Singing with Elephants by Margarita Engle

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Singing with Elephants

Margarita Engle, Author

Viking Books for Young Readers, Historical Fiction, May 31, 2022

Pages: 224

Suitable for ages: 8-12

Themes: Animals, Elephants, Nature preserve, Rescue, Gabriela Mistral, Poet, Intergenerational relationships, Cuban, Belonging, Friendship, Novel in verse, Multicultural

Publisher’s Synopsis:

A powerful novel in verse from Newbery and Pura Belpré Award-winning author Margarita Engle about the friendship between a young girl and the poet Gabriela Mistral that leads to healing and hope for both of them.

Cuban-born eleven-year-old Oriol lives in Santa Barbara, California, where she struggles to belong. But most of the time that’s okay, because she enjoys helping her parents care for the many injured animals at their veterinary clinic.

Then Gabriela Mistral, the first Latin American winner of a Nobel Prize in Literature moves to town, and aspiring writer Oriol finds herself opening up. And when she discovers that someone is threatening the life of a baby elephant at her parents’ clinic, Oriol is determined to take action. As she begins to create a world of words for herself, Oriol learns it will take courage and strength to do what she thinks is right—even if it means keeping secrets from those she loves.

A beautifully written, lyrically told story about the power of friendship—between generations, between humans and animals—and the potential of poetry to inspire action, justice, and acceptance.

Why I like Singing with Elephants

Margarita Engle’s compelling free-verse novel is about learning a new culture, loneliness, a love of animals and the power of friendships. Her narrative is spare in details, yet she paints big pictures with her words and evokes rich visual images. It is truly a novel written straight from the author’s  heart.

Oriol is a memorable, likable, determined and courageous character with a strong voice. She lives in Santa Barbara with her parents, who are veteranarians, and an older sister. Oriol misses Cuba and her beloved Abuelita, who recently passes. English is hard to write, speak and understand. Therefore, she stands out and is bullied at school, when her greatest wish is to belong and be accepted among her peers. Oriol turns to her poetry and the animals who seem to understand her. Especially Chandra, a pregnant elephant that lives at a wildlife-zoo and is under the care of her parents. However there is a mystery Oriol must solve. A bond forms between Oriol and Chandra and they dance together in their own way. An Oriol poem:

OUT LOUD

Hand in trunk with the elephant / I recite poems, and together / we sway as if dancing, / not mourning. 

Elephants seem to understand / the part of poetry that has no words / just music that echoes / like wind chimes/ or bells.  

I love intergenerational relationships. This story hit a sweet spot for me when Oriol meets an older woman from Chile who begins teaching her how poetry can help her express and understand her emotions. Oriol finds her gentle guidance salve for her soul. She soon finds herslef writing her words in English, in Spanish, and sometimes in both languages at one time. Oriol is not immediately aware she is being tutored by Gabriela Mistral,who is a poet, writer, educator, peace diplomat, and. the only Latin American winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. 

Engle’s fascinating Cuban-based novel is inspired by the late Gabriela Mistral, who is the only real character in the book, She did live in Santa Barbera around 1947. Make sure you check out the Author’s Note at the end and and exerpt from Gabriela’s Poetry for Children that inspires singing and dancing. This novel would also be a wonderful read for reluctant readers.

Margarita Engle is the Cuban American author of many books, including the verse novels Your Heart, My Sky; Rima’s Rebellion: Newbery Honor winner The Surrender Trees; and Forst World. Her verse memoirs includ Soaring Earth and Enchanted Air, the latter of which received the Pura Belpré Award and a Walter Dean Myers Honor, and was a finalist from YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction, among other honors. Her picture books include Drum Dream Girl, Hancing Hands, and The Flying Girls. Visit her at MargaritaEngle.com.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonterful reviews by KitLit bloggers and authors.

*Reviewed from a library copy.

 

 

Mountain Dog

Mountain Dog9781250044242_p0_v3_s192x300Mountain Dog

Margarita Engle, Author

Olga and Aleksey Ivanov, Illustrators

Henry Holt and Company, Fiction, 2014

Paperback Pages: 240

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Rescue dogs, Human-animal relationships, Family relationships, Foster care, Hispanic-Americans, Sierra Nevada

Opening: “In my other life there were pit bulls. / The puppies weren’t born vicious, / but Mom taught them how to bite, / turning meanness into money, / until she got caught.”

