A few weeks ago, I received a copy of this book “All the Way to Havana” illustrated by Mike Curato and written by Margarita Engle, the first Latino author to be named US Young People’s Laureate.
As soon as I opened the book, I knew my boy was going to enjoy the story just by looking at the detailed car illustrations. The story is about a Cuban boy and his father on a road trip to the city. It shows, in an entertaining and neat way, “the ingenuity and perseverance of poor people everywhere”.
I got to read some of Margarita’s pieces that I found on her site, and I thought they were really beautiful, meaningful, and honest.
I wanted to share more about Margarita’s inspiration, work, and about the importance of reading to our kids.
Here is an interview to Margarita Engle:
How did you feel when you discovered that you were named U.S. Young People’s Poet Laureate this June?
It was too amazing. I couldn’t believe it. I had just met a previous Poet Laureate one week earlier, and he had said, “If they ever call you…” followed by words that vanished from my ability to hear them as I protested, “They would never call me.” Then I received a phone call from the President of the Poetry Foundation in Chicago. It really seems like an impossible miracle. It’s not only an immense honor, but an incredible opportunity. For two years, I am free to do anything I want to promote poetry to young people. In fact, it’s such a wide open format that I’ve had trouble deciding where to start, but I have settled on a theme of peace in every sense of the word. I’ve started recommending books on the Poetry Foundation website and Poetry Foundation Children Facebook page, and I’m working on bilingual projects. The first is poetry education videos, one for teachers, and one for students. I hope they will be finished not too long after the start of the school year.
Do you remember when your love for writing began?
I was around six. I loved reading, especially poetry, so it seemed natural to write in my mind while walking. The poems came out with a rhythm of steps.
I saw that many of your poems, such as Kinship, and Counting, refer to multicultural issues. How does your heritage inspire your work?
Most of my books are about Cuba. Many, such as The Surrender Tree, are historical, but Enchanted Air is a verse memoir, and my newest verse novel, Forest World, is set in contemporary Cuba. Some of my picture books have branched out into scientific subjects, while others, such as Drum Dream Girl, The Sky Painter, and Bravo!, honor remarkable Latinos who have been forgotten by history. I love to experiment, but I also have a tendency to return to the same few basic themes of peace, freedom, social justice, and environmental justice. Those happen to be subjects that I’ve learned during a lifetime of travel back and forth to Cuba, as well as to other parts of Latin America.
Can you tell me more about your new picture book, All the Way to Havana?
All the Way to Havana is a truly unique picture book, because it can be read in several different ways for various age groups. On one level, it’s a fun read-aloud about a family road trip. For older kids, it shows the ingenuity and perseverance of poor people everywhere, who take pride in keeping their old possessions going because they can’t afford to buy new ones. For adults, I hope this book will be an introduction to the beauty of Cuba, one of the closest neighbors of the U.S. I hope it will be a reminder that neighbors should be friends, and a plea for lifting the economic embargo and travel restrictions, forgiving old grudges, and working toward peace. Finally, for people who like “classic” cars, Mike Curato has turned All the Way to Havana into a dream come true! (I just want to be sure that Americans realize they’re not collectible luxury cars in Cuba, they’re proof of survival in a land of poverty.)
When you first saw the illustrations for your book, All the Way to Havana, did they remind you of your childhood?
Yes, because despite political changes, the countryside is still beautiful, and the people are still friendly. Mike Curato visited Cuba, stayed with my cousins, and traveled to the countryside, doing the most amazing research so that his illustrations are completely authentic! I absolutely love all the pictures, but especially those which show the beauty and isolation of rural areas. Sadly, due to fuel shortages, much of the transportation is still limited to horse-drawn vehicles, and fields are still worked with oxen. This makes it impossible to grow enough food for the population. Eighty percent of the food is imported. By lifting the trade embargo, American farmers would gain a new market, and the Cuban people might hope for an end to food rationing, a hardship they’ve endured for more than half a century. Tourists don’t see that side of Cuba. They don’t see the insides of empty refrigerators. They eat well in special restaurants, and tour guides take them to model farms that convey a myth of sustainable agriculture. They experience an illusion, not the real Cuba where Cubans live. One of the things that makes me sad is when I hear Americans say they want to see Cuba before it changes. That means they want to see it while the people are still poor and hungry. They want to see a living museum of poverty.
Food at the birthday party in All the Way to Havana is a feast that could tell another entire story if there were enough room in a picture book to show how most Cubans have to scramble, search, barter, and take chances delving into the Black Market in order to come up with enough food for a party.
What’s the story behind the name of the car in the story, Cara Cara?
During the worst poverty of the early ‘90s, right after the fall of the Soviet Union, noisy old cars were called cafeteros (coffee percolators), because they made a sound that would be described as putt putt in English. Since I didn’t think children could imagine coffee percolators, I chose to use the sound a hen makes in Spanish, cara cara, the equivalent of cluck cluck. In Spanish, chicks say pío pío, and roosters say kikirikí, but I omitted the rooster’s song, because it seemed too bold for such a tired old car.
Why do you think that poetry is important for kids?
For young children, poetry introduces them to the sheer joy of pleasing language. For older children and teens, poetry gives them a safe place for all their thoughts and emotions. For people of any age, poetry offers us a way to slow down and pay full attention to all our five senses, rediscovering our kinship with nature and human nature.
Do you have any advice for moms about how to raise kids interested in reading?
Avoid multitasking. Pay attention to books. Let children see you reading paper books, just for fun, instead of constantly peering into your phone. Take them to the library! Read out loud at bedtime until they’re teenagers who tell you to stop. Then keep reading whatever you see them reading, so you can talk about their favorite books, even if that means you have to get used to styles and subjects that aren’t your favorites. I read everything my kids read all the way through their college years, including textbooks.
I hope you guys enjoyed the interview. “All the Way to Havana” is now available on Amazon. I’m sure you are going to enjoy the powerful story and the detailed colorful illustrations in the book. The note of the author and illustrator on the last pages of the book are going to give the story a more special meaning. Reading through that last page I discovered the amazing comparisons about the people of Cuba and the cars in a neat and beautiful way. I will definitely think about that every time I hear something about Cuba and its perseverant people.
Find more information about Margarita Engle on her site. Get a copy of the book here. You can also find more about her and her work on Twitter @YPPLaureate.