Poetry Friday: THE LIGHTNING DREAMER by Margarita Engle

The Lightning Dreamer by Margarita Engle-featured

“I have a feather pen,
and a window
with a view of sky.”

-Tula in The Lightning Dreamer

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This summer I “discovered” verse novels and thought Where have I been? I immediately plunged into a love affair that is still going strong even after the romance of summer has faded. The love began with the first verse novel I read, The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom by Newbery Honor-winning poet

Margarita Engle

What really drew me in was the marriage of history and verse. I adore memoir and historical and literary biography, and have quite the dinner party sitting on my shelves, from Lincoln to Rasputin, from Lewis and Clark to Sarah Bernhardt, from Agrippina and Marie Antoinette to Dorothy Parker. With The Surrender Tree, Margarita immersed me in 19th-century Cuba, a place I had never been before, introducing me to Cuba’s wars for independence and to Rosa, a courageous healer who tended to runaway slaves in caves and secret hideaways.

I was so taken by this world and this struggle that I continued my reading with the focus of today’s post, The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist.

The Lightning Dreamer by Margarita Engle

This gorgeous book did not disappoint! Here’s what it’s all about, from the starred review by Booklist:

Engle’s historical novel in verse is a fictionalized biography of the 19th-century Cuban abolitionist poet Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, known as Tula. Told in multiple voices, Engle’s elegant verses, rich in simile and metaphor, focus on the poet’s life as a teenager. Forbidden access to books because her mother believes reading and writing make women unattractive, Tula escapes to a nearby convent. There, she discovers volumes by the rebel poet José María de Heredia, whose words feed her own rebellious spirit, which is exemplified by her rejection of two arranged marriages. “I long to write like Heredia,” she muses, “but what do I know of great cities and the wide lives of men? I’m just a silenced girl. My stories are simple tales of emotion.” Seen as an outcast and a madwoman, she is sent to the country, where she falls in love with Sab, a freed slave, and continues to write about equality for slaves and for women. Engle’s richly evocative verses conjure up a time when women, like slaves, were regarded as property to be sold into loveless marriages. This is the context for a splendid novel that celebrates one brave woman who rejected a constrained existence with enduring words that continue to sing of freedom. Grades 7-12. –Michael Cart

I’m so pleased that Margarita agreed to read us some selections from The Lightning Dreamer.


Visions! The night is filled
with fierce spirits and gentle ones.
Invisible beings spin and moan.
Floor, ceiling, and walls
whisper, wail, and shout…
Phantoms beg me to transform
my strange dreams
into stories.
Words burst
and fly
past trees
in the garden.
I rise up out of a nightmare
and grasp a feather pen,
feeling winged.

small bird-lightning dreamer

[heading style=”1″]QUESTIONS for MARGARITA ENGLE[/heading]

I interviewed Margarita here about her picture books, so please check it out for more info!

Margarita Engle

To set the stage for The Lightning Dreamer, could you give us some background on your main character, Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda (Tula) and the rebel poet who inspired her? Particularly, what were the circumstances that Tula faced that led her to become a rebel poet?
Tula’s mother thought reading and writing were unladylike. Girls were not supposed to express opinions. Marriages were arranged by families, and were based on profit. Much like the characters in Jane Austen novels, Tula was only expected to learn social skills, embroidery, music, and dancing in order to “make a good match.” From early childhood, Tula was rebellious. In autobiographical letters written as an adult, she spoke of writing secretly, and burning her early work, so that her mother would not find it. She also spoke of stories she wrote about vampires and giants, and plays she helped orphans perform at a convent. She was profoundly influenced by the poetry of José María Heredia, one of the founders of a secret society that promoted freedom for slaves, as well as freedom from Spain. Tula added her own feminist component to this mix: voluntary marriage, instead of arranged marriage, which she regarded as the marketing of teenage girls.

Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda (Tula)

Although most people have probably heard the saying “the pen is mightier than the sword,” the word “rebel” still usually conjures images of rough men with guns rather than gentle people with pens. Since “rebel poets” figure heavily into your books, and in The Lightning Dreamer in particular, could you speak a bit about the importance of these writers? Why did they rebel in this way? What did they risk? What effects did they have on the status quo?
The entire island of Cuba was slave territory. There was no free North where abolitionists could become orators and lawmakers. Censorship was strict, and penalties were severe. As a result, the most outspoken abolitionists were poets and novelists, who veiled their opinions in metaphor. For instance, when Tula wrote a poem about setting a caged bird free, we can read that poem as a plea for emancipation of slaves, and a plea for voluntary marriage.

Cuban poet Jose Maria Heredia
José María Heredia

The Lightning Dreamer consists of poems written in the voices of several characters, including Tula, her brother Manuel, her mother, and her family’s slave, Caridad. What challenges did you face in writing from all these perspectives? How much did your research inform each character and how did you create those for whom you had little research?
I had a lot of documentation for Tula’s voice, as well as a limited amount for her brother and her mother. In letters, she wrote that her father longed to move back to Spain and get away from the slave society of Cuba, where he feared a rebellion, but she never made it clear whether he actually owned slaves. We do know that her maternal grandfather was a plantation owner, and therefore a slaveholder. I developed the fictional character of Caridad to represent an entire segment of society that was quite common in Cuba: freed slaves who continued to work for their former owners. That was the most difficult voice, and yet, I can’t help but feel that it is an important one, because later in the story, Sab also represents that same group. Sab, however, is a character developed by Tula in her groundbreaking abolitionist novel titled Sab. I did not invent him, and although I simplified many aspects of his voice, I did not invent his feelings, which are taken directly from Tula’s writing.

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I continue to dream up my own
set of rules–for life, for poetry,
for the orphan theater.

In my plays, all are equal.
Each orphan receives
a speaking role,
because every child
has a voice that must be heard,
even if adults only listen
while children are perched
on a stiff wooden stage,
chirping like new-hatched birds
that have not yet learned
how to sing.

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After the final meal of the day,
I sit on a bench in the garden,
where my thoughts
are my own
until Tula’s young voice
invades them.

While I listen to her play-acted
tales of injustice, I begin to feel
that maybe I should run free
just one more time
before this entire household
is punished.[/column]

Many of your verse novels feature strong women who were ahead of their time, including The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for FreedomThe Firefly Letters: A Suffragette’s Journey to Cuba, and Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian.

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[/column][column size=”1-3″ last=”1″] summer-birds


What draws you to these people and themes and compels you to write about them?
I love to read historical accounts, such as the letters of Avellaneda and Fredrika Bremer, or the stories about Rosa la Bayamesa’s courage. I’m often surprised by how many fascinating historical figures have vanished from our society’s memory. Internationally, Tula was one of the best-known women writers of her time, but at present, she is well known only in Cuba and Spain. Somehow, it seems like an injustice, as well as a loss. It’s as if history books only have room for one feminist voice at a time, or one abolitionist voice at a time, when in reality, there were many, and Tula was one of the most original. In Cuba, other rebel poets paired their abolitionist views with a campaign for freedom from Spain, but it took a woman to envision freedom from arranged marriage.

Books are door-shaped / portals / carrying me / across oceans / and centuries, / helping me feel / less alone.  –Tula in The Lightning Dreamer

Why verse novels? What attracts you most to this form? How did you come to write your first one? What is the biggest advantage of writing in this form? The biggest challenge or limitation?
I never planned to write a verse novel, but I tried for years to write The Poet Slave of Cuba in prose, and it never worked. When I shifted to verse, it began to flow. At that point, I fell in love with the form, and I have never returned to prose. For me, one of the most treasured aspects of a verse novel is the unstated. I feel as if I can say a great deal about history simply by omitting facts and figures in favor of emotions.

Could you share the titles of some of your own favorite verse novels that have inspired you and that you would recommend to young readers

witnessWitness by Karen Hesse, is the one that I had in mind when I decided to try The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano in verse. Witness has so many voices, all describing one incident from different points of view. I was trying to show one enslaved poet’s life not only from his own viewpoint, which was well-documented by his own writing, but also from the points of view of those who oppressed him, and those who helped him.

Now, there are many wonderful examples of YA verse novels, but a decade ago, when I was writing The Poet Slave of Cuba, I had not seen very many. I still thought of the form as something ancient, passed down from the Iliad and the Odyssey to Juan Ramón Jiménez’ Platero y Yo.

