell in love with reading and writing as a young child. While growing up, her mother instilled her with a love for Cuba, telling the young Engle many stories of her homeland. Despite Engle's love of stories and poetry, she decided to go to school to study agronomy and botany, a form of rebellion as well as a way to connect with the wilderness she had been missing while growing up in Los Angeles. She became a professor of agronomy and married Curtis Engle, an agricultural entomologist. While raising her two children, she revisited her love of writing, submitting her haiku and having it published, as well as writing editorial columns for news organizations. After a trip to Cuba in 1991, thirty years after she had last visited as a child, Engle was inspired to write two adult novels about Cuba: Singing to Cuba and Skywriting: A Novel of Cuba.

While traveling in Cuba, Engle learned the story of Juan Franciso Manzano, a Cuban slave who became a well-known poet. She struggled for years to write a historical novel about Manzano, but the words never came. Eventually, she changed directions, writing a biography of Manzano in the form of poetry. A Kirkus Reviews contributor called The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano, which won the Americas

[Image not available for copyright reasons]

Award and the Pura Belpré Award, a "powerful and accessible biography." Engle "achieves an impressive synergy between poetry and biography," wrote a critic for Publishers Weekly. Commenting on Engle's depiction of Manzano telling himself stories while being beaten by his owners, Hazel Rochman wrote in Booklist that "today's readers will hear the stories … and never forget them," while in School Library Journal Carol Jones Collins concluded that The Poet Slave of Cuba "should be read by young and old, black and white, Anglo and Latino."

Like The Poet Slave of Cuba, The Surrender Tree is a story told in poetry that focuses on the life of a Cuban slave. Rosa la Bayamesa was born into slavery, but after she was freed by her owner she became a rebel, fighting for Cuban independence from Spain. She worked as a nurse, healing the wounded on both sides of the conflict. "The Surrender Tree is hauntingly beautiful, revealing pieces of Cuba's troubled past through the poetry of hidden moments," wrote Jill Heritage Maza in School Library Journal, commenting on the small details in Engle's poetry that illuminate the larger story. Jane Lopez-Santillana, writing in Horn Book, called Engle's poetry "haunting," and a Kirkus Reviews contributor concluded that "young readers will come away inspired by these portraits of courageous ordinary people."

Engle once noted: "I write to express my hopes, passions, fears, and beliefs. I write to communicate, explore, and understand. Usually I am haunted by a theme, or by characters, a setting, or events. Until I have experimented with them, I do not understand them clearly. I go through a slow process of trial and error, false starts, wrong turns, and humbling misjudgments. For every one hundred publishable pages, I have discarded perhaps a thousand pages of ‘error.’ The process is emotionally exhausting, but I know I am always striving to be honest about the general themes of freedom and faith, and about specific tales of the search for freedoms, both personal and political. I have been deeply influenced by the suffering of my relatives in Cuba and by my love for the island, despite its desperation."

Biographical and Critical Sources


Booklist, February 15, 2006, Hazel Rochman, review of The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano, p. 95; March 15, 2008, Hazel Rochman, review of The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's Struggle for Freedom, p. 53.

Fresno Bee (Fresno, CA), February 18, 2008, Felicia Cousart Matlosz, "Paying Homage to a Poet."

Horn Book, July-August, 2006, Lelac Almagor, review of The Poet Slave of Cuba, p. 459; July-August, 2008, Jane Lopez-Santillana, review of The Surrender Tree, p. 465.

Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 2006, review of The Poet Slave of Cuba, p. 289; March 15, 2008, review of The Surrender Tree.

MELUS, spring, 1998, Gisele M. Requeña, "The Sounds of Silence: Remembering and Creating in Margarita Engle's Singing to Cuba, p. 147.

Publishers Weekly, June 5, 1995, review of Skywriting, p. 52; April 17, 2006, review of The Poet Slave of Cuba, p. 190.

School Library Journal, April, 2006, Carol Jones Collins, review of The Poet Slave of Cuba, p. 154; June, 2008, Jill Heritage Maza, review of The Surrender Tree, p. 158.


Macmillan Web site,http://us.macmillan.com/ (October 2, 2008), "Margarita Engle."

Poet Seers Web site,http://www.poetseers.org/ (October 2, 2008), Margarita Engle, "Layers of Time."