Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Poetry & Fiction: The Surrender Tree and 90 Miles to Havana

Bibliography –

Flores-Galbis, Enrique. 2010. 90 Miles to Havana. New York: Roaring Brook Press. ISBN – 9781596431683.

Engle, Margarita. 2008. The Surrender Tree. New York: Henry Holt and Company. ISBN – 9780312608712.

Critical Review –

The Pura Belpre honor book, 90 Miles to Havana by Enrique Flores-Galbis, is an excellent pairing with the verse novel, The Surrender Tree by Margarita Engle. Besides the obvious connections with Cuba and revolutions, both in the pair are outstanding books to use with secondary students for a variety of activities. Flores-Galbis writes an extremely descriptive story which draws the reader in and also lends itself to poetic qualities. While many passages could be selected to demonstrate the novel’s poetic qualities, the passage below is begging to be written as a poem:

The Monkey man grabs my arm and hustles me out of a side door. We rush past the garbage cans and then down a dirt path behind the swimming pool. The smell of suntan lotion and the sparkling blue water is making me homesick. We walk around the pool to the edge of the sand and then he stops, wipes off his shiny little boots, and points at a striped tent down on the beach. I feel like asking him why we didn’t just walk straight here, but I know the answer. He didn’t want the guests to see me. I take my sneakers off and start walking across the hot sand to the tent.

When a sea breeze blows the tent flap open, I see a large man sitting back on a chaise lounge with what looks like a flock of yellow butterflies fluttering above his head. He’s scribbling something into a yellow notebook. (p. 188)

This coming-of-age story written in first person will invite even the most reluctant reader with its universal themes of isolation and confusion that come with the major changes of growing up. Also, the dynamic characters attract the reader in such a way that the novel is impossible to put down until the reader finally joins Julian in the “place to begin again.”

In the Newbery honor book, The Surrender Tree, Margarita Engle writes in verse novel of the struggles of Cuban people during three revolutionary wars of the late 1800s. Many people are being rounded up and placed in concentration camps where life is hard and barely survivable. Rosa, a nurse, decides to take her chances with the resistance group who hides out in caves rather than face Lieutenant Death. The poems are written in the voice of several characters but predominantly through the quiet voice of Rosa who is a freed slave. The title of the individual poems reveals to the reader who is speaking. Through the voices of the characters, these poems show the unrelenting desire of Cubans to win freedom from their Spanish oppressors. While Rosa goes around trying to heal the sick and battle wounded, the reader wonders if it is possible to heal the country from the devastating realities of war. The emotionally charged language will touch the reader with the full gamut of feelings from anguish, to despair, to contentment, and to hope. Below is a poem from this verse novel.

Silvia (p. 158)
from The Surrender Tree by Margarita Engle

I feel like a child again.
I don't know how to behave.

The war is over--
should I dance,
am I free to sing out loud,
free to grow up,
fall in love?

I am free to smile
while the orphans sleep.

I admit that I feel impatient,
so eager to write in a journal,
like the Fox
writing a record
of all that I have seen...

Peace is not the paradise
I imagined, but it is a chance
to dream...

Kid Connection –

In pairing these two selections, have the students read 90 Miles to Havana before using the poems from The Surrender Tree. To introduce the poem, discuss Julian’s adventure in 90 Miles to Havana. Be sure to include in the discussion how he recorded memories in his drawings. Read the above poem. Next, have two student volunteers read the poem by alternating lines. Ask the students to share their impressions of the poem, and then on a flip chart or multimedia projector, record on a chart student responses comparing Julian’s feelings at the end of the novel to Silvia’s feelings in this poem. As a follow-up, have students select portions of 90 Miles to Havana like the section above and complete a “found poetry” activity.

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