Just a few of the abundant recent verse novels that I would enthusiastically recommend to young people include Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai, Planet Middle School by Nikki Grimes, Cinnamon Girl: letters found inside a cereal box by Juan Felipe Herrera,

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planet[/column] [column size=”1-3″ last=”1″] 

Grow: A Novel in Verse by Juanita Havill, Under the Mesquite by Guadalupe García McCall, The Language Inside by Holly Thompson,

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mesquite[/column] [column size=”1-3″ last=”1″] 

Salt: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War by Helen Frost, To Be Perfectly Honest: A Novel Based on an Untrue Story by Sonya Sones, and May B. by Caroline Starr Rose.

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honest[/column] [column size=”1-3″ last=”1″] 

That should keep us all busy for a while! 

Margarita, thank you so much for your insights and recommendations and, most of all, for your books!
Thank you!  It’s a joy to share my passion for poetry, history, and people like Tula, who changed the world using no other weapon than words.

[heading style=”1″]MORE RESOURCES[/heading]

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Help me build my library!

Do you have a favorite verse novel? Let me know in the comments!

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The lovely Tabatha at The Opposite of Indifference is hosting Poetry Friday today. 

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See more poems in my poetry video library.

Selections from THE LIGHTNING DREAMER: CUBA’S GREATEST ABOLITIONIST © Margarita Engle. All rights reserved.

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  1. Another treasure of a post, Renee. Many thanks to Margarita for her generous work, insights, and inspiration. I think she must “feel winged” when she writes such extraordinary books.

    With Margarita’s works on your bookshelf, your collection already glows. One book by another author on her list that I would have loved growing up – for its story, subject & characters, and creative visual elements – is DIAMOND WILLOW by Helen Frost.

  2. A double dollop of wonder today. I am both an Engle AND a novel-in-verse fan, so loved this post, Renée.

    Thank you for introducing us to the the Rebel Poets and some of Margarita’s voices in verse.

  3. I heartily second the suggestion for Diamond Willow. Helen used examples from that book that she had just finished working on at he time when I took a workshop from her. It is beautiful!

    I love today’s feature on The Lightning Dreamer and Margarita Engle! We need more books, especially lyrical ones, about deep social issues and strong women.

  4. Enjoyed every word of this rich, insightful, beautiful post. So glad you decided to interview Margarita again about her verse novels! She is a master of the form and I’m looking forward to reading The Lightning Dreamer. 🙂

  5. The Lightning Dreamer has been on my to-read list for a while now, but thanks to this post, I’ve bumped it straight up to the top. “Even if adults only listen while children are perched on a stiff wooden stage, chirping like new-hatched birds that have not yet learned how to sing.” Sigh. It doesn’t get much better than that.

    So many wonderful novels-in-verse! INSIDE OUT AND BACK AGAIN is one of my most favorites; though I, too, was going to recommend DIAMOND WILLOW; and I must give a hearty shout-out for Nikki Grimes’ latest, WORDS WITH WINGS, which is also outstanding.

  6. Thanks for a lovely post packed with so much information and insight, Renee! I love Margarita’s work! Also so many of the other verse novelists you mention, including the exquisite Helen Frost, whose KEISHA’S HOUSE will always be one of my favorites, and Leslie Connors’s DEAD ON TOWN LINE, which is, sadly, out of print, but still findable and so worth a read.

  7. I am a huge Margarita Engle and have read all of her verse novels. They are wonderful, and unforgettable. I am also a fan of novels in verse and wanted to tell you about some by Canadian authors that you may not have seen yet. The first one is Nix Minus One, by Jill McLean. And others are Burn by Alma Fullerton, Karma by Cathy Ostlere, My Book of Life by Angel, written by Martne Leavitt. Others on my list of favorites are Shakespeare Bats Cleanup (Koertge), Addie on the Inside (Howe), Sisters of Glass (Hemphill), Crossing Stones (Helen Frost), October Mourning (Newman) and Frenchtown Summer (Cormier). I could go on….but won’t! Thanks so much for this lovely post, Renee.

