Thursday, March 08, 2012

Word Power: The Wild Book by Margarita Engle

The doctor hisses it
like a curse.
--Some children can see everything
except words

But mama
does not listen.

For Fefa, words on the page are like living things that leap and crawl and slide away from her mind, off of the page, and refuse to be tamed. Her classmates laugh when she is made to read aloud, her brothers and sisters scoff and tease, but Fefa's mother loves poetry and knows the power that words have, and she refuses to accept the doctor's prognosis that Fefa will never read, never be happy in school. She gives her a book, not one filled with those slippery words, but with blank pages.

"Think of this little book
as a garden,
Mama suggests.

Throw wildflower seeds
all over each page she advises.
Let the words sprout
like seedlings.
Then... watch
as your wild
diary grows."

And grow it does. Through the turbulent times in Cuba following the Spanish-American War, despite bandits and kidnappers roaming the countryside, Fefa tries to spend some time writing in her book every day, first writing the names of people in her family, her favorite cousin Carmen's short and friendly name, and one day she sees that she is able to write her own long and wigglesome name:

Josefa de la Caridad Uria Pena.

Seeing her own name on her page, under her command, gives Fefa hope. Go slowly. Have patience, her mama counsels and gradually Fefa begins to recognize some words that are familiar and friendly, and then she begins to see them as full of syllables that she can decode, slowly, maddeningly slowly, but still finding the word, the meaning inside them.

When she receives an autograph book for her eleventh birthday, she still wonders if she will ever be able to read what her friends write, ever be able to read a love note if some boy ever likes her enough to write there. But then, their handyman Fausto offers to write in her book, and she realizes that she can read it, slowly and with patience, and she does not like his words, speaking of her as a rose in his garden. It seems words are not always friendly, and she puts the gift book away, telling no one.

Still, slowly and with patience, she writes daily in her wild garden book, and she realizes that she is learning to write and to read.

The loops of my letters
are almost beautiful.

They look like the tendrils
of a garden vine as it climbs
over a tall fence
to go exploring.

But when the family returns from a week of camping on the beach, they find their cattle tied up and waiting for rustlers to take them away under threat of capturing all the children in her family for ransom. Fefa finds the ransom note first and realizes that she recognizes those twisted letters. Fausto is the outlaw, and when she shows her father his poem in her autograph book, Fefa is the family's hero whose slow and careful reading has identified the threat and enabled his capture. The family is safe, but Fefa sees something else in her success. She is a reader.

My wild book is full.
I am surprised to discover
that I can no longer bear
the thought of an entire day
without the natural flow
of twining,
vinelike words...

In a beautiful free-verse novel, The Wild Book (Harcourt, 2012), forthcoming in mid-March, Margarita Engle tells her own grandmother's story, how her own mother showed her the way to escape the walled garden of dyslexia. "A beautiful tale of perseverance," says Kirkus in their starred review.

Margarita Engle is both a Pura Belpre and Newbery Honor Award winner. Her earlier books include The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's Struggle for Freedom The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano (Pura Belpre Medal Book Author (Awards)) and Hurricane Dancers: The First Caribbean Pirate Shipwreck.

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