illustrator (cover): Yuyi Morales
It is 1912, a chaotic time following Cuba’s war for independence from Spain and the subsequent US occupation of the island. It’s a time of lawlessness, including white race riots against the island’s African-Cuban population and rampaging kidnappers who carry off children for ransom. It is at this time in this place that we meet 11-year old Josefa de la Caridad Uría Peña, called “Fefa” by her family and “Fefa la fea” by her sisters when they are taunting her.
Fefa’s family, like most Cuban families here, is mixed: Her father’s “daring” ancestors were Basque, her mother’s were Indian and the “musical” Canary Islanders, and her cousin’s African parents had been enslaved. “When I ask Papá to explain,” Fefa says, he tells her, “If you don’t have blood / from one tribe, you have it / from another—El que no tiene / sangre del Congo / tiene del Carabalí.”
“I am glad to know / that I am part bird-person,” she says, “because birds come in all colors, / and they belong to many tribes. / Maybe I should just sing / pretty bird songs at school, / instead of struggling to read / OUT LOUD.”
Engle’s lyrical free verse, an elegant economy of words, paints a picture from the life of her maternal grandmother as a young girl living with her large extended family on a farm in the Cuban countryside in the early 20th century. Fefa has been diagnosed with “word blindness” (dyslexia) and, every day, she struggles with her “word fear.” “Fefa will never be able / to read, or write, / or be happy / in school,” the doctor tells her mother.
But Fefa’s mother is not having any of it. She gives Fefa a book with blank pages—a “wild book”—in which to practice writing. “Think of this little book / as a garden,” she suggests to her daughter. “Throw the wildflower seeds / all over each page, she advises. / Let the words sprout / like seedlings, / then relax and watch / as your wild diary / grows.”
“When I listen as Mamá reads / OUT LOUD,” Fefa says, “I imagine / the height of my own wild hopes.” Encouraged by her mother’s love of poetry, especially the poems of the great Nicaraguan poet, Rubén Darío—and not without struggle—Fefa opens her wild book and writes one bold word: “Valentía.” Courage. “Maybe if I claim / my own share of courage / often enough, it will appear.”
All that Fefa is, goes into her wild book, and young readers will see her blossoming as do the wild flowers in her book. “My drifts of verse,” she says, “are free words, / wild and flowing. / The world is filled / with things that flow, / like water, / feelings, / daydreams, wind…”
And, months later, when her family is threatened, it is Fefa’s ability to decipher the mystery of the written word—“I tell what I know. / I fly to the truth of words”—that saves them.
On the gorgeous cover painting, by talented, multiple award-winning Yuyi Morales, is a young, happy, confident Fefa, her brown eyes smiling and arms open to the world, wild orchids in her hair and a bird superimposed on her face. On her lap is her wild book, a beautiful wild garden, with leaves and tendrils and buds growing out of it, framing the child. She is holding her pencil loosely in her left hand, allowing it to create all the beautiful words in her beautiful wild book.
And there is a wild caimán in front of Fefa’s book, looking directly at the reader and smiling its wild caimán smile, confident that it will not wind up on her family’s dinner table this day.
I’m tempted to copy the entirety of The Wild Book into this review. It’s that beautiful. Highly recommended.