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Margarita Engle Brings Unsung Heroes to Life

Photograph by Amish Karanjit

Inside every child beats the heart of a poet. From the time we're born, we are surrounded by rhymes and rhythm through nursery rhymes, fingerplays and lullabies. Eventually, we all grow up and many of us leave behind those days of poems and word art. But for some, the love and careful arrangement of words continues. Such is the case with Cuban-American poet Margarita Engle.

This year alone, Engle has four children's books being released. Her stories frequently feature people who have made a difference in the world but are not necessarily recognized in history books. For example, in one of her latest books, "Drum Dream Girl," Engle shares the story of Millo Castro Zaldarriaga, a Chinese-African-Cuban girl who broke Cuba's traditional taboo against female drummers. At only 10 years old, Millo became the first woman to play the drums publicly in Cuba.

Illustrated by the talented Rafael López, the book is both a written and visual feast for the reader. Engle has written the story in free verse; the format flows easily and is rich in imagery. Her unique storytelling style captivates the reader as it shares in intimate detail the hopes and dreams of Zaldarriaga.

Most of Engle's books are written in free verse, an open form of poetry in which she prefers to tell her stories. In honor of National Poetry Month, we're delighted to share with you this short interview with the Latina poet and author.

Q: The majority of your books are written in free verse style. Why is this your format of choice, as opposed to more traditional narratives?

Margarita Engle: I just love the way free verse flows. It gives me room for action, thoughts, and the emotional essence of my subject without requiring that I weigh everything down with facts and figures that might be too complex for young children. For instance, in "Drum Dream Girl," I wanted to appeal to a very young child's natural sense of rhythm, as well his or her sense of fairness. I don't think adding names, dates or locations would have been helpful for that age group.

Q: So often, the people you feature are not found in mainstream historical literature. How do you choose the subjects of your children's biographies?

Margarita Engle: In general, they're not found in the mainstream because they were minorities and/or women—groups that tend to be overlooked by historians. However, just being overlooked is not enough to capture my interest. I am fascinated by a very specific type of person, the one who thinks independently, instead of accepting everything they've been told. People like Millo Castro Zaldarriaga ("Drum Dream Girl"), Louis Fuertes ("The Sky Painter"), Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda ("The Lightning Dreamer"), Juan Francisco Manzano ("The Poet Slave of Cuba"), and Maria Merian ("Summer Birds") are especially exciting because they were very young when they began to think in creative ways and try new approaches to solving problems. Millo was only 10 when she broke the taboo against female drummers!

Q: Tell us how you researched Millo Castro Zaldarriaga. Is it mainly through obscure written works or personal interviews?

Margarita Engle: This is one of those rare cases where a single reference provided all the information and inspiration I needed. In fact, I had never heard of Millo until I read her sister Alicia Castro's memoir, "Anacaona, The Amazing Adventures of Cuba's First All-Girl Dance Band." Before that, I only knew that certain drums were considered sacred in West African-Caribbean religious traditions, but I wasn't aware of the taboo against female drummers because I've seen many women drummers in Cuba. Now I know that female drummers are common only because 10-year-old Millo broke a barrier!

Q: Why do you think it's important to write about people like Zaldarriaga? Why feature her in a children's book?

Margarita Engle: I find great satisfaction in honoring creative thinking wherever I find it, whether it's a young girl like Millo, or a boy like Louis Fuertes, who grew up and pioneered the painting of living birds in flight, instead of killing them like Audubon. I think these are accomplishments children can understand and admire. They might even begin to ask themselves how they would feel if girls (or boys!) weren't allowed to vote in class elections. The next step is asking themselves if they would want to make someone else feel that way. It's a very simple lesson in fairness. Millo is a 10-year-old role model!

Margarita Engle's books being released in 2015 include:

"Drum Dream Girl," available March 31, 2015
"Orangutanka," available March 24, 2015
"The Sky Painter," available April 28, 2015
"Enchanted Air," available August 4, 2015

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