Review: Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings: A Memoir

enchantedairTitle: Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings: A Memoir
Author: Margarita Engle
Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Genre: Nonfiction – Memoir
Pages: 192
Availability: On shelves now
Review copy: Library

Summary: In this poetic memoir, Margarita Engle, the first Latina woman to receive a Newbery Honor, tells of growing up as a child of two cultures during the Cold War.

Margarita is a girl from two worlds. Her heart lies in Cuba, her mother’s tropical island country, a place so lush with vibrant life that it seems like a fairy tale kingdom. But most of the time she lives in Los Angeles, lonely in the noisy city and dreaming of the summers when she can take a plane through the enchanted air to her beloved island. Words and images are her constant companions, friendly and comforting when the children at school are not.

Then a revolution breaks out in Cuba. Margarita fears for her far-away family. When the hostility between Cuba and the United States erupts at the Bay of Pigs Invasion, Margarita’s worlds collide in the worst way possible. How can the two countries she loves hate each other so much? And will she ever get to visit her beautiful island again?

Review:
It really is possible to feel
like two people
at the same time,
when your parents
grandparents
memories
words
come from two
different
worlds.

Margarita Engle won the 2016 Pura BelprĂ© author award for Enchanted Air. In this verse memoir, she shares her experiences growing up between two cultures. She lived in the United States, but part of her heart belonged to Cuba from the very start. She writes about her “second self, the invisible twin” or “true self” who belongs to Cuba. The invisible twin is the girl she would be if her whole family lived in Cuba. Instead, she lives on her father’s continent and grows up with an alternate life. Engle shares the complexity of growing up with multiple cultures and having more than one place to call home. This is difficult enough to start with, but is even more complicated when the governments of those places are at odds with each other.

From her first trip to Cuba, it seems Margarita was enchanted. She saw it as a fairy tale world. Cuba holds so many people, places, and things that she loves and admires. It also seems to be where Margarita Engle found her voice. You can hear that voice ringing throughout her memoir – singing about the beauty, mysteries, and even dangers of Cuba. At one point she describes Cuba as “Rain and sun at the same time. A mystery of brilliance and darkness.”

She not only experienced two cultures, but she often felt different and isolated in the culture where she spent most of her time. In kindergarten, Margarita drew a dancing tree from Cuba and her teacher scolded her saying, “REAL TREES DON’T LOOK LIKE THAT.” That’s when she learned that teachers can be wrong. Things got even worse once the civil war began in Cuba. The poem “What am I?” shows how students and even her teacher seemed angered by the events in Cuba leading them to ask “What are you?” She didn’t know how to respond. “It’s a question that requires fractions, and I don’t like math.”

Margarita was often on her own since she didn’t have close connections to the other children in school. Words and books became her companions. Books opened a world to her. In “Refuge” she writes, “Books help me breathe.” The books were windows for her, but she noticed a distinct lack of mirrors.

I never find any books
about the beautiful green
crocodile-shaped island
that throbs
at the center of my being,
like a living creature,
half heart
and half beast.
Maybe someday
I’ll try
to write one.

I’m glad she followed through on writing those books that are now mirrors for many children and young adults.

Along with contemplation of two cultures, we also see questions about gender roles. As she read classic literature, she noticed “that the heroes are always boys.” Her mother encouraged her daughters though, by letting them know they could do anything boys could do. Gender roles are a common theme running through many of Engle’s fiction works so it was interesting to see that she’s thought about these issues throughout much of her life.

Recommendation: Get it now especially if you enjoy memoirs. There’s a reason there are so many stickers plastered on the cover. Engle has a lovely way with words and has given us a glimpse into the journey that has made her the author she is today.

Extras:

In this video Margarita Engle shares a bit about how her parents met (this is part of the introductory story to the book)

Margarita Engle after being honored with the Pura Belpre award for Enchanted Air

A curriculum guide for teachers

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