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Margarita Engle explores what it's like to be an outsider in 'Singing with Elephants'

Shevaun Williams

Updated June 1, 2022 at 4:18 PM ET

The Cuban American author Margarita Engle explores what it's like to be an outsider in her new middle-grade novel Singing with Elephants.

/ Viking Books for Young Readers
Viking Books for Young Readers

Oriol, her 11-year-old Cuban-born protagonist, leaves the island nation as her family makes the move to Santa Barbara, Calif. She's learning English. Her playmates are the animals at her parents' veterinary clinic. When she befriends the diplomat Gabriela Mistral, who also happens to be the real-life winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, her world opens up even more.

Engle tells Morning Edition she wanted to imagine how it would feel for a child to live near an accomplished poet and to wonder if she could write poetry too. Singing with Elephants is told in verse.

Interview highlights

On interspersing English and Spanish throughout the story:

I've done that all along, with all of my verse novels. Ten years ago, publishers put the Spanish in italics so people didn't really think of it as bilingual in the same way, because the Spanish was kind of separated by the italics. But that's no longer the publishing tradition. Now they're just used as equal languages, the way they are in our minds — If we know them both and we think in them both, we don't stop to replace an English word with a Spanish word. They just run together freely but it's the way bilingual people think.

I don't want anybody to feel left out. Someone who doesn't read Spanish, I would hope that it's clear enough in the context where I wouldn't lose the ability to communicate with children who only read English.

On how difficult it can be to fit in when English isn't your first language:

This book is set in 1947. My mother came to the United States as an immigrant to marry my father in 1948 and she didn't know English. My father only knew English. My mother only knew Spanish. They had met in Cuba but they were artists so they passed pictures back and forth to get to know each other. It was love at first sight. They communicated without knowing the same language but as my mother learned English, she had a very heavy accent and still does to this day at the age of 91. People made fun of her accent, so I kind of put some of that into this story.

On how poetry can bridge divides:

There are children in every classroom learning a language — whether it's English or not. Everywhere in the world with refugees dispersed, people are learning new languages and adapting to new homes. I grew up with both languages in the home. But for me, poetry is also a way around that, because poetry is musical and music is a universal language. And I think that we can enjoy that music even when we don't understand every word.

On how transformative writing can be when exploring identity:

As we mature and then go to school and encounter people from all different backgrounds, it's kind of a shock for anybody in any language to seek a sense of belonging with people who aren't from your family, people you don't know. And yet there are these universal languages, like poetry, which is musical and is rooted in emotions. And I feel like that's a refuge.

For me, when I think of where have I ever had a sense of belonging, I have a sense of belonging on the page. That might sound strange, but my favorite line of poetry is by a Cuban poet — Dulce María Loynaz, "In my verse I am free" and that's how I feel. In my verse, I am free. And that is where I find a sense of refuge. And I hope that young readers — not just the young children who would read Singing With Elephants that's written for middle grade — but also teenagers, they would find a sense of refuge in poetry and be able to write their own as well as have a safe place for those emotions.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Reena Advani is an editor for NPR's Morning Edition and NPR's news podcast Up First.