Book Synopsis: When Tony’s mother goes to jail for being cruel to animals, he is sent to live with a great-uncle he has never met in Sierra Nevada. It is a big move for Tony and different from his life in Los Angeles. Uncle Tio is a forest ranger and owns Gabe, a search-and-rescue dog (SAR). Tony learns the skills he needs to survive in his new environment. With the friendship of Gabe and the support from his uncle, Tony opens himself to a life and a future he never could have imagined.

Why I like Mountain Dog:

  • Margarita Engle writes a moving and sensitive novel that touches on historical facts that include immigration, unhealthy and healthy family relationships, cruelty of animals, and search-and-rescue dogs along the Pacific coast wilderness trails.
  • It is a beautifully inspiring story written in free verse, with alternating chapters in Tony’s and Gabe’s voices. The language is strong and captures Tony’s pain as he struggles with his complicated feelings about his mother and his new life. Gabe shares his upbeat insights into Tony and his unconditional doggy love. I believe it is a story that will appeal to both genders.
  • In many ways, this is a coming of age story for an 11-year-old boy who gets a real chance to experience family with his Tio and Gabe, as he settles into the search and rescue life of the community. The characters are realistic and memorable. There are friendships with Gracie and members of the Cowboy Church (which welcomes horses and dogs), and fellow hikers.
  • The plot is original with moments of action and tension in the vast wilderness that will keep readers turning pages. There is no tidy ending with Tony’s mother.  This is a very sensitive story about a boy who begins to dream, find purpose in his life, and heal.
  • Readers will also enjoy the facts woven into the story about the choice and training of SAR dogs, what to do if you get lost, and survival tips. Olga and Aleksey Ivanov’s black and white illustrations of the SAR dogs in action, bears and wildlife, wilderness treats, and paw prints contribute significantly to Tony’s story.

Resources: There is much back matter in the book from the author, who owns SAR dogs, which makes this a perfect classroom discussion book.  Margarita Engle is a Newbery Honor winner for The Surrender Tree and has written poems plus historical fiction works.  Visit Engle’s website where teachers can find activities for the classroom.

Check other Middle Grade review links on Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.

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Drum Dream Girl

Drum Dream Girl9780544102293_p0_v4_s260x420Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music

Margarita Engle, Author

Rafael Lopez, Illustrator

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Mar. 31, 2015

Suitable for Ages: 4-9

Themes: Drummers, Music, Cuba, Gender equality, Diversity

Opening: “On and island of music / in a city of drumbeats / the drum dream girl / dreamed…”

Book Jacket Synopsis: Girls cannot be drummers. Long ago on an island filled with music and rhythm, no one questioned that rule — until the drum dream girl. She longed to play tall congas and small bongos and silvery, moon-bright timbales. She had to keep her dream quiet. She had to practice in secret. But when at last her music was heard, everyone sang and danced and decided that boys and girls should be free to drum and dream.

Why I like this book: Margarita Engle’s Drum Dream Girl is an inspirational and beautiful work of free-verse historical fiction. As you read this melodic poem out loud, you are drawn to the rhythmic beat of the text about a girl who made a difference. Millo Castro Zaldarriaga is so infused by the music and sounds around her, she can’t help herself.  When she walked under / wind-wavy palm trees / in a flower-bright park / she heard the whir of parrot wings / the clack of woodpeckers breaks / the dancing tap / of her own footsteps / and the comforting pat / of her own / heartbeat. When her sisters hear her drumming, they invite her to join their dance band. Her father says only boys can play drums, but relents and takes her to a teacher.

I applaud Engle for focusing on Zaldarriaga’s young life instead of her career. It is important for children to see how a 10-year-old girl dares to make a difference in 1932 and paves the way for Cuban women to become drummers. There is a historical note about Zaldarriaga and her musical career at the end of the book. Rafael Lopez’s creates his own magic with his vibrant, colorful and dreamy illustrations. His artwork beautifully compliments the story.

Resources: Children love music as much as they enjoy making things.  Make a drum or other musical instruments to encourage creativity and play. Visit the Kinder Art site for steps to make a variety of easy homemade drums.

Author Susanna Leonard Hill’s Perfect Picture Books (PPB) Fridays will be on hiatus this summer. This will be the last PPB review until September, although you will still be able to visit the link. I will continue to review books throughout the summer.