  8. As Plato said, “Poetry is closer to truth than history” – and I think this is why this book sounds so fascinating! It’s one thing to read about events in a chronological order, but when they are placed in the context of a human drama, with human emotions and human flaws, it becomes part of our collective wisdom. Well done, Margarita! And thanks for your post, Renee!

  9. My heart is filled as I read both your words and Margarita’s. I have fallen in love with her writing from The Surrender Tree – one of the reasons why we invited her here in Singapore last year during the Asian Festival of Children’s Content. She gave several wonderful presentations and it was such an honor to meet her. I moderated one of their sessions on award-winning books (with Nancy Johnson, Nury Vittachi, and Ken Spillman), and I was awed by Margarita’s honesty and humility and groundedness. I also have a copy of The Lightning Dreamer sent by Margarita and I am hoping to get to it very soon. Have you read her Hurricane Dancers yet? I fell in love with that one too.
    In your interview with her, this is what I found to be particularly striking:

    “For me, one of the most treasured aspects of a verse novel is the unstated. I feel as if I can say a great deal about history simply by omitting facts and figures in favor of emotions.”

    We did a feature on novels-in-verse a few years back and I do have a few favourites. Do check out the following too:
    1. Requiem: Poems of the Terezin Ghetto by Paul Janeczko
    2. Hurricane Dancers by Margarita Engle
    3. Tropical Secrets by Margarita Engle
    4. Crossing Stones by Helen Frost
    5. Becoming Billie Holiday by Carole Boston Weatherford
    6. Dark Sons by Nikki Grimes
    – among others. 🙂

  10. Wonderful post! I love verse novels, too. I think Witness was the first one I ever read. One of my favorites is Shakespeare Bats Cleanup by Ron Koertge. I love that it has such great boy appeal. Thanks for this new list to add to my reading.

  11. I want to write a novel in verse. I know a writing friend that is working on one now. Ellen Hopkins is great at this form. Have you read her, Renee? Thanks for all these great recommendations! Will have a lot of reading material now. 🙂

  12. Wonderful post! Your questions invited Margarita to cover a lot of ground–so informative. I fell in love with verse novels a couple of years ago after reading One Night by Margaret Wild, Stop Pretending by Sonya Sones and the wonderful Aleutian Sparrow by Karen Hesse. What a powerful genre!

  13. Thank you for introducing me to The Lightning Dreamer. I read The Firefly Diaries several years ago and loved it. This book sounds like it is just as moving. Engle has given Tula such powerful voice:

    “I rise up out of a nightmare/and grasp a feather pen/feeling winged.”

    Our words can indeed give us wings!

  14. I too love verse novels and I have been trying to write one for quite awhile. Great post and interview about Margarita Engle who I admire. Karen Hesse has been a long favorite of mine since she wrote the verse novel Out of the Dust, which won the Newberry and Scot Odell awards. My favorite of Helen Frost’s verse novels is Hidden. I look forward to reading her Salt and PB poetry book Step Gently Now. I have to restate October Mourning by Gayle Newman is powerful! My favorite of Helen Hopkins is Impulse, though I still have more of her verse novels to read. Inside Out and Back Again and Under the Mesquite Tree are also favorites of mine.

    All the Broken Pieces by Ann E. Burg is a great verse novel told by the voice of a child who was born in Vietnam after the war when he moves to the US.

    Glimpse by Carol Lynch Williams is amazing! Orchards by Holly Thompson is another great one.

    Lisa Schroeder has written many verse novels. My favorites are Far From You and Chasing Brooklyn.

    Patricia McCormick wrote a powerful novel in spare vignettes called Sold, which is about a thirteen-year-old girl living in a small hut in Nepal, who is told by her step-father she must leave to find work in India.

    My absolute favorite novel in verse is the Boston Globe-Horn Honor Book, Yellow Star, written by Jennifer Roy! Yellow Star won an additional seven awards! Yellow Star is a true story told in Jennifer’s aunt’s voice, who was one of the twelve surviving children of the Lodz Ghetto during WWII. A powerful and gripping read! Have a box of tissues handy for this one. Great book for 8th graders and teachers of eighth graders to read! Jennifer has a teaching guide on her website http://www.jenniferroy.com.

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