About the author:
The Poet Slave of Cuba, winner of the Pura Belpré Award for narrative and the Américas Award; The Surrender Tree, a Newbery Honor book; Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian, a Kirkus Best Book for Children; and The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist, winner of the 2014 PEN Center USA Literary Award for Young Adult/Children’s Literature. Margarita lives in California, where she enjoys bird-watching and helping her husband with his volunteer work for wilderness search-and-rescue dog training programs. To learn more, and to download a free activity kit for The Sky Painter, visit: www.margaritaengle.com.
Before we begin, I want to tell you what a beautiful book The Sky Painter is, and how honored I am to get the chance to talk to you about it. When did the realization come to you that you wanted to write a book about Louis Fuertes?
Thank you! That’s a perfect question for the subject of bibliophilic wanderlust, because I became fascinated with Fuertes while I was researching construction of the Panama Canal for my verse novel, Silver People. As preparation for a rain forest wildlife tour of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Center on Barro Colorado Island in Panama, I read all the diaries and field notes of Frank Chapman, an ornithologist who repeatedly expressed admiration for the bird artist on his expeditions. This led me to books about Fuertes’s bird art, as well as his own field notes and advice to young bird artists. As soon as I learned that he decided to abandon the tradition of killing birds and posing them, I knew he was unique and important. I asked myself why he isn’t as well known as Audubon. I decided to do whatever I could to introduce him to children, who can benefit from role models for independent thinking and problem solving, not just in conservation, science, and art, but in every aspect of life.
As a teacher, so often research is really difficult to sell to students. What kind of research went into writing a biographical book like this, and what advice do you have for teachers to help give students authentic reasons for and ways of researching?
For me, the research was sheer pleasure! I loved looking at photographs of Fuertes’s bird art. I loved reading scientific field notes. I loved the time travel experience of imagining those early twentieth wilderness expeditions! I also loved exploring the rain forest myself. If teachers could take students outdoors to get them excited about nature, then the rest of the research would have a foundation. Perhaps it’s my own background in botany and agriculture, but I’m convinced that even the tiniest walking field trip has more nature study impact than any indoor activity.
Something I found so wonderful about The Sky Painter is that as Fuertes matures, so do his poems. Was that a conscious decision you made in the writing process that you had to struggle with, or did it just happen naturally?
Thank you for noticing! It was both—a conscious decision, and a natural process. The former is true because I have learned, while writing other biographical verse books, such as Summer Birds, The Poet Slave of Cuba, The Surrender Tree, and The Lightning Dreamer, that the only way to show the passing of time in a person’s life is to be faithful to thoughts and emotions as the child learns about life. The latter is true because imagining each moment was such a vivid experience. When Fuertes was a young child, he tied an owl to a table so that he could paint its portrait. He healed injured birds under the stairs of his house. Those were very similar to some of my own childhood experiences. I grew up in a room full of small wild animals—frogs, caterpillars, lizards, etc. My sister and I were allowed to observe metamorphosis and other natural phenomena up close, and we also cared for injured birds so that our mother could help us release them back into the wild. My father is an artist, so I am very familiar with that aspect.
One of my favorite parts of the book is a lighthearted moment in the story when Fuertes gets scolded by his parents for drawing his professors as funny birds. What other moments about Fuertes’s life surprised and delighted you that perhaps didn’t make it into the book?
There were many fascinating experiences during expeditions. His trip to Africa would make a book by itself. There are photographs of him meeting with kings in safari camps, playing with baby animals, and sketching, always sketching.
Since my blog is about food, books, and travel, what is your favorite food, favorite book, and favorite place you’ve ever traveled?
What a wonderful combination! I have a sweet tooth. My favorite treat is dulce de leche, a Cuban burnt caramel candy that brings back all sorts of childhood nostalgia. The only other Cuban food that triggers the same emotional depth is a freshly sliced key lime, which reminds me of a particular moment in my great-grandmother’s garden. The second part of your question is more complex. As a child, I was horse crazy, so The Black Stallion was my favorite. As an adult, the book I re-read most frequently is a bilingual edition of poetry by Dulce María Loynaz, called A Woman in Her Garden. Travel has always been a huge part of my life. My forthcoming verse memoir, Enchanted Air, is about childhood summers with relatives in Cuba, as well as family road trips in Mexico and Spain. My great-uncle’s farm near Trinidad de Cuba was my favorite childhood destination. I’ve been back to the island many times as an adult, but I’ve never been able to reach that particular patch of tropical magic again, because the roads are impassable. My dream is to borrow a horse and find some way to reach the lost farm one last time. In the meantime, I love all natural areas. I will travel to any forest, but rain forests are my passion. Costa Rica is thrilling, because the people are so educated that they were already protecting birds and animals long before ecotourism became popular. One of the highlights of my first trip to Costa Rica in 1980 was seeing rare quetzals that were passionately guarded against poachers by local villagers. I also saw a handful of the last golden toads in that same private wildlife reserve, just a few years before the species became extinct. Since this is a travel-book-food blog, I’ll mention a recent trip to a wildlife refuge in Borneo that inspired me to write Orangutanka, a children’s picture book about the beautiful, spectacularly intelligent great apes that will soon be extinct in the wild if we don’t stop eating products that contain palm oil. At the current rate of deforestation, it might take as little as fifteen years for all the rain forests of Borneo and Sumatra to be replaced by oil palm plantations. We need to think twice before eating packaged foods. We need to read labels. Fuertes spoke to women’s clubs about finding other ways to decorate their hats, instead of using the feathers—and in many cases, entire carcasses—of rare birds. I’m sure that if Fuertes were alive today, he would ask people to choose a brand of peanut butter, cookie, cracker, (or cosmetic, cleaning product, alternative fuel, etc.) that does not contain palm oil. He was not only a great bird artist, but a phenomenal conservationist, far ahead of his time. I’m sure he would have changed his eating habits in an effort to save orangutans.
Thank you so much for visiting the blog today Margarita! It's been amazing having you here! I loved The Sky Painter, and I have also read an ARC of Enchanted Air and I'm here to say that everyone should pre-order it today. It is simply magical.
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The Children's Book Review
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Cracking the Cover
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A Foodie Bibliophile in Wanderlust
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