By Olivia Mules
Today we’re pleased to welcome Margarita Engle to the WNDB blog to discuss her picture book A Song of Frutas, illustrated by Sara Palacios, out August 3, 2021!
From Pura Belpré Award–winning author Margarita Engle comes a lively, rhythmic picture book about a little girl visiting her grandfather who is a pregonero—a singing street vendor in Cuba—and helping him sell his frutas.
When we visit mi abuelo, I help him sell
frutas, singing the names of each fruit
as we walk, our footsteps like drumbeats,
our hands like maracas, shaking…
The little girl loves visiting her grandfather in Cuba and singing his special songs to sell all kinds of fruit: mango, limón, naranja, piña, and more! Even when they’re apart, grandfather and granddaughter can share rhymes between their countries like un abrazo—a hug—made of words carried on letters that soar across the distance like songbirds.
Tell me a little about your new book, A Song of Frutas, and what inspired you to write it. It is set in Cuba, where your mother is from and where you spent your childhood summers. Is any part of the book autobiographical?
I wrote A Song of Frutas for several reasons. One is rejoicing because singing vendors are once again legal in Cuba. I remembered them from childhood summers and missed them when I visited again during the ‘90s before laws about small private businesses changed. For many years, they were outlawed along with all other forms of capitalism. Another reason is the hope that the US trade embargo and travel restrictions imposed by both the US and Cuba will eventually be lifted. I would love to see the normalization of diplomatic relations so that divided families can be reunited. Finally, I wrote this book in honor of the importance of communication between children and grandparents, whether it’s snail mail letters or video chats.
You worked with illustrator Sara Palacios on this book. What inspired the illustrations and their style?
Sara Palacios illustrated The Flying Girl too, and I love her cheerful style. There is something marvelous in the animated faces that convey true joy! I’m grateful to our editor, Reka Simonsen, for choosing Sara for these projects.
Did you have to do any research for this book? If so, what was the most interesting thing you found out about?
The only research was looking back at photos from childhood visits, combined with travel back and forth many times since 1991, witnessing gradual changes. One of the most interesting things about los progenitors of earlier years is not included in the book, which has a modern setting. Back in the 1950s, my great-uncle drove around Trinidad de Cuba in a jeep with cans of milk from his free-range dairy farm. Milk was delivered fresh to people who met him at the window with a pitcher. A few years earlier, the milk was delivered by leading a cow from house to house, truly free (but unpasteurized). Another interesting feature is shown in the book. That is the delivery of everything from produce to pizza by reeling baskets on a string from upper story windows, to avoid climbing steep stairs.
What do you hope readers take away from this book?
I hope young readers will experience the joy of music, as well as the relationship between children and grandparents.
You’ve written several biographical books about music, including Drum Dream Girl and Dancing Hands. What draws you to these stories and musicians?
Music is such an essential aspect of Cuban culture, and it is also the essence of poetry.
Many of your books are also published with Spanish counterparts. Do you write the English version first and then translate it into Spanish or the other way around? How does that factor into your writing process? Does either language offer a benefit over the other?
I write primarily in English, and Alexis Romay translates my books into Spanish. He’s a wonderful Cuban poet, novelist, and teacher who lives in New Jersey. I believe poetry needs to be translated by a poet. I’m deeply grateful to him, as well as to Reka Simonsen and Atheneum for making all these Spanish editions possible. I love the way they are so perfect for family literacy programs, allowing children and parents or grandparents to read the same books in their respective first languages.
You’ve written multiple books in verse. What about this genre and style are you drawn to?
Poetry makes me happy! Even a difficult subject can be hopeful when expressed through the beauty of musical language.
When you write, what is your favorite part of the writing process?
I love first drafts. I write them by hand, with a pen and paper. I love the way they flow like daydreams. At that stage anything is possible. Later drafts are hard work, sitting at a computer, facing reality.
Margarita Engle is the Cuban-American author of many verse novels, memoirs, and picture books, including The Surrender Tree, Enchanted Air, Drum Dream Girl, and Dancing Hands. Awards include a Newbery Honor, Pura Belpré, Golden Kite, Walter, Jane Addams, and NSK Neustadt, among others. Margarita served as the national 2017-2019 Young People’s Poet Laureate. Her most recent books include Your Heart, My Sky, A Song of Frutas., and Light for All. Margarita was born in Los Angeles, but developed a deep attachment to her mother’s homeland during childhood summers with relatives on the island. She studied agronomy and botany along with creative writing and now lives in central California with her husband.
Olivia Mules is currently pursuing her master’s degree in library and information science. Olivia’s goal is to work in academic librarianship and reference services with a focus on information literacy. Before starting her degree program, she was a special education teacher and taught math and science. Her favorite literary heroines are Elizabeth Bennet, Gemma Doyle, and Arya Dröttning. When Olivia is not doing schoolwork, she enjoys cooking, music, hikes with her wife and daughter, and drinking an inordinate amount of iced coffee.