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Margarita Engle

Margarita Engle is the Poetry Foundation’s Young People’s Poet Laureate, serving from 2017 to 2019. Awarded by the Poetry Foundation for a two-year term, the Young People’s Poet Laureate aims to raise awareness that young people have a natural receptivity to poetry and are its most appreciative audience, especially when poems are written specifically for them.

Read more about Margarita Engle.

From Poetry Off the ShelfJune 2017

Margarita Engle on the subject of her poetry, and her message to young readers.

Margarita's August Pick

Book Pick

Calling the Doves, El canto de las palomas
Juan Felipe Herrera
(Children’s Book Press, 1995)

Image of the book cover Calling the Doves

How often do city dwellers think about the lives of the people who plant, cultivate, and harvest food? Even if my own background were not agricultural, I would love Herrera’s autobiographical verses about growing up in a family of migrant farmworkers. “In their bright colors, campesinos dotted / the land like tropical birds.” (“Con su ropa brillante, los campesinos le daban color / al campo como aves tropicales.”) On the road, following crops, meals were eaten out in the open. “The sky was my blue spoon, / the wavy clay of the land was my plate.” (“El cielo era mi cuchara azul / y el barro tierno de la tierra era mi plato.”) During lunch breaks, Herrera’s father whistled bird calls, and “Sometimes my mother would surprise us at dinner / by reciting poetry.” (“De vez en cuando mi madre nos sorprendía en la cena / recitando poesía.”) “Rhyming words would pour out of her mouth / and for a moment the world would stop spinning.” (“De sus labios brotaban palabras melodiosas / y por un momento el mundo entero dejaba de girar.”) This classic book portrays the lives of California farm laborers and introduces children to the traditional importance of poetry in the daily lives of Latin Americans and US Latinos.

Margarita's July Pick

Book Pick

Voices in the Air: Poems for Listeners
Naomi Shihab Nye
(Greenwillow, 2018)

Image of the book cover Martis Song for Freedom

A new book by Naomi Shihab Nye is cause for celebration at any time of year, and this seems especially suited to summer, when young people have traditionally enjoyed free time. Poem titles range from the harsh reality of “Bully” and “Anti-Inaugural” to “Bamboo Mind” and “Peace Pilgrim’s Pocket.” Many poems are tributes to other poets, introducing young readers to Maya Angelou, Lucille Clifton, and Langston Hughes.

A poem called “Moment of Relief” begins with the line “News loves to be bad,” then continues by speaking of Malala and dreams. Another poem, “Small Basket of Happiness,” conveys images of all the joy ever experienced, still available in the quiet air, “if only. / You would slow down a minute.” Perhaps the most simultaneously terrifying, yet hopeful poem in the entire book is “To Babies”: “So many details now disappeared ... / tiny toads in deserts, fireflies.” These tragic images of loss are followed by the hopeful conclusion, ”We dream you will have so much to admire.” Voices in the Air is an exceptional collection, one that adults, children, and teens can enjoy together.

Margarita's June Pick

Book Pick

Haiti My Country: Poems by Haitian Schoolchildren
Illustrated by Rogé
(Fifth House, 2014)

Image of the book cover #NotYourPrincess

Caribbean Heritage Month celebrates dozens of cultures unified by geography rather than language. One of the most inspiring children’s poetry books about the islands was written by children. At the end of the introduction, Dany Laferrière says, “In Haiti, poets grow as fast as the trees.”

Some of the poems focus on the contrast between reality and wishes, such as “I Dream,” by Jean-Pierre Paul Durand, who writes, “I dream / Of millions of flying birds / Around a tiny island without shelter, without shade.” Others are lyrical odes. Marié-Andrèle Charlot observes that mangos “taste of honey and delight.” One of the most powerful poems is a three-line lament by Annie Hum: “Magnificent country becomes / Broken land / All smiles are lost.” Even when the topic is deforestation, as in a poem by Jeanne Dadley Zamor, the overall effect is hopeful: “Haitian trees / Always dancing / For the wind that caresses them / is a source of survival for us.”

