Newbery Honor-Winning Author Margarita Engle

Michael Leonard introduced me to Margarita Engle's The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's Struggle for Freedom when I was a student in his Library Materials for Children class. At the time, he was busy evaluating books as a member of the 2009 Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award selection committee. The Surrender Tree received an Honor citation.  

I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that six years later Margarita agreed to finish my sentences. The library student sitting in Michael's class would never have imagined all the wonderful opportunities that I've experienced because of passionate teachers like Michael who inspired and encouraged me to become involved in the world of children's books. Thank you, Michael! 

Image credit: Margarita Engle
I wrote the words in red, and Margarita wrote the words in black. Thank you, Margarita, for dropping by Watch. Connect. Read. 

Tony and Gabe are the city boy and wilderness search and rescue dog who become great friends in my adventurous middle grade verse novel, Mountain Dog.  Tony’s mother is in prison for dog-fighting.  When he’s sent to live with his great-uncle who is a forest ranger, he learns that dogs can save lives by finding lost hikers, and he learns what it means to be part of a family.

Search and rescue dogs are a big part of my daily life.  The dogs in Mountain Dog and my picture book, When You Wander, are inspired by my husband’s volunteer work with our own SAR dogs.  Search dogs need practice finding a lost person, so I often hide in the forest, serving as a volunteer “victim.”  It’s usually very relaxing.  I’ve only heard the La Llorona scream of a mountain lion once, and there has only been one close call with bullets from a hunter’s gun.  I always take a book, pen and paper.  Quite a few of my poems have been written under a tree.

Silver People: Voices From the Panama Canal, and Tiny Rabbit’s Big Wish, are my 2014 books, both to be released by Harcourt in March.  The first is a historical YA verse novel about tens of thousands of Caribbean islanders who were recruited by the U.S. to dig the canal, then subjected to apartheid, with islanders and southern Europeans paid in silver, while Americans and northern Europeans were paid in gold.  Silver People is also my personal love letter to the tropical rain forest, with poems in the voices of howler monkeys, hummingbirds, snakes, jaguars, and trees. Raúl Colón did the gorgeous cover art.  (There is a simultaneous University of Queensland Press, Australia/New Zealand edition, with a different cover, different subtitle, and different spelling, vocabulary, and grammar.) Tiny Rabbit’s Big Wish is a poem in the form of a picture book for very young children, inspired by a Cuban folktale about a little bunny who wants to grow.  It’s really a story about accepting ourselves, and realizing that we all have different strengths.   David Walker did the adorable illustrations.

Illustration credit: Renee Kurilla
Renee Kurilla is the absolutely fabulous illustrator of my 2015 Holt picture book about orangutans, told entirely in tanka poems.  (Yes, the title is Orangutanka!)  I wrote this book after speaking at the Asian Festival of Children’s Content in Singapore, during a side trip to Borneo, where we visited a reserve for returning rescued orangutans to the wild.  It was one of the most moving experiences of my life.  Other amazing illustrators I am privileged to be working with on pending picture books include Rafael López, and Aliona Bereghici.

Poetry is music in a wild forest.  It makes the outdoor part of our minds feel like dancing.

Reading is exploration, time travel, telepathy, and shape shifting, all rolled up into one.  It is the only way we can communicate directly with other minds, including those from the past, and from distant lands.  Writing for children is the only way we can communicate with minds of the future.

Mr. Schu, you should have asked me what I am working on now.  The answer is a verse memoir about my childhood travels between California and Cuba during the Cold War.  It’s scheduled for publication by Harcourt in March, 2015.  Writing it was the most challenging experience of my life.

Margarita Engle is the Cuban-American author of The Surrender Tree, which received the first Newbery Honor ever awarded to a Latino.  Her young adult verse novels have also received two Pura Belpré Awards and three Honors, as well as three Américas Awards and the Jane Addams Peace Award, among others. 

Margarita’s next verse novel is Silver People, Voices From the Panama Canal (March, 2014, Harcourt).  Books for younger children include Mountain Dog, Summer Birds, When You Wander, and Tiny Rabbit’s Big Wish (March, 2014, Harcourt).
Margarita lives in central California, where she enjoys hiding in the forest to help train her husband’s wilderness search and rescue dogs.

I am giving away a copy of Mountain Dog. 

Rules for the Giveaway 

1. It will run from 2/28 to 11:59 p.m. on 3/2. 

2. You must be at least 13. 

3. Please pay it forward. 



  1. What a wide variety of beautiful books you've written, Margarita :) And John, it's so nice to hear that bit of personal info, helping us understand the big influences that led you to where you are today with children and books.

    Margarita, I'm glad you were able to make John (and his readers) so happy with this :D


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