Friday, March 23, 2012

Book Review: The Wild Book, by Margarita Engle (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012)

Recommended for ages 8-12.

In her newest book, award-winning author Margarita Engle turns to her own family history for inspiration.  Set in 1912, this novel in verse brings to life the story of Engle's grandmother, Fefa, who grew up in Cuba afflicted by "word-blindness," the term used at that time for dyslexia.  She struggles every time she is handed a book to read:
I know that the words
want to trick me.
The letters will jumble
and spill off the page,
leaping and hopping,
jumping far away,
like slimy
Her mother refuses to accept "the hissing doctor's verdict," and gives her daughter a book--a blank diary, or is it "an ordinary/schoolbook/filled with frog-slippery/tricky letters/that know how to leap/and escape?"

She tries to patiently write in her blank book each night, her "wild diary," and wonders how reading can look so easy, yet be so impossible?  Will her wild book "ever seem tame?"  She struggles on with her reading, reading slowly to sound out the words.  What good can come of this word blindness?  In a surprising twist, Fefa's careful powers of observation with the written word will end up helping to save her family from danger.

Engle's spare verse captures so eloquently 11 year old Fefa's frustration and yet fascination with words, reading, and writing, as well as the Cuba of yesteryear, a time when bandits roam the land, kidnapping children and holding them for ransom.  The pages of the book are nearly as blank as the pages in Fefa's wild book, with the narrative told with few words but memorable poetic images.  Fefa lives in the countryside on a farm, where her many sisters and brothers tease her and on her Sunday outings to town she strolls around the plaza with her cousin, while "girls just daydream/and smile."  With a mama who loves poetry, words are a part of their every day family life, with her mother reading poetry out loud, and fairy tales filling Fefa's head.  The poems are full of tiny details of the family's life in Cuba, such as making jewelry out of reeds from the river, and roasting a whole pig in a pit for a feast.

While this story deals with a serious learning disability, there is hope in the end for Fefa.  This would be an excellent choice to read out loud with a child, which would allow the reader to hear the beauty of the verses and to discuss the story as well.

1 comment:

PragmaticMom said...

My Cuban friend Bea ( will LOVE this for her girls!