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Monday, August 27, 2012

The Wild Book, written by Margarita Engle. Harcourt, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Thomas Allen & Son. 2012. $18.50 ages 10 and up

"I don't understand
the whole thrilling verse,
but I love the way poetry
turns ordinary words
into winged things
that rise up
and soar!"

Another favorite author of mine...I read each of her books with renewed energy for the beautifully chosen words and the cultural stories Margarita Engle so proudly shares. This newest one is about her grandmother....Josefa de la Caridad Uria Pena, called Fefa. It is the early 1900s and not much is known about personal struggles with reading. Few children have accurately diagnosed learning difficulties.

Fefa lives with her parents and a large number of siblings...there are eleven children in all. Fefa has been diagnosed inaccurately by a doctor who calls her disability 'word-blindness'. Today, we call it dyslexia. She lives in a family of readers, who love words and often share poetry. The doctor advises that she will 'never' be a  good student:

The doctor hisses it
like a curse.
he repeats - some children
can see everything
except words.
They are only blind
on paper.
Fefa will never be able
to read, or write,
or be happy
at school."

That is some life sentence for a young girl, isn't it?

Mama won't accept that diagnosis, and she offers Fefa a gift - a small blank book for writing.  It doesn't end the frustrations, or the failure to learn quickly; but it does provide a vehicle for hope. When she learns that wandering bandits are threatening families with kidnapping their children in hopes of getting ransom money, Fefa shows great concern over being unable to read the note that might be left on her family's doorstep.

This wondrous author is able to create a Cuban setting that puts the reader right in the countryside with Fefa and her family. It sparkles with life and provides a backdrop for this tale of dogged determination and love. Fefa, at 11, is an intelligent and strong narrator, and a most patient learner. Her struggles at school are heartbreaking, but she is not a giving-in kind of girl.

When her brother is accidently shot, and comes home to recuperate, it is Fefa's job to keep him company and to read to him:

"I would rather tell riddles
or sing funny liars' songs,
like the one about the spider
who sews clothes for a cricket,
or the one about silly fleas
who wear fancy trousers,
even though they do not
own any underwear at all.

Instead I have to SOUND OUT
all the difficult syllables
of tiny pieces of long poems
un - til
I am
hope - less - ly
fu -ri - ous - ly
wea - ry."

She works hard and it pays off when the family is threatened. She is astute and unafraid then, and she shows just how much she does know about the written word:

"Our family is safe.
Papa calls me a heroine.
Mama calls me an angel.
Jose tells me that I am
the slowest, most careful,
observant reader
he has ever known."

Fefa beams with well-earned pride.

An author's note explains the impetus for writing this very special homage to her maternal grandmother, her perseverance and resilience.

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