If you'd enjoy discovering all kinds of great things happening during April, for poetry month, see this post by Jama Rattigan, at Jama's Alphabet Soup.
And, don't forget the Progressive Poem hosted by Irene Latham at Live Your Poem! Today's line will be created by Anastasia Suen. It's already getting interesting!
These past few days I've been enjoying my spring break, catching up on different tasks, including reading. I'm excited to share a book I've just completed, Silver People: Voices From The Panama Canal, a verse novel out just on March 25th.
It’s a pleasure to read great novels in verse, filled with strong voices and images. Sharing important stories in beautiful words of poetry grabs me every time. I sink into the story, admiring the ability of those who are able to tell stories that sing. And I am always left wanting more of the lives that have been told.
I’ve looked forward to Margarita Engle’s book Silver People since I first heard about it. I read about the amazing feat of the building of the Panama Canal in a brief book by David McCullough a long time ago. Then last week, I read a children’s non-fiction book in order to gain some additional background of the construction, knowing the book was about to be published. I realize I cannot know the story of every part of history, but when I supported my students’ research, I pressed them to ask, as I do, “what is the ‘other’ story?” the one that hasn’t been told. Do you remember the radio pieces by Paul Harvey? And now, in my mind, the Canal was a feat like few others, but because of Margarita’s book, I know the “rest of the story”.
The canal was completed one hundred years ago, but unfortunately for those who might have wished a huge celebration, it was also August, 1914, and the beginning of World War I. Margarita Engle has chosen to tell the stories of a few people, some forest creatures, and briefly, those in power. Here are a few words from the voices you will hear when you read the book.
Mateo--the main character, a Cuban boy of 14 who signs up as a worker, hoped to escape an abusive father and to make money for his mother and siblings. He convinces the bosses that he is part Spanish, thus receiving a little more pay. The pay, although white Americans and Europeans were paid in gold, was silver. Hunger at sea for three days/feels like a knife in the flesh—twisted blade, rusty metal… And-Ferocious jungle heat/closes in around us/ like the blaze/of a glowing oven. Finally, about his art: If only I could be free to fly/on paper/all week.
Blue morpho butterfly: just high enough/to fool the eyes of hungry beings/with our blue wings/just a passing/shimmer/of sky.
Henry—A young man from Jamaica who became Mateo’s friend. Soon, Henry discovers that Jamaicans receive even less pay than the Spaniards. It’s like the sugar fields at home,/where Englishmen own the land/and medium-dark foremen supervise,/while men like me/have to chop, chop, chop… and fancy, fancy tourists…thinking/that we look/as tiny/as rows/and rows/of scurrying/ants.
Anita—a young native woman, carrying and selling baskets of herbal remedies, becomes Mateo’s friend. I give him a bit of the fragrant spice/as a gift, to help him remember/his mother’s kitchen/and to thank him.
Jackson Smith, from the USA, in charge of housing: When reporters ask me/about conditions for silver men/I explain that the dark races/are ignorant—they prefer to live/in boxcars or out in the jungle, so/there’s no point giving them/extra clothes/or dry blankets./They would just get/everything/dirty.
It never seemed as if anything
could make our huge trunks
with machines and explosives
have made some of us
leaving the others
sun, soil, growth,
while some of us shrink, others survive
and grow, grow, grow . . .
Text shared with permission from the author.
It’s a book filled with pain, yet even in the sadness and devastating conditions of hard work and disease, there is hope and happiness in friendship and in the forest’s beauty. Thanks to Margarita, she’s given us the rest of the story.
For support in teaching this book, There is a printable teaching guide available here, and also on Margarita’s website here. She told me that a printed Teaching Guide will also be available next week at the HMH booth (1730) at the Texas Library Association conference.