Margarita's May Pick

Book Pick

A Suitcase of Seaweed and Other Poems
By Janet Wong
Booksurge Publishing, 2008

Image of the book cover A Suitcase of Seaweed and Other Poems

May is Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, a chance to celebrate dozens of widely varying cultures. One of the most intriguing children’s collections of autobiographical verses is Janet Wong’s A Suitcase of Seaweed and Other Poems. Through three sections of the book—Korean, Chinese, and American—Wong portrays all three aspects of her multicultural family. “Love at First Sight” tells how her parents met, and “Hospitality” shows how guests are expected to remove their shoes. In the title poem, “A Suitcase of Seaweed,” Wong’s grandmother arrives with smelly seaweed and squid in “this old treasure/ chest of hers”. In “When I Grow Up,” the hopeful child says, “I want to be an artist, Grandpa, write and dance, paint and sing,” gently challenging a tradition that expects her to think only of being able to buy “good food.” The final poem tenderly portrays Wong’s family as a quilt

of odd remnants
patched together
in a strange pattern,
but made to keep
its warmth
even in bitter

Margarita's April Pick

Book Pick

Martí’s Song for Freedom/Martí y sus versos por la libertad
By Emma Otheguy
Childrens Book Press, 2017

Image of the book cover Martis Song for Freedom

During National Poetry Month, I love to read biographies of poets. One of my new favorites is the bilingual children’s picture book, Martí’s Song for Freedom/Martí y sus versos por la libertad, by Emma Otheguy, with illustrations by Beatriz Vidal. This book is unique because it blends Otheguy’s verses about Cuba’s poet and liberator with excerpts of his own poetry. One of my favorite passages shows how Martí traveled after being exiled from Cuba; “Wherever he went, José was inspired / to find people who also believed / in equality and liberty.” (En todas partes, José encontraba/gente que lo inspiraba, porque como él, / creía en la igualdad y la libertad.” This stanza by Otheguy is followed by Martí’s own rhymes: “Yo vengo de todas partes, / y hacia todas partes voy: / Arte soy entre las artes,/En los montes, monte soy.” (I come from every place, / And I’m on the road to everywhere: / I am art amid the arts, / And in the mountain chain, a link.” This is a book that will make Cuban-Americans weep, smile, and sigh, while making other Americans long to know more about Cuba.

Browse more book picks!
Poems by Margarita Engle
    • poem
      By Margarita Engle
      Mad has decided to catch a vulture,
      the biggest bird she can find.
      She is so determined, and so inventive,
      that by stringing together a rickety trap
      of ropes and sticks, she creates
      a puzzling structure that just might
      be clever enough to trick a buzzard,

    • poem
      By Margarita Engle
      On an island of music
      in a city of drumbeats
      the drum dream girl
      of pounding tall conga drums
      tapping small bongó drums
      and boom boom booming
      with long, loud sticks
      on bit, round, silvery
      moon-bright timbales.
      But everyone
      on the island of music
      in the city of drumbeats
      believed that only...

    • poem
      By Margarita Engle
      Newsmen call it the Cuban Missile Crisis.
      Teachers say it's the end of the world.

      At school, they instruct us to look up
      and watch the Cuban-cursed sky.
      Search for a streak of light.
      Listen for a piercing shriek,
      the whistle that will warn us
      as poisonous...

Past Laureates
    • Image of the poet Jacqueline Woodson.

      Jacqueline Woodson was born in Columbus, Ohio and grew up in Greenville, South Carolina and Brooklyn, New York. She is the author of over 30 books for children and young...

    • author

      Kenn Nesbitt was born in Berkeley, California. He grew up in Fresno and San Diego and attended National University in San Diego, where he majored in computer science. Nesbitt’s poetry...

    • author

      Former Children's Poet Laureate J. Patrick Lewis grew up in Gary, Indiana and earned a BA at Saint Joseph’s College, an MA at Indiana University, and a PhD in economics...

    • author

      Mary Ann Hoberman was born in Stamford, Connecticut. She earned a BA in history from Smith College and (35 years later) an MA in English literature from Yale University. She...

    • author

      Jack Prelutsky is a creator of inventive poems for children and adults alike. He served as the Poetry Foundation’s Children’s Poet Laureate from 2006 to 2008. Prelutsky grew up in...